1 God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (From the USCCB on-line edition)
This is the first of over 2000 propositions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I calculate that if I treat of one text per week, I will have completed our look at the Catechism in 39 years, or at age 106 for me. Rest assured, though, that there is a hierarchy of importance in the texts; some are clearly more important than others, and many can be clustered, so it might take only 29 years. I have just returned from my ophthalmologist, who tells me to irrigate my eyes more frequently to avoid desiccation when using the computer, if I plan to finish this Catechism project.
This opening text of the CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) is a summary statement of Christian truth. For this reason alone it is worthy of a certain preeminence and familiarity. Interestingly the Gospels have similar summary openings. Mark’s Gospel summary is found in 1:15; “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel.” The CCC puts forth the very existence of God, One who is totally self-sustaining but from a perfect love chose to freely create. God loves his human creation, sin and all, and in the fullness of time sent his Son to save mankind from that mortal sinfulness. Through the Son mankind receives the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and unifies our life on earth that we may enjoy a perpetual unity in the sight of God.
This is one of few propositions that do not have footnotes, suggesting to me that this paragraph is the work of one writer. Were I to learn that Pope John Paul II composed this introduction, I would not be surprised, although much of the work was overseen by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who famously observed that he was mystified at the high quality of a text produced by a large and apparently unwieldy bureaucracy. The conservative First Things published a fascinating introduction to the Catechism in 1995.
A key thing to remember is while this Catechism (and others, before and eventually after) embodies in objective language the Church’s teachings of faith and morals as understood at this juncture in our history, its reception cannot be taken for granted as self-evident. For example, the introduction assumes not simply the existence of God but also a significant personal involvement by God in human affairs. Obviously an atheist would not find the opening paragraph convincing, but neither would a Deist, for that matter, who approaches the divinity with a rational scientific detachment. Another large body to consider—very large in my view—is undereducated Catholics, who have never experienced a competent exposition of Revelation and its full personal implication. Comprehension and interest may escape many, including the faithful who attend weekly but do not reflect significantly on the meaning of their actions.
At the time of the Catechism’s release there was considerable discussion about its use. Even its most ardent admirers, along with professional religious educators in general, understood that the Catechism was not for use as a classroom text. Rather, the CCC was viewed as an official magisterial or ecclesiastical statement of what should be taught. It was, I recall, of particular interest to publishers of religious education texts. The CCC also set the parameters of articulation of Catholic belief in public discourse and publication undertaken in the name of the Church.
Thus, the Catechism as text is not the primary tool of evangelization. New believers come to the baptismal pool through the agency of living believers, and it has been forever thus. “Behold these Christians; see how they love one another.” Good conduct leads the witness to the search for motivation, of which the human believer is the living text. Once the affective connection is made, the new believer will most likely wish to learn about his or her new family. This is where the catechumenate and mystagogia processes come into play, and where the judicious use of the CCC is most appropriate in the evangelization process.
For the newly baptized, and for those of us who prod ourselves daily along the road of rebirth and continuing evangelization, this opening statement of the Catechism is a text that does indeed take on a timelessness all its own. Even an elementary sense that a timeless God arranges his day around me, in some real way; or a sense of sin and worthlessness turned on its psychological head by the extraordinary sacrifice of the man from Nazareth; or the supernatural solidarity of a community that breaks bread with me and would die with me….it is the heady wine to be drunk anew in the Kingdom of that “infinitely perfect and blessed in himself” Father who has given us his all.
I keep promising to start a Thursday entry on the Catechism. That won’t happen today, because I am at the airport awaiting the arrival of three guys who shared a common dream with me almost 55 years ago, back when we were twelve. We didn’t go to the same elementary school; in fact, we lived far apart. I was in Buffalo; another in the downstate New York area near the Catskills, another from the rowdy streets of Boston, and yet another from that great cluster of Jersey towns west of New York City. Unknown to each other in 1961, we each filled out an application to a Franciscan boarding school seminary in the Catskills, and by various forms of transportation we found our way to the seminary and probably met, or at least shared a meal in the common dining room, on September 8, 1962. I can’t speak for them, but I was plenty homesick. No one ever admitted that, though.
We will be meeting for a long weekend in my home, sitting on my back porch in the 90 degree spring Orlando is currently experiencing, catching up, telling the old stories, and probably looking for some wisdom on facing the new challenges of seniority. In terms of demographics, I am the oldest at 67 but the others are just months behind me. The first to leave the class, as they say, departed as a college sophomore. He told me later, “I was sitting at my desk in the seminary, and five weeks later I was in a classroom in the Army.” He went on to highly successful multi-facet business career and has great kids and grand kids. The second to move on left at the end of his junior year of college. We share a great memory of both meeting his eventual wife together at a Halloween bash in D.C. He went on to a distinguished Air Force career as a psychologist and now continues practice in the criminal justice system. My third comrade took leave one year into theology, and somehow parlayed his seminary training into a highly successful career in the field of medical high finance. I was the only one of the four to be ordained and did not leave the ministry till 1994.
