This coming Sunday in the liturgical calendar is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. However, the third Sunday of September is more popularly known as “Catechetical Sunday” and signals the beginning of Faith Formation programs for all ages in our parishes. As one might suspect, in these days of COVID-19, parish catechetical leaders are also rising to the challenge of how to keep these programs alive while dealing with the need for social distancing and safety protocols.
I want to thank Andrea Slaven, Diocesan Director of the Office of Catechesis; Bob Walters, Diocesan Director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry; Mary Hallman, Director of the Office of Evangelization; Lisa Hall, Diocesan Director of the Office of Family/Respect Life Ministry; and their collaborators in ministry for all they are doing to help our parishes and their parishioners weave their way through these days of pandemic and to continue the mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with our diocesan families. I have been most impressed by their creativity and cooperative efforts in reaching the households of the Diocese of Syracuse and beyond.
If anything, our present predicament helps to accentuate Catholic teaching that the family is the first school and parents the first teachers in the raising and forming of their children. Msgr. Owen Campion, the former editor of Our Sunday Visitor, stated in an article dated December 17, 2019: “Bishops, priests and teachers can help, but they only can, and should, help. The ultimate responsibility belongs to parents when it comes to causing the young to think that religion is important.”
What then is “catechesis?” According to the Preface of the newly published Directory of Catechesis, catechesis “has the twofold objective of maturing the initial faith and of educating the true disciple of Christ by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When I was a kid my first recollection of catechesis was the question and answer of the Baltimore Catechism. It began with the questions like, “Who made the world?” (#1); “Who is God?” (#2); “What is man?” (#3); and the one I recall in its entirety, “Why did God make me? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven” (#6).
As I continued faith formation, the texts changed into a more narrative form, but their essence was still summed up in that last question. Whether I learned about the Bible, the Commandments, the Sacraments, the Church, the Saints, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Sin or Christian Morality to name a few, their ultimate goal was to help me know God’s love and presence in my life and, in return, challenge me to consider how I would respond.
For me, this notion of God’s call and my response is what defines my personal relationship with God; and yet, since our God is a community of persons, it is within the faith community that we find the fuller reflection of our Triune God. That is why in a recent letter, Robert Cardinal Sarah of the Congregation for Divine Worship offered the following observation: “As soon as circumstances permit, however, it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed, at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10)….We cannot be without the Christian community, the family of the Lord: we need to meet our brothers and sisters who share the sonship of God, the fraternity of Christ, the vocation and the search for holiness and the salvation of their souls in the rich diversity of ages, personal histories, charisms and vocations.”
The above statement further highlights the theme of Catechetical Sunday 2020: “I received from the Lord what I hand on to you” (1 Cor 11:23). This passing on of faith in God and in Jesus Christ can only happen when we are formed in the Catholic faith, the heart of which occurs every time we gather for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Mass) on the Lord’s Day each week. The Eucharistic celebration was the original time of catechesis for members of the early Christian community and its catechumens. In it was found instruction from breaking open God’s Word and its application to daily living, along with receiving the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, food and drink for the journey/mission ahead.
This notion of being on a mission is why I have renamed the Office of Faith Formation as the Office of Catechesis. To me, it better captures the notion of instruction that goes with the handing on of faith. It is not merely nurturing natural human virtues, but even more the very life of God in each one of us — a life not lived for self but meant to be laid down for others.
Again, it leads me to express my sincere gratitude to all the pastors, teachers, and catechists of our diocese who strive to make the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church come alive within our parish communities and in the families that are their building blocks. The Office of Catechesis helps our parishes particularly in the instruction of children in the primary grades. The focus of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry is the continuing faith formation of already catechized youth in their teens and beyond, especially in the areas of service and engagement in the life of the local Church. Together with the Office of Catechesis, both help to prepare our young people for the Sacrament of Confirmation in their parish communities. Finally, the Office of Evangelization and the Office of Family/Respect Life Ministry continue to plant and nurture the seeds of the Gospel for all ages in our parishes.
In Cardinal Sarah’s letter, he invites you and I to return to the Eucharist with joy. I pray that this same joy of the Gospel will be what we, in turn, can hand on to others.