I was just asked to review a book proposal that is meant to be a teaching resource for the catechumenate. The syllabus covers ecclesiology, Christology, the Trinity, each of the sacraments, and a bit of eschatology. I think those are all good things to know, but is that what the RCIA asks us to provide?
The RCIA is a conversion process. It asks us to provide an intimate encounter with Christ such that the seeker will turn from his old life and begin to live a life of sacrifice in Christ. RCIA 75.1 says the catechumens need “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts…” in order to live their new lifestyle.
In the same sentence, the RCIA says the catechumens need “a profound sense of the mystery of salvation….”
What does the RCIA mean by “appropriate”?
The contrast between “appropriate acquaintance” and “profound sense” is striking. In my experience, we often spend most of our efforts providing catechumens with an “acquaintance” with church teaching that, like the book proposal I read, goes past the “appropriate.” Conversely, we often don’t spend enough time providing “a profound sense of the mystery.”
I suppose folks can disagree with what is appropriate. Can it be that the would-be-author and I are operating out of different personal understandings of what is appropriate for the catechumens to learn? The implication in such a question is that it is better to be safe than sorry. Perhaps my understanding of a less-intense focus on knowing the dogmas might be acceptable, but what can it hurt to give the catechumens a little more in-depth education before baptism?
The harm, as I see it, is that an inappropriate over-emphasis on head knowledge misses the point of baptism. Baptism is not a diploma that one earns by studying an aggregate of courses. It is a way of life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about what is required for baptism:
The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop…. For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism…. Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life. Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth. (1254)
If we expect the catechumens to have book-length knowledge of the faith before initiation, we are asking too much. If we do not expect them to have a profound conversion to the mystery of Christ before initiation, we are not asking enough.
And just as importantly, we need to hold neophytes accountable to developing a fullness of faith after baptism. The Catechism goes on to say:
The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism. (1255)
What do the catechumens need to know? They need to know, in their bones, the profound mystery of Christ. It’s not a matter of either or, but simply getting our priorities straight.
What is your experience? How much head knowledge do you think the catechumens need before initiation? How do you discern their experience of the mystery of Christ?
See also these related articles:
11 thoughts on “What do the catechumens have to know?”
Another point that is often overlooked in RCIA 75.1 is that the catechesis of the catechumens is to be accommodated to the liturgical year. If we are providing a profound experience of mystery in our liturgies throughout the entire year, the catechumens will become acquainted with all the central teachings of the church.
This blog entry strikes me as being terribly inadequate.
Nick, you omitted the first sentence in RCIA 75.1, which says that the catechesis is to be gradual and complete in its coverage. Note: *complete*
Also, RCIA 78 says that the instruction that the catechumens receive during this period is to present “Catholic teaching in its entirety.”
This entry also bespeaks an ignorance of the landmark catechetical exhortation titled “On Catechesis in Our Time” (1979) by Pope John Paul II, where our late Holy Father wrote in section 22:
It is also quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a method concentrating on life experience. “No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience that is to say without an adequate explanation of the message of Christ who is ‘the way, and the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6)”.
Nor is any opposition to be set up between a catechesis taking life as its point of departure and a traditional, doctrinal and systematic catechesis. Authentic catechesis is always an orderly and systematic initiation into the revelation that God has given of himself to humanity in Christ Jesus, a revelation stored in the depths of the Church’s memory and in Sacred Scripture, and constantly communicated from one generation to the next by a living active traditio. This revelation is not however isolated from life or artificially juxtaposed to it. It is concerned with the ultimate meaning of life and it illumines the whole of life with the light of the Gospel, to inspire it or to question it. That is why we can apply to catechists an expression used by the Second Vatican Council with special reference to priests: “instructors (of the human being and his life) in the faith”.
It’s as if JPII is writing a critique of this blog entry itself…
Hi John. Thanks for your comment. I enjoy vigorous debate, and I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. However, my hope is we can be an example of Christian charity on this Web site and avoid some of the rancor seems to pervade so many public discussions about how to accomplish the mission Christ left us.
Having said that, I apologize for not having been clearer in my original post. I agree with the documents you quote, and I disagree with some of the things you indicate I said. Somehow, what I wrote has led to some conclusions I did not intend.
