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New Guide to Teaching the Faith
A Popular Overview of the General Directory for Catechesis

by Daniel S. Mulhall and Maureen Shaughnessy, S.C.

Did you ever wonder why the great cathedrals were built the way they were? It would be a mistake to recognize them only for their beauty or to think of them only as places of prayer. These European cathedrals—Notre Dame, Chartres and the rest—also were built as giant records of the faith. In the elegant windows and impressive sculptures Bible stories and the beliefs of the Church are told in simple, yet intimate, detail, so that all people—whether nobles or paupers, learned scribes or illiterate peasants—could learn about Jesus and believe in him. For almost a thousand years, the Church has used these images to retell the story of Jesus and the Church to the next generation of believers.

The Church continues to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus to the ends of the earth. While today we are more likely to use texts made of paper instead of those made of glass and stone, our goals and message are still the same: 1) to introduce people to the person and story of Jesus, 2) to lead them to believe in him and to follow his way, 3) to invite them to profess their faith and live as disciples of Christ and 4) to nurture or foster the growth of that faith.

Today there is a new resource for teachers of the faith that will affect everyone in the Church. Published in 1997 by the Vatican—s Congregation for the Clergy, it is gradually finding its way into parishes. The General Directory for Catechesis, already nicknamed the "GDC," will help shape the way we pass on the faith as we move into the new millennium. Just as the new Catechism made a big impact when it was introduced in English in 1996, the GDC is making a far-reaching impact today.

This Update gives an overview of key points in this important new resource.

The gift of Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council really brought a shift in the Church—s approach to how we pass on the faith. It was in 1971, six years after the close of the Council, that the Holy See published the first General Catechetical Directory, laying out this new approach. Over the next 25 years there were rapid developments rooted in Vatican II—s directives.

Significant documents gave guidance to this new "catechetical" (faith formation) movement: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972), Evangelization in the Modern World (1975), On Catechesis in Our Time (1979), Mission of the Redeemer (1990) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). The new GDC builds upon the foundation laid by these documents and the real-life experience of the Church. It reflects the continual development of how we teach the faith.

Because of its title, you might wonder why you should bother learning more about the General Directory for Catechesis. Unless you are a catechist (a teacher of the faith), you—re probably saying, "What does this have to do with me?" The answer to this question can be found in Jesus— words to his disciples, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). As a baptized member of the Body of Christ—the Church—you are called to tell others about Jesus. Whether you know it or not, you engage—by word and deed—in some form of catechetical ministry every day.

Knowing about the GDC will help you better understand your baptismal call to proclaim the Good News and, possibly, take this call more seriously than you have in the past. If nothing else, understanding what faith-sharing is about will help you to evaluate, appreciate and take responsibility for how people are catechized in your parish. Catechesis (communicating the faith) is truly the work of the entire faith community: Mothers and fathers will always be the key teachers of the faith (see The Church in the Modern World, #48), but grandparents and indeed every other member of the parish have important roles as well. This is one of the key themes of the new directory.

The parish forms a living faith in its members through proclamation, teaching, worship, service and community: through every dimension of parish life. The quality of parish life affects how much people will "catch the faith" as much as any formal religious education program. By your participation and growth, you help improve your parish and its ability to catechize.

Before presenting the key themes of the GDC and showing how they shape catechetical ministry, let—s look briefly at the relationship between the GDC and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

How does the new directory relate to the Catechism?

Since its publication in 1992, catechetical leaders have given a great deal of attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism has become a standard resource in catechist formation programs and is being used as a reference to evaluate the doctrinal content of religion textbooks.

The General Directory for Catechesis helps us to understand better the role of the new Catechism. In Part II, the GDC points out that the Catechism and the GDC "are two distinct but complementary instruments at the service of the Church—s catechetical activity" (#120). Where the Catechism is "a point of reference for the authentic presentation of the content of faith," the GDC "is an official aid for the transmission of the Gospel message and for the whole of catechetical activity." In other words, the Catechism provides a general reference of what should be taught in catechesis, while the GDC clarifies who the audience for catechesis is, how catechesis is to be conducted and why, and names the outcome of all catechetical processes. Familiarity with both documents is equally important for teachers of the faith.

