4 Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.7
Paragraph 4 opens a new section entitled “Handing on the Faith: Catechesis.” The opening words “quite early on” refer no doubt to the previous paragraphs in which Jesus commissions the apostles to preach and teach the whole world. Of note is the literal Greek meaning of catechesis as “oral” or “spoken” teaching.
Needless to say, there is great interest in what the earliest catechetical sermons may have looked like. The oral transmission of the content adds to the complexities of historical investigation. However, there are two New Testament passages that have intrigued scholars. The first is Acts 2: 14-41, Peter’s sermon to the Jews in Jerusalem immediately after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecost event. There are two interpretive difficulties to consider: Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles between 80 and 90 A.D. as the second volume of his Gospel, which puts his text as much as seven decades after the reported events themselves. Moreover a great deal of the Acts narrative, including Chapter 2 (which is not confirmed anywhere else in the New Testament) is believed to have been composed by Luke for his theological purposes.
On the other hand, Luke’s Greek style is the best in the New Testament, and so it may be safe to assume that he adopted the discipline of the epic Greek historian Thucydides (460-411 B.C.) who famously reported lengthy speeches from memory or report. Luke’s report of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 may have been an accurate summary, based upon what made sense to him from his personal investigation (see Luke 1:3-4).
Within Peter’s sermon, Acts 2:22-36 embodies what Scripture scholars refer to as the kerygma or kernel of the New Testament teaching of Jesus, around which early preaching/teaching and the later Gospel compositions would center. The text in its entirety is here. The sermon does give evidence of a rather primitive theology, as Peter relays in verse 36 that God has made Jesus Lord. A second early sermon may be found in Acts 10: 34-42, Peter’s address to a Gentile audience. We may find indication of how primitive catechesis differed for Jewish and Gentile hearers. What is certainly clear is that para. 4’s outline parallels the Acts of the Apostles rather closely.
“Catechesis” in para. 4 is a wide umbrella. It is referred to as (1) “the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples; (2) assisting “men (sic) to believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name;” (3) the effort “to educate and instruct them in this life,” with the result that this work will (4) “thus build up the body of Christ.” Or, more simply, catechesis is an organic sweep of announcing the Good News, giving life by eliciting an act of faith, explaining the message of Christ (ongoing faith formation) and adding to the number of believers. It embodies what we have traditionally identified as missionary work, sacramental initiation, and Catholic education.
The footnote for this paragraph is an apostolic exhortation from Pope John Paul II, Catechesi tradendae, issued October 16, 1979, around the pope’s first anniversary of election. Paragraph 4 of the Catechism virtually repeats the opening of this document word for word. It is interesting that Pope John Paul II would issue this document so early in his papacy, perhaps indicating his concern over the pastoral repercussions of Vatican II in the ministry of catechetics.
3 Those who with God’s help have welcomed Christ’s call and freely responded to it are urged on by love of Christ to proclaim the Good News everywhere in the world. This treasure, received from the apostles, has been faithfully guarded by their successors. All Christ’s faithful are called to hand it on from generation to generation, by professing the faith, by living it in fraternal sharing, and by celebrating it in liturgy and prayer.6
For the full text of the Catechism, connect here to the USCCB website and label in your favorites file.
Paragraph 3 continues the Prologue phase and specifies the contemporary responsibility of handing down the Church’s faith tradition. Although relatively brief, the paragraph embraces several historical and present day theological issues of considerable note. The phrase “those who with God’s help” welcomed Christ’s call opens the door to a conundrum that will be addressed again in the Catechism, free will versus the irresistibility of God’s grace. It is stated here that the mission of spreading the Word assumes two conditions: one has been helped by God’s grace, and has “freely responded to it.”
Is the phrase “with God’s help” superfluous in this paragraph? In the present wording it is possible to argue that there are some who have come into this world, and/or grown up in this world, without God’s help, and thus without the means of welcoming Christ’s call. The precise nature of God’s initial call has led to multiple controversies throughout the history of Christendom, at least as far back as the early fifth century when St. Augustine accused the British or Irish theologian Pelagius of an overabundance of confidence in the power of human nature to embrace the grace of conversion and forgiveness. A more modern chapter of this controversy is John Calvin’s teaching of predestination. In the twentieth century the noted Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., introduced the concept of Anonymous Christianity as another possible solution to the dilemma of access and response to Christ’s call. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (see John Moffitt’s 1976 excellent treatment) and even the Catechism itself (para. 847, citing Lumen Gentium) are influenced by Rahner’s thinking that those who embrace good will and charity as a way of life are de facto Christian and thus earn its rewards.
