Remaining True to Our Identity

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Between 2012 and 2014, retail giant J.C. Penney nearly ran itself out of business. A new CEO with an impressive record of previous successes took over in November 2011 and within months announced major changes that emulated the success of other major corporations. Unfortunately, however, the result of all these changes was that J.C. Penney’s customers left in droves and headed for Macy’s. The changes that were implemented resulted in a store that no longer felt like J. C. Penney. In an effort to please everybody, the retail giant accomplished the exact opposite and completely lost its own identity and brand.

As we seek to breathe new life into our catechetical programs, we need to avoid making the same mistake that J.C. Penney made. We need to remain true to our Catholic identity. Superficial changes aimed at making everything we do “fun” and “entertaining” will not solve the critical issues we face as a Church, not the least of which is our seeming inability to inspire people to become disciples of Christ.

Many millennials are telling us they are turned off by efforts churches are making to be “with it.” In a Washington Post opinion piece (April 30, 2015), Rachel Held Evans emphasized that young people do not want to be entertained and that, in fact, more than two-thirds of them prefer a more “classic” approach rather than a trendier one. What they are looking for is a living faith (“classic” does not mean a faith preserved in formaldehyde) that is presented with authenticity.

To avoid mistakes like J.C. Penney made, we need to be more attentive to our core identity and build on those strengths, making sure that any innovations we pursue flow from and reinforce these strengths. Throughout the year in this column, we’ve examined five core principles of Catholic identity, drawn from my book, Practice Makes Catholic: Moving from a Learned Faith to a Lived Faith (Loyola Press). Here they are in review.

✱ A sense of the sacred (sacramentality) — Recognizing that the most important things in life are intangible (love, acceptance, belonging, forgiveness, commitment, and so on), we need to teach each generation to “speak” a language of mystery that transcends words and instead relies on signs, symbolic actions and objects, rituals, and gestures.

✱ A commitment to community — Recognizing that all people are created in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God (a loving community of Persons), our catechesis must immerse young people in a true communal experience that challenges the rampant individualism of our society.

✱ A respect for human life and a commitment to social justice — Recognizing that each human being possesses dignity, our catechetical efforts must invite and challenge young people to show a profound respect for all human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, and to work to support structures and practices in society that respect human dignity.

✱ A reverence for Scripture and Tradition — Recognizing that God has revealed all we need to know in order to enter into relationship with him and all of his children, our catechesis must help young people to revere God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition and view it as a living, breathing Word that guides and sustains us.

✱ A disposition of faith and hope and not despair — Recognizing that God has drawn near to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, our catechesis must bring hope to others.

When all is said and done, it is not an overstatement to say that catechists are called to be instigators — people who intentionally stir others to take action. As a catechist, you are called to stir young people into action as disciples of Jesus Christ in the hope of transforming the world according to his message. In fact, in some thirdworld countries, catechists are considered by oppressive regimes to be the most dangerous individuals in the village because of their ability to indoctrinate people with a Catholic identity that embodies the radically countercultural ideas of Jesus Christ. While becoming a catechist has most likely not placed your life in danger, the truth remains that you are now in a position of great influence, instilling in young people an identity that reflects the very same radically countercultural precepts of Jesus Christ.

May you continue to instill a strong Catholic identity in those you teach so they may go forth into the world and, with the grace of God, transform it into a reality that more closely reflects the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.


Joe Paprocki, DMin, is the national consultant for faith formation for Loyola Press. His most recent book, A Church on the Move: 52 Ways to Get Mission and Mercy in Motion, is available from Loyola Press. Joe blogs at

The article was originally published in Catechist magazine, April/May 2017.


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