8 Periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis. In the great era of the Fathers of the Church, saintly bishops devoted an important part of their ministry to catechesis. St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and many other Fathers wrote catechetical works that remain models for us.
Paragraph 8 continues the introductory remarks drawn from Pope John Paul’s Catechesi tradendae. In this section the Catechism makes a connection between “intense catechesis” and “periods of renewal in the Church.” It then jumps to what is known as the Christological era, (generally regarded as extending from 325 A.D. to 451 A.D). The several Church Fathers of antiquity mentioned here all fall into this timeframe.
There are two ways to approach this paragraph. The first is to understand it in an exhortatory sense: by joining the act of teaching the Faith to the men who clarified and established by Creed the core of Catholic belief. This would be consistent with the approach of Paragraphs 9 and 10, which connect catechetics to later Church Councils, notably Trent (1545-63) in para. 9 and Vatican II in para. 10.
There are some weaknesses in this interpretation, however, that require deeper analysis. The most notable one is that rarely does one see the era of 325-451 A.D. referred to as a “period of renewal.” In fact, the Church was struggling for the soul of its identity, as its major tenets regarding Jesus’ identity and redemptive act came under great attack. The Emperor Constantine invoked the first Council of Nicaea (Turkey) in 325 to settle a widespread heresy known as Arianism, which held that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father, not a coequal divine being. It is easy to understand how such a tilted belief was able to maintain itself: to pronounce that Jesus is God in the same way that his Father is God is coming awfully close to saying, in effect, there are two Gods. We talked about this at some length in our discussion of Trinity Sunday (May 31).
The second great Council of this era was that of Ephesus in 431. It was called to address a problem known in theological academics as “the transfer of idioms.” Those who accepted the Nicene Creed’s proposition that Jesus was indeed “consubstantial” or of one being with the Father now had another major pastoral problem: does everything we say about Jesus automatically apply to the Father? (That is, can the idiom be transferred?) The Patripassian claim that God the Father suffered on the cross created fuss; from the pastoral life of the Church, however, the more pressing concern was the charge by a new group of Christian thinkers, the Nestorians, that while it was legitimate to call Mary the Mother Of Jesus, it was blasphemous to refer to her as the Mother of the timeless Father God.
Devotion to Mary under the title “Bringer Forth of God” or Theotokos was intense, but particularly in Ephesus, where legend had it that Mary, under the care of the Apostle John, had died. The key figure of this Council was Cyril, the Patriarch (bishop) of Alexandria, one of the Fathers mentioned in para. 8. He defended the doctrine of Theotokos, but the Council itself was a rough and tumble affair that is not remembered for its erudition as much as its passion. The third great Council of the era, Chalcedon in 451, arrived at the two natures/one person formula to describe the persona of Jesus. This Council indeed depended upon a theological/catechetical intervention, the “Tome of Leo” (St. Leo the Great, then bishop of Rome). Whether by intent or accident, the councils ending in 451 are the only Councils recognized by the Orthodox Church.
The other Church Fathers mentioned in paragraph 8 were themselves embroiled in crisis management. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and baptizer of Augustine in 378, was simultaneously defending the rights of the Church against a Christian Emperor Theodosius. Augustine labored mightily from North Africa through his famous work City of God in 410 to reassure Christians that the fall of Rome, sacked by the Visigoth Alaric, did not mean the end of Christianity.
When looked at in this history, para. 8’s understanding of catechetics is certainly more substantive than the rapid fire conveyance of “Catholic facts.” In the first place, the use of the phrase “intense catechesis” strongly suggests that the art of teaching the faith serves to clarify and to correct the tradition of belief when it is under profound challenge. And secondly, the art of catechetics itself is conferred with a power to interpret and address the challenges of the times with literary and theological imagination. If para. 8 intends for the Tome of Leo and the City of God, to cite two examples, as models of catechetical excellence, then the bar has been raised, considerably.