The paragraph is an exhortation to all Christians to proclaim the Good News everywhere in the world. It is safe to say that the authors intended “everywhere” as a social as well as a geographic qualifier. As of this writing there has been no indication from the teaching Church that would discourage its members from bringing Catholic moral teaching, for example, into the public forum on matters such as same-sex marriage, contraceptive funding, immigration reform, etc.
There is a subtle change in midstream whereby a delineation of responsibilities appears. “This treasure, received from the apostles, has been faithfully guarded by their successors.” The term “successors of the Apostles” is routinely applied to bishops. It is not quite clear why there is a shift from proclaiming in the previous sentence to guarding in this sentence and back to proclaiming in the following sentence. My guess would be that office of bishop—entrusted with protecting the Apostolic Tradition—is also entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the life and efforts of the Catholic faithful in the handing on process. Canon 386, which identifies the diocesan bishop as the primary catechist of his diocese, would certainly imply this. The editing here is a bit choppy.
The final sentence indeed returns to the Christian family as a whole and the action of handing on the content of the Faith. The term “handing on” is a highly technical and exalted New Testament phrase: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23) opens Paul’s description of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. That all the baptized faithful are called to the “handing on” process, and that the faith of future generations depends upon faithful execution of this charge, is a statement of the sacred importance of every baptized Catholic, a point that rarely gets the emphasis it should.
The paragraph closes with a delineation of the three ways in which the handing on process takes place: (1) by professing the faith; (2) by living it in fraternal sharing, and (3) celebrating it in liturgy and prayers. The wording here is nearly parallel to the post-Pentecostal idyllic life described in Acts 2:42, which is cited as the source. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It is worth noting that Acts 2:47 comments upon the impact of this common life: “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” What is envisioned by the authors of the Catechism is the power of formation by example as well as by proclamation.
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.
2 So that this call should resound throughout the world, Christ sent forth the apostles he had chosen, commissioning them to proclaim the gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”4 Strengthened by this mission, the apostles “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.”5
It has been a few weeks since we discussed the first statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on March 25, so I included it in today’s post. Paragraph 2 draws heavily from Matthew 28: 18-20 and Mark’s (alternate or “longer”) ending, 16:20. All three of the Synoptic Gospels have some form of commissioning by Jesus before his Ascension into heaven.
The first key point of para. 2 is precisely that Christ is the one commissioning. The first paragraph states that in and through his Son, God invites men (sic) to become his adopted children and heirs of his blessed life. The second paragraph describes the agency of the call: Jesus has commissioned his Twelve, the New Israel and symbol of the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, to go forward and make this invitation.
The apostles are commanded, first and foremost, to make this call by proclaiming the gospel. This command is clearer for us than it might have been for the apostles. The term “gospel” was used generically in the apostolic age, synonymous with “good news.” The best Scriptural example of the use of this phrase is probably found in Mark 1:14-15. Mark writes that after the arrest of John the Baptist, “Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the good news of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel (i.e., this good news).’”
The Catechism does not mention an explicit prerequisite of reform as we find in Mark, but it should be remembered that the early Church always envisioned baptism as a penitential rite, among other things. Acts 2:37ff recounts that at the conclusion of Peter’s stirring Pentecost sermon, his listeners were “deeply shaken” at having crucified the Just One, and they desperately seek a way to make amends. Peter’s answer is to the point: “You must reform and be baptized, each one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ, that your sins may be forgiven; then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter, of course, is speaking from his own painful progression to the fulfillment of the Good News.
The precise charge given to the apostles is the “making of disciples.” Discipleship generally means student-ship, and in fact the Catechism quotes Matthew that the new disciples are to learn “all that I have commanded you.” It is natural, given Matthew’s authorship, to assume that the reference is to the Sermon on the Mount, the New Law that brings the old to completion. The Catechism has opted for Matthew’s understanding of discipleship over Mark’s, which calls the disciple to take up the cross. Matthew and Mark wrote in different local milieus; Mark’s world, on the whole, was a darker place.
Para. 2 cites the first use of the “Trinitarian Formula” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Scripture scholar Benedict Viviano, O.P., observes that there is no mention of circumcision with baptism; this had been a major point of dispute in the Acts of the Apostles when Paul began his mission to the Gentiles. In fact, Viviano highlights the universal call to discipleship, to Jew and Gentile alike, noting that Matthew in particular had demonstrated a rather sectarian slant in Jesus’ preaching to the lost sons of Israel through most of his Gospel. Matthew’s concern for a truly universal mission reflects the early Church’s gradual (and at times contentious) acceptance of a Christian mission to Gentiles.
