The Catechism of the Catholic Church celebrates its 25th year of promulgation in October 2017. Fr. William Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope in Potomac Falls, reflects on a “great gift and marvelous work.” Reprinted from the Arlington Catholic Herald.
By: Rev. William P. Saunders, V.F.
Twenty-five years ago — Oct. 11, 1992 — Pope John Paul II, by means of the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositu, promulgated the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in French). This date was not chosen randomly, but marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.
Having attended the council himself, John Paul II remarked Jan. 25, 1985, “Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action, in the conscious commitment to implement its directives concretely and faithfully.”
Yet, he also recognized the difficulties that had emerged throughout the church after the council — confusion, defection and disbelief. All of us, including myself, who grew up during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s well-know the distortions that occurred in “the spirit of Vatican II.” As a college student and even as priest, I have had people say to me, “Oh, Vatican II did away with this or that,” like purgatory, hell, transubstantiation, to which I have had to reply, “No, it did not.” Also, some religious education programs and materials failed to convey the beauty and depth of the Catholic faith; many people raised in that period today suffer from the weak catechesis they received in childhood.
Therefore, in 1985, the pope convoked an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops to mark the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of the council. The purpose of this synod was not only to celebrate the fruits of the council, but also to clarify and better understand its teachings.
Consequently, the synod proposed “that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed as a source text for the catechisms or compendia composed in the various countries. The presentation of doctrine should be biblical and liturgical, presenting sure teaching adapted to the actual life of Christians.” Therefore, John Paul II and the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith guided by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) dedicated themselves to composing the new catechism.
Keep in mind that the idea of a catechism was not new. Catechisms have played an important role in catechesis since the earliest days of the church. In the first century, the Didache was compiled, which was a compendium of the teachings of the apostles on doctrine, morals and liturgy. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) developed his 24 catechetical lectures as a standardized Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. In response to the Protestant movement, the Council of Trent in 1566 published The Roman Catechism, which served as the standard for developing other catechisms and religious education materials, like the Baltimore Catechism, which was used for generations in the United States.
The catechism is a great gift and marvelous work. Here we find a clear presentation of the Catholic faith as revealed, taught and handed on by sacred Scripture, sacred tradition and the magisterium. The text has a four pillar format: what the church believes (an introduction about faith and then an explication of the Creed), what the church celebrates (an introduction about liturgy and then an explication of the seven sacraments), what the church lives (an introduction about man’s vocation and moral principles, and then an explication of the Ten Commandments and the moral teachings of the church), and what the church prays (an introduction to the spiritual life and then an explication of the Our Father).
In one sense, the catechism is old, reiterating beliefs long taught and defined by the church, such as the mystery of the Holy Trinity; in another sense, the catechism is new, addressing moral issues such as nuclear war and bioethics questions. I have often mentioned to younger priests how fortunate they were to have had the catechism during their seminary formation.
As Pope John Paul II stated, the catechism is a gift to all who seek the truth. When answering questions posed by those who are not Catholic, I am proud and excited to show them the continuity of teaching that undergirds what we believe as Catholics. The catechism incorporates numerous citations from sacred Scripture, ecumenical councils (Vatican II), official documents (encyclicals), and the writings of popes, Church Fathers and saints. Therefore, I can say to someone who asks a question, “We have always believed this teaching” or “Here is the basis for this teaching.”
Moreover, John Paul II hoped the catechism would foster true ecumenical relationships, for only in sharing the fullness of truth can there be real communion. I remember a dear parishioner — who has now passed to the Lord — who participated in the Legion of Mary’s weekly door-to-door evangelization; he always carried a Bible and a catechism. Without question, the catechism is essential to the new evangelization.
As a pastor, I have encouraged every family to have a catechism. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, ought to utilize the catechism. Whenever a child poses a question or when a conversation arises about the faith, the parent, like any good teacher, ought to go to the catechism, study, and then return to the child with a clear and accurate answer. The parent also can search with the child, especially a teenager, which is a great way to catechize.
Everyone ought to read the catechism. I remember Cardinal Francis Arinze saying that each day, he would read one or two paragraphs, or a brief section, and meditate on the teaching. He said that oftentimes a new appreciation or a new inspiration came. If a person reads two pages a day, he will complete the catechism in one year.
Upon its promulgation, Pope John Paul II declared, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church lastly is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.” Let us then mark the 25th anniversary with great joy and be people of hope who proclaim the truth of our Catholic faith.