I’ll try to address a couple of them. By not quoting the entirety of 75.1, I led you to believe I do not advocate a complete catechesis. Of course it would be impossible for me to advocate an incomplete catechesis. The entire point of my post was to say we need a complete catechesis and a catechesis that focuses inappropriately on an over-emphasis on head knowledge is incomplete.
Another place I may have not been clear was on the source point for catechesis. While I would agree with you that life experience can be a facet of catechesis, I didn’t say that it was the focus of or departure point for catechesis. Nor did I say anything about private experience. What I did say is that the experience of Christ is the focus of catechesis. I think the most profound summation of this truth comes from the document you site: “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (Catechesi Tradendae, 5). I just don’t see how it is possible to have a full and complete experience of Christ, one that puts people in communion and intimacy, solely or mostly in the classroom.
I also regret if implied that I don’t believe catechesis is to be orderly and systematic. Perhaps I didn’t say clearly enough what I believe the order and system to be. The system is identified in the passage you cite from Catechesi Tradendae. The system is the revelation of God in Christ. That revelation happens most clearly in the celebration of the liturgy and through active participation in the mission of Christ left to the church. What I do not believe is that the order for this system is a scope and sequence set up by publishers or theologians. Rather, the order is the hierarchical manifestation of the church at worship throughout the liturgical year. By means of this holy order, “the church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation until the day of Pentecost and the expectation of his coming again” (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 17).
Thanks again for contributing your thoughts John. I hope I’ve been clearer in expressing mine. Blessings on your work and ministry.
Nick, There has to be a balance between “head” knowledge and “heart” knowldege, between “information” and “formation”.If we as catechists/teachers and spirtual/formational directors do our job the Holy spirit will fill in the blanks. If we can instill in our candidates and catechumens the love of Christ and the zeal for learning more about Him and His Church we have done our job. Our journey is, as is theirs, a life long ecperience of His love and the wisdom He imparts to us thru His church. Yes, there is certian information that has to be learned, absorbed and digested. There is doctrine and dogma that has to be explained. There are questions that have to be answered. However if we have not allowed the Holy spirit to work, to form them, to experience the love of Jesus the Messiah we have probably not done our job very well at best or failed at worst. Our faith is a very sensate faith, a very touchy feely faith, a very experiential faith. If the candidates and catechumens have not understood that and experienced it, I fear we have failed. It is a balance that we as an RCIA team have to achieve.
Hi Tommie. Thanks for your comment. I liked what you said here: “if we have not allowed the Holy spirit to work, to form them, to experience the love of Jesus the Messiah we have probably not done our job.”
Nick, thanks for approving my response and giving a well thought-out response yourself.
I wholeheartedly agree that an over-emphasis in head knowledge is inappropriate. Catechesis is meant to penetrate both head and heart. Catechesis is meant to be given within the context of prayer in a liturgical setting with the proclamation of Scripture as its driving force (Such as is set forth in RCIA 81-89). Catechesis goes in tandem with exorcisms, blessings, anointings. It requires appropriation, reflection, discussion, and personal response (cf. GDC 145).
That being said, I don’t believe that an eradication of “the traditional didactic classroom learning process” is the solution. In the paragraphs of Catechesi Tradendae I quoted, John Paul II (and the representative bishops from the 1977 Synod) advocated “a serious and orderly study” that does not dispense with a “traditional, doctrinal, and systematic catechesis.”
The idea is that doctrine is life-transforming, soul-converting, as Newman emphasizes in his Apologia. Dispensing with a serious, traditional, doctrinal study is the path of undernourishment.
If the order and the system is the liturgical life of the Church, then why isn’t the Catechism of the Catholic Church ordered and systematized in this fashion? Note that the Catechism, in its prologue, begins by first speaking of the nature of catechesis, then presents itself as an orderly, organic presentation of the “essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine,” with its sources being “the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium.”
Finally, in Catechesi Tradendae #25, we are told that the rich understanding of catechesis presented there “in no way contradicts but rather includes and goes beyond a narrow meaning which was once commonly given to catechesis in didactic expositions, namely the simple teaching of the formulas that express faith.”
