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Every Year a Year of Faith: The Catechism of the Catholic Church on its 20th Anniversary

by Cardinal William J. Levada

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    Cardinal Levada's Address in Maynooth, Ireland 2013
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    This address was given on October 31, 2013, by Cardinal William Levada, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Maynooth, Ireland. He spoke on "Every Year a Year of Faith: The Catechism of the Catholic Church on its 20th anniversary".
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, October 31, 2013

I am grateful for the invitation from the Steering Committee of Adult Studies of the Catechism to speak about the Catechism of the Catholic Church during this Year of Faith, a time of exceptional focus on the faith of the Church as central to her life and mission. I am sure I echo the sentiments of so many in thanking our emeritus Pope Benedict XVI for his pastoral vision in providing such a Year of Faith for the Church, with its already many profitable results.

It was about 3 years ago, during my term as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that I suggested placing on the agenda of our weekly staff meeting, called the Congresso, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962), a date that also marked the official promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 30 years later. It seemed to us in that discussion that these important anniversaries should be celebrated, especially with a view to renewing the vision that they represented for the Church of today.

I discussed the decision of the Congresso in my next weekly Audience with Pope Benedict. He expressed a most favorable opinion, and approved our plan to appoint a Committee of Cardinals and Bishops under my direction to explore the possibilities for such “celebration.”

In the ensuing months I was able to bring forward for the Pope’s review a wide variety of suggestions for celebrating these anniversaries at the level of the Universal Church, of Conferences of Bishops, of Dioceses, of parishes, ecclesial movements and associations, etc. – many of which would subsequently appear in the “Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith,” at the request of Pope Benedict in his Motu proprio Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith), his Apostolic Letter for the Indiction (the announcement and establishment) of a Year of Faith, beginning on October 11, 2012, and concluding on the upcoming Feast of Christ the King, November 24, 2013, the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year.

I. Evangelization, Catechesis and the Year of Faith

In focusing the Year of Faith on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict reminds us of the two fundamental and closely related aspects of the Church’s mission: catechesis and evangelization: we draw close to the Lord as his disciples, living in Him and loving Him; we are then moved to be apostles of the Lord, announcing his merciful love and divine plan of salvation to a waiting world.

For me it is a joy to come to Ireland to speak about these things – Ireland, which for 1500 years has been a dynamic center of both these aspects of the Church’s mission. One thinks of the extraordinary and rapid evangelization of this island by St. Patrick; how skillfully he imparted the Trinitarian faith that had only recently been the focus of the great early ecumenical councils of the Church. One recalls the missionary spirit that led figures like St. Columban to go to Brittany, Gaul and even Bobbio in Italy, evangelizing and catechizing everywhere. One thinks of St. Columba and the evangelizing center he created at Iona. I in particular remember with gratitude the catechizing and evangelizing efforts of generations of priests and sisters who came to every part of America to build up the Church by their efforts, as they did in so many places around the globe. Whatever the challenges of the present moment, we cannot ignore the magnificent heritage left before us for our own efforts in this new and changed context.

Pope Paul VI called the Second Vatican Council “the catechism of our times.” Its voluminous 16 documents, voted and adopted over a span of 4 years, was designed to review all aspects of the confrontation of a two-millennia-old church with “modernity,” with an eye to its aggiornamento – its being brought up to date. Such aggiornamento had a twofold aspect: it could mean, as in the famous opening discourse of Pope John XXIII, presenting the Gospel in new form and language, suited to the times (n. 6,5); or it could mean the renewal of outdated structures, and indeed a genuine development of doctrine.

My remarks today presuppose that these two great anniversaries – the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church – are not merely coincidentally joined by a common date (October 11) linking them over a span of 30 years. Rather, I maintain that the Catechism is the principal act of the papal magisterium since the Council that demonstrates the link between these two purposes: the aggiornamento of the perennial teaching of the faith to make it better understood today, and the development of Gospel teaching to address the new situations that humanity faces today.

As I prepared these remarks, I returned to reflect again and more deeply on the splendid Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei of Pope Benedict. In its few pages it gives a wonderful summary of the central importance of faith in our lives as Christians and human beings. While I commend it again to your reading and reflection, I want to cite just a few passages that seem to me especially apropos as this Year of Faith draws to its close, so that every year can truly be for us and for the Church a “year of faith.”

The opening paragraph of Porta Fidei is a meditation in itself. “The ‘door of faith’ is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism, through which we can address God as Father, and it ends with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, whose will it was, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw those who believe in him into his own glory” (n. 1).

No matter what else we are privileged to do in our lifetimes – raising families, building cities, exploring continents, gaining vast knowledge and deep insight – this is the lifetime journey that counts: “to believe in one God who is Love: the Father, who in the fullness of time sent his Son for our salvation; Jesus Christ, who in the mystery of his death and resurrection redeemed the world; the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return” (Ibid.).

