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Breathing, Living Catechesis

By

Bishop Socrates B. Villegas

 

            In a church in Metro Manila, the parish council had this brilliant idea to have a Catechetical Lecture Series for the entire year. They invited an eloquent and erudite speaker, a bishop in fact who is an expert in Moral Theology, and a professor in several seminaries. His catechetical talks (and they were very substantial indeed!),  inevitably took on a classroom format, albeit a lively one because of the bishop's broad knowledge and engaging speaking style. This attracted a full crowd on the day of the week of the Catechetical Lecture. Some came with their pens and notebooks, and dutifully took notes. A few were identified to be "fans" of the bishop, who never tired of listening to him.

 

            According to what we know of Catechesis this is certainly one way of doing it: Classroom style, learned speaker, captive audience and could've been the perfect example of the topic that I have been tasked to explore. But is this really a kind of "community catechesis"? Does community catechesis mean teaching or lecturing a community on theology and the elements of the faith? Doesn't this Catechetical lecture resemble more the manner in which catechesis is done in schools?

 

            The catechetical lecture was initially aimed for the formation of the community. But since the church was strategically located there were also many who attended who were not from the parish but for whom the church was a "spiritual" stopover, coming from work or from school before hopping to their final commute for home.

 

            At the end of the four-month catechetical series, only about 15 percent had successfully completed it, while the 85 percent could account for maybe an average of two lectures each. Community catechesis? Maybe not. Knowledge acquisition? Yes for some 15 percent. Inspirational and uplifting? Maybe.  How did the series affect the faith life of those who participated? There is no way to gauge. But did it build up the community? We may have to get a jury on that. And a follow-up question could be: What community are we referring to?

 

            I think to be able to do community catechesis, and we should seriously begin to think of doing it, we should think outside the box. Otherwise we leave behind our catechesis at the school door and our faith becomes only a religious rite that, out of obligation, fear or habit, we participate in, sometimes inattentively, every Sunday. On this track we will only continue to reinforce the observation mentioned in the National Catholic Directory of the Philippines that "Catechesis in the Philippines is still considered an activity (not even a ministry) for children, not for adults."

 

            Scanning the current state of our faith in our local culture we can easily recognize that catechesis cannot and must not continue to simply begin and end in childhood and in the school rooms. For us to encounter Christ, to have "the fullness of Christian life" that is the goal of catechesis, then we have to move out of the school framework and into the community, the family in our homes, the family in our workplaces, and breathe, live catechesis. We have to share our faith with one another. That is catechesis.

 

Beginning with the Sacraments

           

The concept of community catechesis, if not properly understood, can be daunting to the parish which is already burdened with so many programs that need implementation. But the amazing thing about it is that it is already being done. The element that is lacking is pinning down the process for it to be fully integrated and embraced wholeheartedly. Once this process gets going, the idea that it is work fades away because then it becomes life.

 

            The concept does not remove all the basic things required: knowledge and instruction of the faith starting at an early age in preparation for the reception of the Sacraments of Penance, Holy Communion and Confirmation. Actually preparation starts much earlier than that, in infancy, during Baptism. For the infant being baptized there is no memory of that event and the Sacrament is seen as something that is a given. The community catechesis here involves the adults—the parents, godparents, and the extended family who welcome its new Christian member with joy and thanksgiving.

 

            I remember a troubled family where parents constantly pounded on their children their obligation to attend Sunday Mass. One of their young boys then showing signs of adolescent rebelliousness countered, "I never asked to be baptized!" There are some parents who have opted to postpone baptism until their child is of the age when he or she can make the decision to be baptized. I wonder though at what age that might be.

 

            It is unfortunate that we hurry through the baptism of our children, concerned more about the reception, about choosing the many godparents, than about the meaning its meaning for our children and for us. At the point of Baptism it is not only the child who is seeks for and receives the grace of the sacrament but also the parents who offer up their child to God in thanksgiving for this wonderful gift of life.

 

            Thus Baptism becomes the first community catechesis for the child and his or her family. It is the first instance for the child to experience the sharing of faith. And even if the child will not have the willful consciousness of his or her Baptism, the grace will be there and also the lasting memories of a special event which gathered the family in meaningful fellowship and worship.

 

            The parish requires seminars for parents who seek baptism for their children.

