In conjunction with the upcoming World Youth Day to take place in Madrid a special Catechism for young people is being published, with a Preface written by Pope Benedict XVI. We take this as our topic this week.

What is a catechism?
At times, we may tend to think that a catechism is a compendium of teachings, which the Church creates and then includes in a book. Some may even think of it as a replacement for the Scriptures, or a source of human teaching as opposed to the teaching of Jesus and the Church He founded. This understanding is, of course, incorrect. A catechism is not a parallel or alternate teaching to that of Jesus and the Scriptures, but rather an understandable summary of those very teachings, based upon the Scriptures, the constant teaching of the Church, and the reflections of the Fathers of the Church and trusted theologians.

The root of our word “catechism” comes from an ancient Greek word which means to transmit a teaching by word of mouth, often in the form of questions and answers. We find this word, and a reflection of this understanding of it, in the Gospel of St. Luke and the Letters of St. Paul. In the Prologue of the Gospel of Luke, he explains that he has written his teachings down “so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:4).

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Apollos had been “instructed in the Way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25). In the first Letter to the Corinthians, we read: “In the Church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19). In the Letter to the Galatians, we read: “One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6).

All the words indicated by italics show words which have as their Greek root the same word from which we get our word catechism: a summary or compendium of teachings-in this case, the teachings of Jesus.

In all of this, the basic command of Jesus is being fulfilled: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

What we might call this science, or activity, of teaching was initially just that, an activity, not a book. St. Augustine writes extensively on this need for teaching, and he even goes into great detail about the characteristics of a teacher of the faith and practical methods of carrying out this mission. It may surprise us to know that 1,500 years ago St. Augustine even spoke about the need for the teacher to be pleasant and to show forth the joy of one who believes what he or she is teaching. St. Augustine also encourages teachers of the faith by reminding them that, even though they may feel as if they are repeating the same thing over and over again, for many this is the first time that they have had these truths explained.

From the transmission of knowledge to catechisms
The practice of transmitting the faith through the spoken word, often using a question and answer method, eventually came to be used with the written word as well. There were two realities which brought this about: a need for a clear presentation of the true teaching of the Church in the face of erroneous teachings and the invention of printing, which made books more widely available.

Written catechisms have a connection to our identity as Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. St. Charles Borromeo, the patron of our seminary and St. John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, were both instrumental in the development of catechisms.

After the Council of Trent, there was a need for a clear presentation of the Catholic faith, as it came in contact with the teachings of the Protestant Reformation. St. Charles Borromeo, as one of the great leaders of what is called the Counter-Reformation, was a great apostle of the written catechism as a means of transmitting the Catholic faith in a clear and simple way.

Several hundred years later, Bishop John Neumann was asked to compile a catechism in German for the many German immigrants arriving in the United States. Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the famous Baltimore Catechisms, which actually took several different forms and which were commissioned by the Bishops of the United States, gathered in Baltimore in the mid-nineteenth century. These catechisms performed a wonderful service in the transmission of the faith in all its purity, and many of us owe a great deal to them.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church”
In his preface to the Catechism for Youth, Pope Benedict XVI describes the origin of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, upon which the Catechism for Youth is based. He writes: “(The 1980s) were a difficult period for the Church as well as for worldwide society, during which the need was perceived for new guidelines to find a way towards the future. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and in the changing cultural environment, many people no longer knew correctly what Christians should actually believe, what the Church taught.”

In response to these challenges, Pope John Paul II decided that the Bishops throughout the world should compose a book in order to fulfill these aims. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was given the task of coordinating and overseeing the work, which was to result in a text which would clearly show what the Catholic Church believes and teaches, and how this faith can be believed and lived in a reasonable way.

It is important to remind ourselves here of what I have mentioned before in this column: We believe in the adage: “grace builds upon nature,” meaning that God does not insult the intelligence that He gave to each person when he or she is given the gift of faith. What we are asked to receive in faith is never unreasonable. A few of the teachings we are asked to receive may be what we call “mysteries,” meaning we cannot fully understand them with our limited human knowledge, but they are not ridiculous or insulting to our intelligence. This is why a catechism of the Catholic faith, in any age, strives to explain faith in a manner which corresponds to our human understanding. The latest means of presenting the faith in this manner is the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which was compiled through the efforts of Bishops throughout the world, along with theologians and experts in the field of catechetics.

In his preface to the “Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Pope Benedict himself refers to this work as the “Youcat,” and he briefly explains its origin. He writes: “In the World Youth Days young people from all over the world have met, who want to believe, who are searching for God, who love Christ and desire common paths. In this context we asked ourselves if we should not seek to translate the Catechism of the Catholic Church into the language of young people and make its words penetrate their world.” This, then, is the origin and motivation of the “Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Pope Benedict also affirms the potential of youth to understand the challenge of a life of faith. He says that our expectations of our young people should not be so low that we do not think they are searching for truth and meaning in life. Nor should we be led to believe that they are only interested in easy solutions to life’s challenges. This is why he challenges our young people to know and understand what they believe and see in the Revelation of Jesus Christ a great challenge, which will not always be easy, but will be a great means of joy and fulfillment even in this life.

The “Youth Catechism” explains: What Catholics believe (doctrine); how they celebrate the mysteries of the faith (Sacraments); how Catholics are to live (moral life); how they should pray (prayer and spirituality).

As we all reflect on the responsibility each of us has to care for our children and young people, we welcome the “Youcat,” as a means of transmitting the truth of Jesus in all its splendor in an understandable and challenging manner for our young people. “Youcat” will be available in April of this year and will be published in English by Ignatius Press.

17 February 2011