This is worth shouting from the rooftops. No wonder missionaries have given their lives to take this good news around the globe. No wonder we are challenged today to take up the call of the new evangelization. And no wonder too we take our babies, generated by love, to be baptized into this great love of God that has made such goodness possible. The baptismal ritual begins by posing this question to the parents and godparents: “What do you ask of God’s Church for this child? Among the responses suggested is this one: “Faith!”

But this faith of ours is both God’s gift and our response. If baptism is always accompanied by the infusion of God’s grace and the virtue of faith, it does not infuse the human knowledge that forms the content of that faith. That is something we must work to acquire; it is not something automatic. As Benedict goes on to say in Porta Fidei, “It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people” (n. 2).

This brief analysis of the contemporary “crisis of faith” was in its way also the matrix of the Second Vatican Council, at least in the mind of Pope John XXIII, whose opening address at the Council stated “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.”

No one should underestimate the renewal of the Church undertaken by the Council. Before turning my attention to the Catechism, I want to conclude this section on the Council by quoting again from PortaFidei (n. 5). Pope Benedict explains that, in his view, the timing of the “Year of Faith to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council would provide a good opportunity to help people understand that the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, ‘have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition … I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning’.” [Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte,n. 57]

Pope Benedict adds, “I would also like to emphasize strongly what I had occasion to say concerning the Council a few months after my election as Successor of Peter: ‘if we interpret and implement [the Council] guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church’.” Here he makes reference to his address to the Curia on December 22, 2005, with its now well-known distinction between two competing “hermeneutics” or interpretations of the Council – a hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture with Tradition, and a (correct) hermeneutic of “reform” in continuity with the Catholic and apostolic tradition.

II. Porta Fidei and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Of the many things to which the Council Fathers turned their attention, catechesis was not paramount among them; nor was there any call during the Council for a catechism for the universal Church. But the tensions between “conservatives” and “progressives” that marked the years leading up to the Council did not simply disappear. Indeed, as indicated above, during and after the Council the key was transposed, but the melody of these tensions continued, as both sides sought to have their interpretation of what the Council said and did prevail. In my view these tensions had a particularly problematic effect on catechesis. By an overemphasis on the “spirit” of the Council, in some circles the idea was promoted that the Council’s documents were a kind of open-ended invitation to continued speculation and development. This had the effect on catechesis of down-playing the content of the faith (for fear of “taking sides” or dealing with contradictory opinions among catechists and other authorized teachers of the faith), even of ignoring what the Council Fathers actually said in their 16 final documents. And this had the further effect of producing (what we now recognize in hind-sight) several generations of catechism-“lite” Catholics. A wonderful Catholic gentleman in San Francisco told me once about a conversation he had with his young adult son. With paternal love tinged perhaps by some exasperation, he blurted out, “Son, God gave us the ten Commandments, not the ten “suggestions!”

In 1985, during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops called by Pope John Paul II to assess the implementation of the Council 20 years after it had concluded, the following recommendation was made to the Holy Father by the Bishops representing every Episcopal Conference in the world: “Very many have expressed the desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions. The presentation of doctrine must be biblical and liturgical. It must be sound doctrine suited to the present life of Christians.”

Acting on this proposal, Pope John Paul appointed then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to preside over a commission of 12 Cardinals who would oversee the development of this still-undefined “catechism” or “compendium” or “reference book.” The Commission asked for an editorial committee of bishops, representative as it was of various languages and cultures, to be appointed as a drafting committee. It was for me both a singular privilege and a moment of intense new study and learning to be one of the seven bishops appointed to this editorial committee.

In his observations on the 1985 Synod, Jesuit Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles identified several major agenda items of the synod – a study of the nature of Episcopal conferences, a study of the proper application of the principle of subsidiarity, and a new catechism – as a kind of “unfinished agenda” of Vatican II itself. Dulles wrote in his 1988 book The Reshaping of Catholicism (p. 205), “it was assumed [a decade ago] that in the brave new church then emerging there would no longer be any need for a universal ‘Roman catechism.’ … Today, however, the problems are seen to be more complex. … The tensions of our time have made it increasingly evident that for Catholicism to endure in the ‘global village’ visible structures of unity are essential. A vibrant sense of Catholic unity seems to require not only an inner union of spirit but a measure of common catechesis, common legislation, common customs, common symbols and common ministerial oversight.”