Community catechesis can make these seminars more lively and memorable by presenting not only the facts and doctrine but also by telling stories of other Baptisms in the family, even perhaps reflecting on Jesus' own Baptism by the River Jordan. There are special instructions for children preparing for First Confession, Holy Communion and Confirmation. In some schools the parents are also involved in all this. Oftentimes though, busy parents view these events perfunctory, as obligations. In the way of Community Catechesis this preparation can be taken outside of the schools. Aside from merely requiring parents to attend one-hour talks on the Sacraments and another hour for recollection, the school or parish can produce an inter-active catechesis pamphlet that will encourage parents to accompany their children in their faith journey. These catechetical activities can run for a month or two prior to the event and can be timed during the Sunday dinner and may even involve a reflection on the Sunday Gospel. The activity can include all members of the household, even neighbors who are close friends, even a father or mother who is abroad, maybe by webcam or email, or even text.

 

            A similar pamphlet can be produced for couples wishing to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. The catechesis can involve not only the couples but their parents and siblings as well and can lay down the foundations for solid relationships between the couple and with their parents and in-laws.  The symbolisms of the marriage ceremony need not only be explained during the marriage rite itself.  These can be part of what the couple can reflect upon as they get their rings and other items for the wedding. Then the rings not only become jewelry but bands of love, and their wedding garments not just for fashion but for putting on a new life of faith and sharing.

 

The Eucharistic Celebration

 

            In our context today in the Philippines, the Sunday Mass is most often seen as the only source of catechesis and faith sharing for most people.  Yet, if we take to heart the real nature of catechesis, it is catechesis which should bring us to the Eucharistic Celebration, eager to partake of the Eucharist, and thereby carry the Lord in our heart and in our life. Indeed, what is the purpose of catechesis if it does not lead us to Jesus Christ? And what would our encounter with Jesus Christ be—and encounter that reaches its pinnacle in the Eucharist—if we are not able to bring Him to others.

 

            Community catechesis is the bridge between our celebration on Sunday and our life the rest of the week. Without this intermediary there will be a sense of disconnect between form and substance; between knowledge and faith; and between rite and life. How can this channel be built?

 

Making Sunday Flow into the Week

 

            Allow me to share with you an observation. I was rector of the Edsa Shrine for many years. Right beside the shrine, almost connected to it, is the Robinsons Galleria Mall. With constant expansion and innovation, it has become an inescapable landmark along Edsa and Ortigas Avenue. While the shrine is outside the mall, inside it is the hall and headquarters of the Victory Church, a born-again sect. It occupies about a fifth of the topmost floor where during its early existence, services were held only on Sundays. Lately, in one of my now rare visits there on a Sunday, I learned that not only has their main hall be expanded, two theaters in the mall have also been allocated for their use on Sundays, and the services are held almost every hour from 8 am to 6 pm. But what is even more amazing is that in coffee shops and eateries within the mall (and there is quite a lot!) those who have attended the services can be found huddled in groups of six or eight, with the Bible in their midst, in what can be described as animated discussions. I also espied some families in similar scenarios, with the father leading in rather long prayers before the food set before them. Seeing all this I thought to myself: This is community catechesis!

 

            Sadly for some, if not many, of us the Sunday mass is a habit, a ritual that soon easily fades in the flurry of Sunday preoccupations—dining, shopping, and arcade games for the children. For us to grow in faith, and to be true to our faith, it will not be enough to have the Mass come and go, all else all that we thought we learned in our religion classes or catechetical sessions in the Church, will all be for naught.  The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II says, "Christ is present in a fourfold way (in the Mass): in the bread and wine, in the person of the presider, in the community which gathers, and in the Word of God which is broken open and shared.

 

            Thus the Sunday Eucharistic Celebration will have to linger with us—the prayers, the readings from the Scripture, even the hymns and the people around us. Community catechesis can take the form of faith-sharing on these aspects, first with our immediate community, our family and households, and then in our specific communities, our workplaces or schools, and, of course, in the parish, where, instead of an organized catechetical lecture, a time for faith-sharing on the Sunday readings can be encouraged. This need not be done on a specified day in the week and in an assembly (although this can be considered for a monthly or bi-monthly activity). It can coincide with the weekly meeting of a ministry—lectors and commentators, special ministers of Holy Communion, altar servers, parish council, youth, choir—where the members, instead of tackling right away an agenda, can first go through a faith-sharing session. The parish priest or his assistant may offer a question or two to serve as guide for the reflection. This question can even be phrased so that it is relevant to the life of the communities in the parishes. The question should lead to a "theological reflection without being too theological." It can also be posed to families who can "faith-share" over dinner or in the car on the commute. In this manner, Sunday flows into the weekdays, and faith is lived.