In Matthew’s quotation cited here, Jesus indicates that he will be with them (the Church)”till the close of the age.” It may be that Matthew could see the Christian assembly enduring for a longer time than he originally thought, as the Second Coming had not occurred with the immediacy that the earliest church assemblies had expected. Mark had made earlier reference to a preaching limited to all of Israel; Matthew’s text quoted in para. 2 speaks of a universal mission to Jew and Gentile alike, embodying the Roman Empire. This, understandably, would be a mission of some considerable duration.
The final sentence of para. 2 returns to Mark’s Gospel and paraphrases what Mark actually reports: that wherever the Good News was preached, the Lord confirmed the twelve’s efforts with “signs.” The Apostles’ post-Pentecost preaching crusade, then, would parallel the Master’s, signs and all, as are reported from the accounts of the Act of the Apostles.
In this paragraph the Catechism follows through on para. 1 by providing an overview of how this loving God extends a personal invitation to all mankind. In chapters ahead there will be considerably more guidance on how God’s agents will carry forth this task.
HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: In a few weeks I will compile all of the Catechism entries in one easy-to-access site on the blog.
Well, I'm standing here as the participants are filing in. I ask myself the same question every year as I approach the speakers' podium. Is it better to fall on your face before a national group or a local one? Given that this year's convention is here in Orlando, I have that rarest of opportunities to do both.
Today (about 5 PM to be precise) the Triduum begins, and this evening Catholic and other Christian Churches around the world will observe the Last Supper of the Lord with the Twelve. In my own lifetime the Holy Thursday Mass has probably captivated my emotions and my devotion more than any other day of the year, and I feel privileged to have celebrated this feast in both its Tridentine form (before 1970) and its present arrangement in the Roman Missal.
Except for the Easter Vigil, there is no Eucharistic celebration with a greater swing of emotion or more human drama. Your youthful catechism was correct in depicting the Last Supper as the first Mass, so while it is true that we celebrate Sundays as the Lord’s Day of his Resurrection, we do so by imitating his actions of the Last Supper, recalled in the second reading (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) by St. Paul, reporting a tradition that was passed down to him and which he penned in the 50’s A.D. Over the centuries the Holy Thursday celebration has marked a number of themes and events. In the third century Christians in grave sin were reconciled to the Church and readmitted to the Eucharistic banquet. As noted. Holy Thursday marks the establishment of the Eucharist and possibly Holy Orders. (In Medieval times the Church felt that as Holy Thursday fell under the shadow of the next day, Good Friday, a separate day should be set aside to celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, namely Corpus Christ.) Holy Thursday has been a day of offerings for the poor. It is a day, too, of recalling Judas’s betrayal, the agony in the garden, and the abandonment of the disciples, in the powerful gesture of the stripping of the altar at the end of tonight’s Mass. The new missal downplays the stripping; fortunately, my church and many others continue this rite despite the annoyance of liturgical purists.
Was the Last Supper the official Passover Meal of that year in history? Surprisingly, we are not quite sure. The Synoptic Gospels indicate that it was, but there is the possibility that Matthew, Mark and Luke have provided this dating to establish the Eucharist as the New Passover, replacing or superseding the old. John, on the other hand, places the Last Supper on the night before the Passover (see John 18:28), most likely to create a connection between the lancing of Jesus’ side on the cross and the slaughtering of hundreds of lambs then occurring in the Temple for the family Passover meals that night. Here is an excellent example of the theological/catechetical nature of all four Gospels.
The Gospel of tonight’s Mass is John 13: 1-15, the famous scene of the washing of the feet and Jesus’ command of service to others. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum, and thus in Western Christianity until very times this day was referred to as Maundy Thursday. John is the only evangelist who does not include a rite of blessing over the bread and wine at the Last Supper. This is understandable, given that he was writing around seven decades after the event and felt no need to repeat what his Christian readers knew well and in fact were already celebrating weekly.
Unfortunately, they were not necessarily celebrating it with the unity that they ought. By John’s Gospel time (c. 100 A.D.) the Church was racked with divisions within and attacks from without. One—not the only—purpose of John’s Gospel was a reestablishment of proper order and a return to basics; this is why Peter plays such a profound role in tonight’s Gospel and in the Resurrection narratives to come. Peter would have been long dead when the Gospel was written, but his seniority in faith and the authoritative role of his successors would be a critical source of unity and authority in preserving the authentic teaching of the Master. It is no mystery why John replaces the bread/wine blessing with the washing of the feet. Breaking the bread without a stance of humility and service was “drinking a judgment upon one’s self” in Paul’s memorable phrase.
I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on this most sacred night. You will be pulled in many directions—which is precisely the mood of the Last Supper.