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.