 

Catechizing Parish Life

 

            The parish is the center of faith in the community, and this role is extended through its basic ecclesial communities. And because we have said that community catechesis must necessarily flow into the Sunday Liturgy, which in turn flows into our daily life, the parish becomes the initiator and the animator of whole community catechesis.

 

            Church writer and book author Bill Huebsch, writing about community catechesis proposes a re-thinking of the catechetical ministries of the parish with an eye to:

 

∑ Providing a more liturgical setting for them all.

∑ Beginning each with faith-sharing to exchange deeper conversion to the Lord.

∑ Bringing together folks of varying ages and backgrounds to share the experiences.

∑ Making these events exciting by use of music, media, faith-sharing, eating and drinking, storytelling and other forms of communication.

∑ Letting those with the gift of teaching lead and those with the gift of facilitating facilitate.

 

Such an approach could be used effectively for

 

·        Leadership training

·        Ministry training for pastoral care or liturgy

·         Spirituality workshops and growth opportunities

·        Bible studies.

·    Sacramental preparation

·        The movement for justice and peace

 

This is the new framework for doing community catechesis, and much time and effort will be put to better use in coordinating pastoral activities along this line. This is not a new way, just a different way of being Church that promotes sharing faith in every aspect and stage of our life and nurtures and nourishes our spiritual growth to lead us to being fully Christian, fully alive!

 

This may seem like a difficult undertaking but some creative pastors may already be doing Community Catechesis without having identified it as such. Take this parish priest of a five-year old parish in Makati City. His parish is overpopulated with children and gathering them for meaningful catechesis every week is a huge challenge. Together with a lay volunteer, he has come up with a program he coined ChiKaHan. It stands for Chibog (slang for food or eating), Ka for Katesismo (Catechesis) and Han for KuwentuHAN or storytelling. In one coined word he has implemented community catechesis. About 100 children share food (donated by a benefactor). This is followed by catechetical instruction by the parish catechist and ends with storytelling or faith-sharing (although they may not be aware of it). In this simple gathering the Church is embodied, a community of believers begin to grow in faith as they grow in years. Already the pastor is planning to try this format with various age groups including adults. In this parish, the flock breathe, live catechesis, breathe and live their faith.

 

This pastor personifies the exhortation of Catechesi Tradendae (1979): Catechesis always has been and always will be a work for which the whole Church must feel responsible and wish to be responsible.

 

Catechists

 

            We can see from the example of catechetical formation in the parish above the vital and indispensable role of trained catechists. They are the teachers who give sound instruction on the fundamentals of our religion and faith. They are well-prepared for this work and thus truly “echo the faith in their own lives.”

 

Light a Candle

 

            What I have shared with you about the concept of community catechesis is by no means comprehensive. I would say that is merely a teaser. There are still the nitty gritty of getting it started, the structuring and organizing of the idea as a parish initiative, the coordinating with and assimilating among various ministries. But the beauty of community catechesis is that once it keeps going, well, it keeps going. This is the unimpeded force of the Holy Spirit that draws us to the love of God, to Jesus Christ.

 

            Jesus is the center of catechesis. The catechized, catechizing person is he or she who has encountered Christ, now knows him, loves him and loves him through others. This is our faith. Catechesis is the lamp and Jesus is the light. The light of faith. He draws all to him.

 

            Many years ago at a critical point in my vocation I found myself in an island east of Manila. Despite its proximity to the metropolis Talim island is accessible only by boat. At that time it was not even reached by electricity.

 

            I was tasked to conduct a Bible study in a makeshift chapel at the top of a hill. The people of the community had  heard about this and before dusk we gathered there. In the slowly gathering dusk I instructed them and we shared reflections on the Bible. In their faces I could glimpse the sense of wonder and anticipation for the explanations, for the word that would bring to life what was written in the Sacred book. It was as if I was feeding a hunger while in turn their presence there was filling up a void in me, sorting out the confusion in my vocation. When we had finished the sun had set and as I slowly descended the hill in single file through the narrow path they lit their candles to light their way. From the chapel I could see the ribbon of light scattering at the foot of the hill until they settled like dots of stars on the plain. The light of faith had settled in every home.

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The Roman Catholic
Diocese of Balanga
(Bataan, Philippines)