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Catechesis and the Life of the Church

If you’ve been around Christ Church at all, you learn pretty quickly that catechesis is part of the lifeblood of our parish. Christ Church without catechesis is like Texas without barbeque brisket. It just doesn’t make sense. For many, this may have been the first place you encountered catechesis. And, if you’re like me, you may have wondered, “Why don’t all churches do this?” If so, you’re not alone. Many churches around the country are wondering the same thing: Why have we lost the ancient art of catechesis and what can we do about it? How can we provide a means by which everyone who comes through our doors has an abiding formation in the doctrinal, spiritual, and moral life of the Church? Many of those same churches, as it happens, are looking to places like Christ Church as models for the renewal of catechesis. There’s a small but fervent hunger among parishes in North America for robust forms of catechetical practice.

For this reason, I started a few years ago an organization called the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis, or the IRCC. The mission from the beginning has been to be a place where pastors, catechists, educators, parents—anyone, really, who cares about the theological and spiritual health of the church today—can find encouragement, resources, and training for the important but often neglected work of catechesis. I’ve gathered lots of books, videos, articles, and other resources; we’ve hosted several conferences. But the most rewarding for me has been to hear stories from people around the country who have found in our company a source of hope and friendship. After an event in San Francisco last year, one attendee remarked how uplifting it was simply to be in a room where people discussed catechesis as if it was something you just did, not something you needed to defend. It reminded me once again how unique Christ Church is. Of course the Church lives by the grace of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. But catechesis has proven a vital instrument of grace through which God acts for the health of his body and bride.

Why is catechesis so important for the Church to recover today? We live in rather strange times. On the one hand, Christians are often accused of being too dogmatic, too concerned with their beliefs to be of any practical good. “Why can’t you Christians just get over your dogmas and doctrines and just love people?” If we stopped worrying so much about correct beliefs, couldn’t we get on to living more in unity with each other? On the other hand, paradoxically, Christians are then accused of being anti-intellectual, of being opposed to science or reason. A preoccupation with “faith” is perceived as an opposition to thinking well. Again: strange times.

There are at least two reasons, among many others, that the renewal of catechesis is a necessary task for our times. First, it overcomes such staid platitudes about the opposition of doctrine and charity. A bishop in our province told me a few years ago that he thought one of the greatest benefits of catechesis was the way it unified the local church. Members of a parish are bonded together not because of common personalities or preferences but the teaching of Christ. Sound doctrine, in other words, is not an impediment to Christian unity but a necessary entailment. The choice between unity and doctrine is a false choice, and one that catechesis helps overcome.

Second, we need the recovery of catechesis today because of the larger challenges of being Christian in the world today. The reason we are presented with a false choice between doctrine and charity is because modernity encourages us to think of reason as having to do with physical, empirical reality and of faith as having to do with spiritual, or non-empirical reality. We are prompted to live in the world as if things are just things with no inherent value or significant meaning. A catechesis for our time, then, will not only teach Christians an orthodox way of thinking, praying, and living but also offer what the ancients called “mystagogy”—a leading into the mysteries of the faith. A thoroughgoing catechesis will help us live in the world as it really is—“charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, perceptive to “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Sound teaching is not an end in itself but aimed at the heart of the Christian faith—union with Christ through participation in the Church and her Sacraments.

Catechesis offers such a rich resource for the life of the Church today. I would encourage you, then, to make a renewed effort to connect with the work of catechesis. We never grow beyond the basics of the Christian faith; we only grow deeper in them. There’s no reason why you couldn’t take Fr. Nelson’s catechesis class a second, or third time, or walk alongside those who are. Our children’s, youth, and adult catechesis, as well as Brazos Fellows, are also wonderful ways to get involved with catechesis at Christ Church. I would also encourage you to join work at the IRCC. You can join the mailing list on our website or ask me about it anytime. I also invite you to come to a conference we are hosting this summer at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin on July 23-24. The featured presenter will be the renowned theologian, Fr. John Behr, speaking on the topic: “Born to Life: The Church as Our Mother,” with Fr. Nelson serving as one of the respondents. It would be such a joy to see many of our Christ Church family there, or, if you like, could sponsoring a student, priest, or catechist. I assure you it would be a worthwhile investment. Regardless, I want to extend my gratitude to our parish for being such an inspiring and enriching place for the work of catechesis. Whether you know it or not, your life here at Christ Church has made an impact on the recovery of catechesis in our diocese and beyond. Thanks be to God.

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