It—s not just information, it—s Good News

The GDC reinforces the idea that the purpose of catechesis is more than mere instruction. As evangelists, catechists introduce people to the risen Lord who lives today: "Evangelization invites men and women to conversion and faith" (GDC, #51). The purpose of all catechesis, then, is to call people to a personal encounter with Jesus, make them disciples and help them to make a permanent commitment to think, judge and live as he lived. It not only informs, it forms our faith.

Three levels of evangelization. The GDC recognizes three basic situations that require evangelization: 1) when people have never heard the word of God; 2) when people have heard the word of God and are hungry to grow in maturity of faith needing patient guidance and direction; and 3) when people have been baptized, yet live as if they don—t know Christ. All of these groups are different and thus need to be evangelized in different ways.

In line with its emphasis on evangelization, the GDC sees the adult baptismal catechumenate (the RCIA, in which adults enter a formation period leading to the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil) as the inspiration or model for all catechesis. With this reference the directory notes that all catechesis is formational, is aimed at personal conversion and full participation in the Church—s sacramental life, involves the entire life of the parish and is ongoing. It—s not a once-in-a-lifetime event. In addition, the GDC says that this adult approach "must be considered the chief form of catechesis" (#59). Other religious education, even for children, should be in some way connected to adult faith formation.

Catechists as living models

This link between faith formation (catechesis) and outreach or reintroducing the faith anew (evangelization) will take years to develop in the Church—s life. Yet the link is essential: Seen through the lens of evangelization, catechists must see themselves as being more than teachers. Just as the stained-glass windows in the great cathedrals brought Jesus to life and proclaimed his love to seekers in an earlier age, catechists are to make Christ and his life come alive in the minds and hearts of seekers today. How? Through the catechists— own love for the Lord.

It should come as no surprise that the GDC says that "the formation of catechists cannot be overlooked by concerns such as the updating of texts and the reorganization of catechesis" (GDC, #234). In other words, catechists are the living texts for their students.

Respecting cultures

It is no accident that the GDC begins with a reflection on the parable of the Sower and the Seed. The authors of the directory stress that faith is planted and grown in the many different cultures in which people live and work. Just as the seed in the parable falls on all types of ground—ground that is far too often hostile to it—faith is also planted in all types of situations and surroundings. Jesus told parables of fishermen, vineyards and farmers because these were familiar images to his listeners. Catechists today must pay similar respect to the cultures of the people whom they catechize.

In a beautiful passage the GDC offers this message on inculturation (respecting the unique richness of each culture): "The Word of God became man, a concrete man, in space and time and rooted in a specific culture: —Christ by his incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among whom he lived.— This is the original —inculturation— of the word of God and is the model of all evangelization by the Church, —called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures—" (#109).

Inculturation is more than adapting the Christian message to make it understandable or attractive to people of other cultures; it also means finding a way for the Gospel to penetrate to the very heart of people, who they are, what they believe and how they act. When Pope John Paul II spoke in 1986 to the aborigines in Australia he said it this way: "The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks all languages. It esteems and embraces all cultures. It supports them in everything human, and when necessary, it purifies them....That Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, aboriginal Christians. It meets your deepest desires. You do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an aborigine had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture."

But Christianity not only influences other cultures, it also is shaped by them. Over the centuries the Church has been greatly influenced by Western European culture. For example, the images carved in stone at Chartres are not historically or ethnically accurate: They are products of Europe—s medieval art and concepts. Yet these images continue to shape our attitudes about faith, and so they should—but not solely.

Today—s Church is being influenced by peoples and cultures from around the world. Ethnic images of Christ and Mary are appearing in churches across America in great numbers, just as they have during every wave of migration in this country—s history; this time, though, those images look Asian, African or Indian and not European. The values and customs of these peoples are influencing both civil and Church life. This influence will only increase in the next century.