We all lost touch, of course, 30-35 years in fact, until shortly after March 30, 2001, when my stepson was killed by a drunk driver. The sad story was reported in the Franciscan Order’s weekly newsletter, which former friars also received. It was then that we four reconnected, and to tell you the truth, we e-mail each other several days a week to the present day. We don’t get to see each other face-to-face very often—they live in the Northeast, and I have connected with them during NCEA Conventions in Boston and Philadelphia, and at the occasional wedding or Disney trip. We all have one thing in common; we all “married up.”
I know that in our lifelong friendship and youthful ideals there is a story here—several in fact—about religious life and the Church. I never made the facile assumption that if the Church only lifted the celibacy rule, all of us would be pastors of rich parishes today. (For one thing, there are few very rich parishes anymore.) I know that I have surprised a few people who assumed I would jump back into the clerical arena at the drop of a hat if I could be a married priest; the actual truth is that I was much more at peace and professionally satisfied in the mental health field, and probably able to function as a Christian professional with more honesty, as strange as that may sound. I never had the impression my wingmen had any regrets about their choices.
The interesting thing, though, is that at one point in our history the idea of priesthood did seem like a good idea—to the degree that we four did the real Gospel thing, left everything behind—family, girlfriends, home towns, our histories—for the far away world of the seminary at the age of 14 (in one case, 13). I can honestly say of my friends that none left the seminary involuntarily or due to shortcomings. All were and are smart enough, decent enough, and charitable enough, to have made outstanding priests. So the question becomes, where and how did the “vocations” get to us, and where did they go? It is an important question for the Church today, which promotes vocation awareness relentlessly. (My own parish has a “vocation cup” which gets passed from household to household.) Were we, as youngsters, swept up in the baby boomers vocational craze of the 1950’s (promoted with no greater zeal by the Church Army’s greatest recruiting corps, mothers?) Was our religious intensity, piety, and zeal in early puberty years such that we wanted priesthood that badly?
And what about the other end? That is, when each of us responded to an inner tension to change direction? Was it a matter of growing up and realizing there were more choices? Was the piety of youth tempered by things we experienced as we progressed onward into the guts of church and clerical life? Was the vision of wife and family—a competing sacramental call, I might add—replacing the grace of youth? All I can say is that four young men experienced the dilemma of that transition—and the forces at work might teach a lot about recruiting and the training of priests. My guess is that tonight, with the addition of a fifth member, a Mr. Jack Daniels, we may have a few more answers for ourselves.
This morning I received an email from the Florida Department of Health notifying me that I have completed all of my course work to renew my medical license to practice psychotherapy for another two years. All that remains is the submission of a valid current major credit card number. There is logic in that, I guess: the state assumes that if a provider’s own finances are in order, he or she has some kind of high ground to advise others on getting their own houses in order.
Speaking of psychology I have been pounding away at the Catechist Café blogging site for two months now and tracking the hits per day, courtesy of the good folks at Weebly. I have no idea who actually visits the site, but I do know the numbers on any given day, and the domains from which they come. Owning a domain and a blog site is an interesting lesson in the strange world of the internet. Weebly lists for me all my “referral domains.” Curiously, a fair number come from Russia. With some investigating and the help of the Google ”translator,” it would seem that the world is full of “little wanna be googles” who swoop in on a newly purchased domain as soon as possible for inclusion in its address data base. (This has nothing to do with content of the site or its visitors, though.) All site domain names are in the public domain to avoid reduplication. You may know that an enterprising porn site bought the “white house” domain many years ago when the internet was new, causing untold problems for school libraries using the internet for the first time. A few of my domain suitors are hard core, too; I suspect that the name “café” attracts certain search engines whose clientele do not teach catechism.
The numbers tell me that there are many regular readers; on any given day the repeat visits outnumber the newbie’s by about 4 to 1. Weebly is telling me that Thursday is the low day of the week. There is very high traffic Sunday through Wednesday, and Friday and Saturday are well attended. I suspect that the “mental health and job stress” topic may not be meeting as many needs as the other topics. So I am going to experiment with a different format for Thursdays: “Catechism Criticism.” The term “criticism” has a technical academic meaning of analysis; it is not a pejorative term. Biblical Criticism is an indispensible resource of the Church.
My idea is to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church with an analytic eye, to help readers get a feel for its style, composition, organization, sources and the like. Our present catechism is not the first, but the most recent in the Church’s ongoing attempt to summarize its presentation of faith and morals. It will be with us for most of our lifetimes. I discussed yesterday how the outline of the Catechism is shaping catechetical training programs and teaching resources. Working with the Catechism here at the Café will be a personal help to me given the consulting work I presently do and my hopes to write a commentary down the road.
The mental health and job stress issues are important; I will develop a separate page at this site for periodic essays, opportunities for postings, and links to resources in the not too distant future. Please feel free to email me from the home page mail site at the bottom if you have any particular issues of concern to catechists and those in parish ministry and faith formation.