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Imagine yourself in a large chamber with many walls where anything you say is echoed repeatedly. Walking through the chamber you realize that some surfaces echo your words more effectively than others. Some muffle the sound. Too many sounds can turn the echo into a cacophony of undifferentiated noises. For the echo to be best appreciated, the right conditions need to be present.
Now imagine yourself saying the following words out loud: “Jesus Christ is risen!” First you hear all four words repeated with some level of clarity; then two or three. At last, just one: “risen … risen … risen … risen,” fading in the distance. If anyone hears the echo, it is likely they will hear parts of the original message, depending on where they stand. If you want the message to be heard in its fullness, you must say it several times. As others hear the echo, they can then repeat it and in turn create a new wave of echoes.
Ah, echoes — a most fascinating mystery that captured my imagination as a child. How to resist the magic of hearing a few words bouncing from wall to wall until they can be heard no more! Sound experts explain the science of echoes with incredible detail using the most sophisticated formulas, yet for some reason I am still enthralled by the mystery of bouncing words repeated incessantly. Perhaps this is one reason why I dedicate part of my life as a Catholic theologian to the study of catechesis.
What do echoes in a chamber have to do with catechesis? A lot! This is precisely the original sense of the term catechesis: “to echo the teaching,” to share incessantly the Good News of the Living God, who loves us with infinite and merciful love, who is revealed in fullness in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as it happens with sounds bouncing in the walls of a chamber, catechesis starts at the heart of a community of believers that announces, in season and out of season, with courage and with passion, the core convictions that constitute it. This is how the first Christians understood the process of passing on the faith and instructing the new members.
Without a community of believers, catechesis is empty talk. In turn, without a clear sense of faith convictions grounded in the Gospel and intentionally shared from one generation to the next, the community of believers would lose a clear sense of its Christian identity. St. Paul reminds us: “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:14). There is an intimate relationship between our experience of the Church and catechesis.
In the almost 2,000 years of Christian history, practically every moment of renewal has been sustained by a decisive turn to catechesis. In those times when the echo hits walls that muffle the message or too many noises distract the hearers of the Word, catechists have prophetically defined new and creative ways to pass on the faith.
In the early years of Christianity, thousands of adults needed to be initiated in the faith, and the Catechumenate, a long period of instruction, prayer, and discernment that often lasted several years, became the most effective way of doing so. Monasteries were catechetical centers par excellence, often educating not only those who lived in them, but also people in the places where they were located. Missionaries experimented with countless catechetical models to introduce Christianity to people of many cultures and traditions and different languages.
It begins in the family
Today, parishes and schools are the spaces where catechesis takes place in creative ways. Needless to say, though, the first and foremost catechists have been parents and families. When families are empowered as catechists, the family becomes an evangelizing community. When the family assumes its catechetical role, faith communities and the larger society are transformed.
The renewal of the Church as a community of believers is often led by great catechetical leaders who share the Good News with courage. Some of the best contributions by great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were written as catechesis for the communities where they served. In the 16th century, Catholics gathered their best minds at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to address the challenges of the Protestant Reformation. From these efforts the Catechism of the Catholic Church emerged as one of the most powerful resources to support catechesis and preaching. That catechism inspired Catholic catechesis for more than four centuries until a new catechism was issued in 1992.
This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of this great resource! Many of the Catholic founders of religious orders in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were passionate religious educators, including Jean Baptist de La Salle, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Catherine McAuley, and Don Bosco. In our day, an army of lay catechists serve in parishes and dioceses. Others share the faith in prisons, fields, and neighborhoods, and many others do it navigating the virtual highways of the Internet and social media.
Whether you are discerning the invitation to serve as a catechist or have been living this vocation for a while, as I have, we all stand on the shoulders of giants who dedicated their lives to be instruments of God echoing the Good News. Now it is our turn.
Catechesis in the United States in the 21st century
To live out our calling as catechists and catechetical leaders in the United States of America is both a privilege and a challenge. It is a privilege because we have the responsibility of continuing a tradition that millions of Catholics of many backgrounds have sustained in this country, even before its foundation. Let’s keep in mind that prior to 1776 Spanish- and French-speaking Catholics were well established in much of what would eventually become U.S. territory. It is a challenge because we must echo our faith convictions through catechesis and evangelization in light of many changing realities, as well as ever-increasing obstacles.
Obstacles we all face
As we echo the faith in the 21st century, catechetical leaders often encounter walls that muffle the message. Four that are prevalent in the U.S. culture come to mind:
1. Strong secularizing trends that are leading millions of Catholics, mainly youth and young adults, to not self-identify with their faith tradition or other religious traditions any longer.
2. A pervasive relativism about what is true and good, which leads many to treat every possible claim about religion and morals as equally valid, even when they espouse a logic of contradiction.
3. Indifference and suspicion about religious institutions and their teachings, often perceived as out of sync and rather disposable.
4. Corrosive ideological polarization that tears apart families, communities, and institutions, while sacrificing the Christian calling to building communion.
Catechists must be aware of these realities so they can respond to them with creative fidelity. They need to know that muffled walls and noisy spaces that prevent echoing the Good News do not have the final say. We need catechists who have the courage to go forward and take the first step, to echo Pope Francis’ words (see The Joy of the Gospel, 24).
It is not a secret that U.S. Catholicism is undergoing major demographic and cultural transformations. Very soon most Catholics in the country will share a Hispanic background. In dioceses in the South and the West, this is already a reality. Today about 43 percent of all U.S. Catholics are Hispanic. Asian Catholics are the fastest growing group in our Church. Catholic immigrants from all over the world continue to make the U.S. their home and in turn transform entire communities. This rich diversity challenges the status quo of how our faith communities echo the faith. A one-size-fits-all approach to catechesis does not seem to yield much fruit. In fact, such an approach to catechesis can become an obstacle to echo the faith effectively in our communities today.
There is no doubt that we need catechists whose hearts are filled with the love of Christ, who know their faith, who are appropriately trained to share it, and who are passionate about proclaiming the Good News in the big chambers of the Church and the larger U.S. society. At this point in history, these catechists must echo the faith in several languages, embrace the contributions that Catholics from different cultures add to the experience of being Catholic in the United States, and cultivate intercultural competencies.
This is a time for a renewed catechetical impetus among Catholics in the United States of America. The National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) gathers catechetical leaders and thinkers from all corners of the U.S. precisely to reflect and envision directions to channel that impetus. I invite you to consider being part of this important Catholic organization and participating in its convocations. The 2017 annual meeting is scheduled for May 22-25, in Dallas, Texas.
In reading the signs of the times, we seem to be on the verge of a moment promising new possibilities. As countless catechists have done in the past, we must proclaim loudly and clearly, as many times as it takes, with courage and enthusiasm, that “Jesus Christ is risen!” and allow those words to echo in the hearts of our contemporaries: risen … risen … risen … risen.
Hosffman Ospino, PhD, is an assistant professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. Find details about the 2017 NCCL Conference at NCCL.org.