Note that the late Holy Father specifically does not mean for his readers to conclude that we are to dispense with didactic expositions of Faith. Rather, an authentic understanding of catechesis incorporates these expositions, going beyond them, very much in the footsteps of the Early Fathers, whose writings inspired Vatican Council II.
Hi John. I would agree we don’t want to “eradicate” classroom learning for the catechumens, but I would cut way back on the over-emphasis it is given in many places. I believe the rite emphasizes an apprenticeship model much more than a classroom model. There is some didactic learning in an apprenticeship model, but the emphasis is much more weighted toward skill training.
Regarding Catechesi Tradendae, while I think it is a landmark document, it is really dealing with the catechesis of the baptized. It was issued in 1979, almost ten years before the final version of the RCIA was published. Much of the language in that document is in response to the concerns of some bishops in the 1970s that school and religious education programs were not sufficiently catechizing Catholic children and teens. In 1979, we had had very little experience with implementing a liturgical and mystagogical catechesis with catechumens. I agree that many of the principles in Catechesi Tradendae can be applied to the catechumenate, and it does refer to the catechumens at some points. But the document as a whole wasn’t directly concerned with pre-baptismal catechesis. We have to rely on the RCIA itself as the source document for pre-baptismal catechesis.
I agree with Tommie’s comment that our job is to instill in the catechumens “the love of Christ and the zeal for learning more about him and his church.” Once that has happened, the catechumens will be involved in a life-long journey of formation. The thrust of the RCIA and the section I quoted from the Catechism in the original post is that pre-baptismal preparation is supposed to bring them to that threshold. Their catechesis does not end with baptism; it has barely begun.
Regarding the ordering of the Catechism, its order is based the Catechism of Pius V. It is primarily a reference document to support “local catechisms,” as Pope John Paul II explains in his introductory Apostolic Constitution. It is not intended to be a model for pre-baptismal catechesis. In fact, as the General Directory for Catechesis points out, the model for ALL catechesis–not solely pre-baptismal catechesis–is the catechumenate itself (see paragraph 59).
The bottom line for me is, I am saddened when I see catechumens putting in their hours to “get their sacraments,” and I worry that they are not fully experiencing the great hope that life in Christ offers them. My goal is to collaborate with catechumenate teams to improve our initiation processes so they are leading seekers to a true intimacy and communion with Christ.
Is Catechesi Tradendae really dealing with the catechesis of the baptized, to the exclusion of the unbaptized? Not so, if you look at the document.
Paragraph 23 speaks of the link between liturgy and catechesis with reference to the catechumenate, its renewal, and its abundant practice in the young missionary Churches.
Paragraph 24 then goes on to say: “Catechesis runs the risk of becoming barren if no community of faith and Christian life takes the catechumen in at a certain stage of his catechesis…”
This document addresses the nature and requirements of an authentic catechesis for both baptized and unbaptized alike.
The inquiry stage of the R.C.I.A. is the time for the faithful and constant proclamation of the kerygma, and the catechumenate is the time for a kerygmatic catechesis, where the didache (the deposit of faith) is fleshed out.
This is why Paragraph 25 then naturally goes into a discussion of the kerygma and the evangelical catechesis (or as the GDC puts it, “kerygmatic catechesis”) that is to follow the kerygma.
The Ordo Initaitionis Christianae Adultorum goes hand in hand with Catechesi Tradendae.
I fear, Nick, that you may be on a pendulum, which has oscillated from one extreme (i.e. convert classes) to another that fears a full, systematic delivery of the essentials of the deposit of faith in the catechumenate.. or as National Statute 7 puts it: “a thoroughly comprehensive catechesis on the truths of Catholic doctrine and moral life, aided by approved catechetical texts.”
As a catechist, I wish for the both/and, not the either/or. I wish for my catechumens to fully experience the abundant life of Jesus Christ, and to tell you the truth, I don’t see why that experience must preclude what Catechesi Tradendae calls us to: “a serious and orderly study” that does not dispense with a “traditional, doctrinal, and systematic catechesis.”
