Can catechesis get in the way of making disciples? (Part 1)
Let me say one really important thing: If you’re going to get out there and proclaim the Gospel more, you need to be ready with good discipleship and catechesis. I recently met with a wonderful, ‘can’t-stop-evangelising’, apostolic man who told me about a very successful Alpha course he once ran in a parish, with the help of a committed team. Many people after Alpha were changed and wanted to deepen their discipleship of Jesus. However, the parish just wasn’t ready. They didn’t have anywhere these new disciples could go! The man who organised the course told me, “Never again!” Never would he do Alpha unless a parish was ready to disciple and catechise people effectively.
We need to be ready. And sometimes, our super-attractive evangelistic efforts lead people into a not-so-attractive catechetical reality (without saying anything about community or outreach or any other part of parish life). Right now, I’m just focussing on catechesis.
I would say there are two main ways that catechesis can thwart discipleship:
1. It uses skewed methods which actually don’t have discipleship of Christ as a goal;
2. The content itself gets in the way of the goal of discipleship.
In this post, I want to look at the first way catechesis can get in the way of discipleship. Then I’ll follow up with a post on the second way. Firstly, let’s get some basics:
Why is good catechesis essential for evangelisation to be effective?
- The whole ‘sweep’ of evangelisation is about putting people into intimacy with Christ (Catechesi Tradendae, 5);
- Evangelisation is not just initial proclamation; it is “at once testimony and proclamation, word and sacrament, teaching and task” (General Directory for Catechesis, 39);
- Sometimes we talk as though catechesis is not part of this entire process – we speak of it as something after evangelisation has happened;
- But all the documents of the Church speak of catechesis as a “moment” of evangelisation (see General Directory for Catechesis, 64);
- Therefore, evangelisation gives catechesis its very identity.
So, what is the first way that catechesis can forget its evangelistic identity, its identity of making people intimate disciples of Jesus Christ? The answer is, method. Method is key in catechesis. How we pass on the message is integral to the message itself. Trust me, this is not catechetical pedantry! This is ‘make-or-break’.
Someone recently mentioned to me a catechetical method which is sometimes called the “pastoral cycle”. This is the typical method:
1) Begin with the experience of those who are being catechised;
2) Against this experience, introduce the Church’s teaching;
3) Introduce a ‘dialectic’ between the two realities.
(For an in-depth account of this, see Thomas Groome: Christian Religious Education, chapter 10). Sound familiar? Believe it or not, this is very common in many catechetical programmes. Two current Confirmation programmes, used in many parishes in the UK, give some good examples. In one programme, a session starts with a game designed to show how life is difficult without God. From this, candidates reflect on their own experiences: a decision they have been proud of, naming principles they hope to live by, and finally are asked what they think the Christian moral code is. Only then, in the next step, does the programme take them to the Gospel. Finally, they are asked to reflect on this, with questions such as, Do you agree that we should listen to what the Church teaches?
Okay, okay, I hear you say. One dodgy example. Surely, it’s a one-off. Well, you might be surprised. Here’s another, from another well-used Confirmation programme. The session starts with candidates reflecting on their experiences of Christmas lunch. The catechist then springboards from this to the experience of Pentecost when the disciples’ lives were changed forever with the coming of the Holy Spirit. From this candidates then celebrate (I kid you not) the Church Oscars, where they nominate parishioners for awards such as “Person Who Cares Most”, “Best Pray-er”, “Best Family” and last but not least, “Best Smiler”.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this particular method has numerous incarnations in various catechetical and faith-sharing materials. How could we summarise the main problems?
- Forming disciples means helping someone give their life unreservedly to Jesus, and to follow him in his Church. How can we have this as our goal if we are throwing doubt on the objectivity of what has been revealed?
- Methods which begin with our experience, before contrasting it with revelation, implicitly undermine God’s own pedagogy – he always takes the initiative! He is the One who bursts in with something new, with Good News… Our methods must reflect His pedagogy in order to stay faithful to Him.
To conclude this first part, it is fantastic that our attention has a renewed focus on evangelisation. There is a national conference taking place in the summer, and a new energy and zeal. Yet, we mustn’t walk along blindly. We need to examine the catechesis being used in our parishes and honestly ask ourselves whether they are “fit for purpose” – fit for making disciples.