The GDC—s message to catechists—and thus to all of us—is simple: Celebrate the diversity of God—s gifts. Be open to learn about those you catechize and to learn from them. Preach the word of God in a way that it can be heard and understood while protecting the integrity of the message. Take from the riches of these cultures that which is compatible with the faith, and challenge those parts of the culture which are not.

It—s about growing in faith

The GDC says that the very goal of catechesis is to "put the human person in communion with Jesus Christ" (#116). In order to do this, the new directory recognizes that catechists need a way to grow in faith themselves. How else could they share the faith of the Church? Recognizing that "any form of pastoral activity is placed at risk if it does not rely on truly competent and trained personnel" (#234), the GDC offers these thoughts on the formation of all catechists: priests, religious and lay. Catechists are to be formed so that they can:
      — Introduce people to the person of Christ
      — Evangelize in the present historical context
      — Initiate and educate
      — Teach as they have been taught
      — Be people of faith, who know the faith, and know how to communicate this message with style and grace—what the directory calls "savoir-faire."

As you can see, as these new guidelines in the GDC are implemented they will change the role of catechists and how they are formed. For one thing, formation programs will have to focus more on the personal spiritual growth of the catechist than they do now. In the process, the role of catechist will be elevated from that of perhaps an under-respected volunteer to one who is held in high esteem by the Christian community.

The future of catechesis

The GDC is built upon the foundation laid by more than 25 years of catechetical experience and Church documents that followed Vatican II. But just as the great cathedrals were far different than those that came before, the GDC moves catechesis into a new dimension. New wineskins (attitudes, expectations, practices) will be needed to hold the exciting, robust new wine of catechesis foreseen in these guidelines. G.K. Chesterton once said of Christianity: "It—s not that Christianity was tried and found wanting, but that it was tried and found difficult, and so discarded."

Let—s hope that the same cannot be said in the future about the vision of catechesis offered in the GDC. The challenge of our time, laid out in these new guidelines, is to go deeply into our faith, in our parishes, and there find the path to catechesis and evangelization. Those involved in religious education indeed have a vocation as catechists (#233). That vocation should be shared and embraced by everyone in the parish.

Just as it took many years for the great cathedrals to be created, it will take many years for the results of the GDC to be fully seen. But it is a vision full of hope. Around the world, dioceses are beginning to implement the vision presented in the GDC and the new wine is starting to burst the old wineskins. Everyone in the parish is invited to participate fully in this grand adventure. It promises to be an exciting time.

Daniel S. Mulhall is the assistant secretary for catechesis and inculturation and Maureen Shaughnessy, S.C., is the assistant secretary for catechesis and leadership formation at the United States Catholic Conference, Department of Education. They each have more than 20 years of catechetical experience at parish, diocesan and national levels.

Next: Communion Services and Eucharist—What—s the Difference?
(by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.)

Key Passages From the New Directory

"Faith is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, making of oneself a disciple of him. This demands a permanent commitment to think like him, to judge like him and to live as he lived. In this way the believer unites himself to the community of disciples and appropriates the faith of the Church." (#53)

"The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ. All evangelizing activity is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ." (#80)

"Frequently, many who present themselves for catechesis truly require genuine conversion. Because of this the Church usually desires that the first stage in the catechetical process be dedicated to ensuring conversion....The peculiar nature of this situation is found in the fact that missionary activity is directed towards the baptized of all ages...." (#62, 58c)

"The witness of Christian life given by parents in the family comes to children with tenderness and parental respect. Children thus perceive and joyously live the closeness of God and of Jesus made manifest by their parents in such a way that this first Christian experience frequently leaves decisive traces throughout life. This childhood religious awakening is irreplaceable....Indeed, family catechesis precedes... accompanies and enriches all forms of catechesis." (#226)

"The parish is, without doubt, the most important locus in which the Christian community is formed and expressed. This is called to be a fraternal and welcoming family where Christians become aware of being a people of God. In the parish, all human differences melt away and are absorbed into the universality of the Church." (#257)

 

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