I should also note that the Lectionary is Mystagogical in nature and wasn’t drafted to serve as a curriculum for Christian Initiation, except for the Lenten readings and the Easter readings, which were specifically hand-picked to first purify/enlighten the elect in Lent, then secondly, to begin the lifelong process of Mystagogy in the Easter Season.
Hi John, Nick, Tommie, and anyone else who may be reading along here.
Interesting discussion! I’d like to jump in just briefly to raise the question of pedagogy (or androgogy, if you prefer), which I think is underlying this discussion and could be more explicit.
How do adults learn? They learn interactively, independently, through experience, and above all, they learn what they need to know in order to do the things they want to do. It sounds fine to say you “cannot dispense with ‘traditional, doctrinal, and systematic catechesis'” but if the adults who come to you do not perceive that what they need is just exactly that, and most of them don’t, what happens then?
What I have seen happen in practice all too often is that catechists slave away at the task of presenting that systematic catechesis, and the catechumens don’t get anything out of it. They sit politely. They listen. They leave. They may squeeze a crumb or two out of it. They may even be impressed with our knowledge. But they are not changed. We (the catechists) feel good because we have given them “the right stuff” but we’ve neglected the dimension of the catechist’s work that the GDC calls “savoir faire” — knowing how to do it, so that catechesis becomes an actual act of communication.
On the other hand, what Nick is suggesting, it seems to me, is a sort of pedagogy that opens the catechumen’s life to the working of the Spirit, and yes, opens the heart to conversion (RCIA 1). Through such a well-rounded and robust pedagogy (I am speaking from experience here) the mind becomes avid to learn what it did not know before, because the power of conversion is such that it requires all sorts of things that once were settled to be unsettled again, and realigned. The pedagogy Nick is describing is training the catechumen in skills and habits they will need in order to remain disciples for life. It’s a pedagogy well-suited to initiation.
In closing, I’d like to add a word of caution against adopting a strictly deductive approach to church documents (not that you are necessarily, but it does happen). We cannot deduce everything we need to know from papal documents and official texts. As important as these documents are, we also must consult our experience of what works and what doesn’t, what is responsive to the needs of people we serve and what isn’t, what leads to new life and what simply doesn’t. Then, in prayer and humility, we will be led to where we need to be.
God bless your efforts.
Interesting discussions. “Balance” has been mentioned quite often – but how is this balance achieved PRACTICALLY? As part of a beginning RCIA team member, I sat in agony as I endured a 90 minute lecture on the Trinity… I can only imagine the boredom of the candidates. Is this the sort of teaching we are to present to the catechumens who desire to learn and experience Christ? I hope not…
From my own experience, I have tried to achieve this balance during weekday sessions by limiting “lectures” to 30-40 minutes. Anything more is rambling. If you cannot describe a basic understanding of the Trinity (admittedly a most esoteric subject, but the Catechism clearly states it is the central belief of our faith) in that time, then you are talking too much.
A balance between instruction and experience can best be found by allowing the adults to respond by having some discussion questions ready that will allow the participants to take what they learned in the lecture and note “yea, I have experience the Trinity there in my own life.” Thus, the practical balance required is roughly 50/50, half lecture, half discussion.
Remember, my friends, we don’t need to teach them EVERYTHING about the faith so they are amateur theologians. They need to be able to experience Christ in the Sacraments, through prayer, through their lives. They need to be steered in the right direction, for many adults ALREADY have experienced the “OTHER” but have not named it as “God” yet.
I wrote a piece for Catechumenate (LTP) in 2007 using the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults that accommodates it to the liturgical year. The goal is to achieve the completeness of Catholic faith of which John speaks without being exhaustive, as Nick fears. The goal is further to use the questions for discussion in the USCCA (and the now published reader’s journal) to help connect the head and heart pieces that makes the dogma relevant to experiences of the mystery of Christ especially by building on the principles of adult pedagogy of putting in everyone’s hands a tool and helping them to learn it. In our parish it has had the advantage of being an official text (and therefore not subject to anyone suggesting that this-and-this publisher leans more this way or that) and available in both Spanish and English, facilitating the whole parish to be using the same tool for one piece of liturgical catechesis. Anyway, I would be interested in this group’s feedback on the document, available at:
Thank you all for the lively discussion!