It is not easy to do justice to the rich, insightful reflection on faith contained in Benedict’sPorta Fidei. It is shaped by a series of doublets: mind and heart, truth and witness, faith as personal and communitarian. Faith is both the act of “believing” (entrusting ourselves to God who reveals Himself and his purpose to us), and the belief (the content of this Revelation) that the Catechism lays out before us in its four pillars: the faith we profess in the creed; the faith we celebrate in the liturgy and sacraments; the faith we live by God’s grace and a virtuous life in keeping the Commandments; and the faith that prompts us to pray, opening up for us what Jesus taught us in the “Our Father.” For me all of this is summed up in Benedict’s beautiful phrase, “Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him. This ‘standing with him’ points towards an understanding of the reasons for believing” (n. 10).

Here then we see the importance – indeed the centrality – of catechesis in the life of the Church, and of the ministry of the catechist. As Benedict reminds us, “knowledge of the faith is essential for giving one’s own assent … Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God. The giving of assent implies that, when we believe, we freely accept the whole mystery of faith, because the guarantor of its truth is God who reveals himself and allows us to know his mystery of love.”

So in Porta Fidei (n. 11) we hear Pope Benedict speak about the Catechism and his reasons for this Year of Faith: “In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool. It is one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council. In the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum [promulgating the Catechism on October 11, 1992], Blessed John Paul II wrote: ‘this catechism will make a very important contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church … I declare it to be a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith’.”

Benedict continues by saying that it is in the Catechism that “we see the wealth of teaching that the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history. From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith.” His predecessor Pope John Paul called the four-part structure of the Catechism a “harmonious symphony of the faith” that easily captures the open mind and heart by its beauty.

As an aside I recall how the Catechism became a best-seller in the early ‘90’s, even in France! One day we discussed this in our Editorial Committee, and our French counterpart, Cardinal Honore of Tours, remarked slyly, “Well, the headlines in the papers are talking about the Catechism’s ‘new list of sins’; knowing the French, they’re probably buying it because they don’t want to miss out on anything like that!”

III. Opportunities for the ongoing renewal of catechesis

In my final remarks, I want to draw some conclusions that I hope correspond to desire of Pope Benedict to use this Year of Faith as a stimulus, both personal and ecclesial, for an ongoing renewal of our important catechetical efforts.

1. Conformity of catechetical materials with the Catechism

At the beginning of the work of the Catechism Commission, Pope John Paul addressed the issue of the relation of local catechisms and a universal catechism: “The catechism you are called upon to draft follows in the wake of the church’s tradition, not for the purpose of replacing diocesan or national catechisms, but to serve as a point of reference for them. It is not intended therefore as an instrument of dull uniformity, but as an important help to guarantee the unity of faith, which is an essential dimension of the unity of the Church which flows from the ‘unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.” Here I want to reflect on my own experience as a member of a committee of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference which developed guidelines for the publishing houses that produce catechetical materials, so that individual texts would faithfully represent the teaching of the faith as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and so that catechetical series would provide a comprehensive and complete overview of the Church’s teaching. The committee oversaw a review process that was time-consuming, but offered useful dialogue with the publishers, and achieved very satisfactory results for catechetical materials in conformity with the Catechism.

Moreover, we published an Adult Catechism that has had good success as a catechetical text, especially for the catechumenate programs leading to the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults. The simplified catechesis presented in this text is explicitly referenced to the Catechism, so that adults who use the text will have a ready link for their further study. The adaptation of this adult Catechism by the Irish bishops for their needs in Ireland, with compelling stories from your own rich Catholic history, is a good example of the mutual collaboration among Bishops’ Conferences, where resources are always stretched and the preparation of good catechetical materials takes so much time and effort.

2. Who Should Use the Catechism?

Some have suggested that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a bishops’ book, or a reference book, and should not be encouraged as an instrument for general catechesis. Of course it is not suited as a text for children, but it should offer no difficulty for adults and adolescents. The Catechism itself provides this brief recommendation: “This work is intended primarily for those responsible for catechesis: first of all the bishops, as teachers of the faith and pastors of the church. It is offered to them as an instrument in fulfilling their responsibility of teaching the people of God. Through the bishops, it is addressed to editors of catechisms, to priests and to catechists. It will also be useful reading for all other ‘Christian faithful’.” (CCC, n. 12) Pope John Paul added his own gloss to this text when he spoke to the U.S. Bishops on our subsequent ad limina visit to Rome, when he said: “Indeed, I pray that the church in the United States will recognize in the Catechism an authoritative guide to sound and vibrant preaching, and an invaluable resource for parish adult formation programs, a basic text for the upper grades of Catholic high schools, colleges and universities” (Origins 23:8, 127).

In both the Archdioceses of Portland in Oregon and San Francisco for which I was responsible, the CCC was a required part of all programs of ministerial formation, both for clergy and laity. It seemed to me that anyone ministering in the name of the Church would not only be personally enriched in ministry by knowing the Catechism’s “symphony” of the faith, as Pope John Paul called it, as a foundation for their own ministry. But the CCC also provided a vision of Church unity that created harmony among Church ministries, and helped overcome a lack of appreciation of the diversity of roles in serving to build up a Church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

While Blessed John Henry Newman did not have this Catechism in mind in his remarks over 100 years ago, he did speak to the same vision when he said, “I want a laity … who know their faith, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it and who know enough of history to defend it. I want an intelligent and well-instructed laity. … And one immediate effect of your being able to do all this will be your gaining that proper confidence in self that is so necessary for you” (cited in E. D’Arcy, “The New Catechism and Cardinal Newman,” Communio XX/3, Fall 1993, 496-7).

A fundamentalist street preacher can speak with conviction because he has reduced the message he preaches to one simple phrase which hardly needs and sometimes rejects any engagement of our intellect: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” But a Catholic needs to know the faith in the richness and beauty of the dialogue of Revelation and our response of faith that Jesus the God-man was sent to introduce to humanity. The Catechism can be a valuable – perhaps even indispensable – resource for us Catholics, to ensure the security and conviction about our faith that will enable us to put that faith into action, even to “preach it from the rooftops,” and to be able to explain with charity and persuasion our reasons for doing so.

3. A concluding proposal: a new catechumenate for children baptized as infants

What do we ask of God’s church for these children? Faith! In its beautiful teaching on the sacraments, the Catechism has a chapter entitled “The Sacraments of Faith,” in which it cites this important teaching of Vatican II’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.59): “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith’.” [CCC, n. 1123]

When an infant is baptized, personal faith is not supposed. Rather, the Church surrounds this sacrament of baptism with her own faith, with the faith of the child’s parents and godparents and the faith of the community present. But that baptism needs to be completed by educating that baby into the faith implied in that sacrament of baptism (cf. CCC, nn. 1253-5). It is true that parents have the first responsibility in educating their children in the faith. But parents tell us more and more that they need help. They are busy working and raising their families. When their kids go to school, they are busy – with academics, arts, sports, etc. When their kids are adolescents, they no longer think they need kid’s catechetics, and they are right. They need to explore the faith dimension of the things they are learning about: faith and science, creation and evolution, human sexuality, the history of the world and religion’s place in it, the role of conscience and the ethics of the social order. They need too an “apologetics” that will prepare them to be able to “give a defense [or explanation] for your hope” (cf. 1 Peter 3,15), especially in today’s world, both to modern atheists and agnostics, and to those inspired by the Reformation, especially aggressive fundamentalists. Finally, it is during this period that their experience of faith in action – faith lived in charity – as an essential part of their Christian life can develop a lasting imprint.

Here is an example from “olden times” (pre-Conciliar) days of the 1950’s. The sister of a friend of mine graduated from an exclusive Catholic girls’ high school in San Francisco, and went to Stanford University. The agnostic professor of the Western civilization course, looking down the list of students on the second day, called on her (because of her Spanish-sounding name) saying he supposed she was Catholic, and would she kindly inform the class about what she (and Catholics) believe. According to my reporter, she stood up and began with these words: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, etc.” To know the Apostles’ Creed from memory, and to think of it as a statement of your own and of the Church’s fundamental belief, is not a bad witness to faith, and a statement of evangelization, in a secularized environment.

Our Catholics today need a “catechumenate” that embraces the developing child from infancy to adulthood – one that prepares them to know their faith and live it, and to be able to give “the reasons” for it. Like the adult catechumenate which prepares for the reception of the sacraments of initiation at the Easter vigil, this much longer catechumenate (lasting from infancy to adulthood) would be marked by both catechesis and ritual, with the involvement of the Church (parish) community in appropriate ways.

It seems to me too that such a catechumenate would have a clear goal: it would seek not only to prepare young people to be faithful and faith-filled disciples of Christ, aware of his presence in their lives, but also to be apostles of Christ’s transformative grace and power for the good of the world as such. This apostolic purpose is of course primary in the euchology (the ritual prayers) of the sacrament of Confirmation, and it would my hope that such a catechumenate could be directed to its appropriate conclusion in the sacrament of Confirmation. In this way too the Sacrament of Confirmation might take its place not simply as a “rite of passage,” but as the sacrament of the New Evangelization!

The New Testament gives many examples of the essential nature of catechesis for the transmission of the faith of the Church from generation to generation. I will conclude by recalling just this one: with two disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter, Jesus began with “Moses and the prophets, interpreting to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” And when he left them, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:27,32) Here is the supreme task of catechesis: to open the Scriptures, to teach Christ in his Church, and to leave behind – even unbeknownst to us – burning hearts for Him in those we have taught.

(November 04, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.

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