How to Echo the Faith Across Generations

Dear Son, your mother tells me you spoke with her the other day wanting to know our thoughts on teaching the faith to others, and you had in mind your own children as well as the people you are starting to teach in RCIA. Before I begin, can I just say how proud I am that you are even asking such questions? When I was in college, I remember one of my professors, a wonderful Polish sister, would repeatedly tell us that the surest proof of possessing a truth, of having it really take root in your heart, is having the desire to share it with others. There is no greater joy for your mother and me than knowing that you not only found, but treasure the pearl of great price and now want to make sure your own family and those entrusted to your care do likewise.

The first and most important thing I would say to you about handing on the faith is this: everything begins and ends with Jesus Christ. Not only is he the beginning and the end, but he is also the way through. Some of my colleagues at the university might be surprised to hear me say something like that; some might think it too syrupy or simple, others too religious or too Protestant or too “I don’t know what.” And it is true that you do not hear many PhDs, even those in theology, say that it all comes down to Jesus Christ, but it is so.

 

I do not think someone could say they really understood the nature of catechesis without realizing that its form, its content, and its ultimate goal is Jesus Christ. Do you remember that time when you were just five years old and we stayed at Mrs. Mollie’s camp and got to ride on their boat? It was one of your first boat rides. I do not think I’ll ever forget seeing you with that wide smile, your hair being blown back with the wind in your face. But I remember something else that was “new” on that trip. We were all on the boat, and when we went under a bridge, Mrs. Mollie told everyone to yell at the top of their lungs. Sure enough, we heard those same cheers and hellos come back to us.

 

That might have been the first time I think you understood what an echo was, even though I had tried to explain it to you before. The word catechesis, in Greek—katékhéo—comes from the two words kata-ekheo. But kata-ekheo means to “echo down” or, you might say, to “echo precisely.” St. Paul and St. Luke used this word (see, e.g., Lk 1:4 and 1 Cor 14:19) to explain what we are doing when we teach the Christian faith. They are telling us that a catechist and his teaching are supposed to be an echo, a precise echo, of what has been given for instruction. But if I am just an echo, then that means the original voice is someone else’s. The voice of the Master is supposed to resound in my own teaching.

 

This is so humbling for a teacher of the faith. I constantly have to tell myself, “I’m not the real teacher here. Jesus is,” and I have to let the words of John the Baptist be a mantra on my lips: “He must increase. I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Some of the great thinkers of the patristic era, like Augustine, took this so seriously that they claimed we could not learn anything except through the illumination of our minds by the light of Christ. But what we can say for sure is that, in catechesis, we are attempting to communicate something that surpasses what the human mind could know by its own efforts. And, if that is the case, then we should take Jesus seriously when he says “You have One Teacher,” (Mt 23:8), and we should make his words our own when he claims, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (Jn 7:16).

 

Christ is the origin of catechesis. Yet, that Christ is what we teach might not seem all that apparent at first. Certainly there is so much we want to hand on. I bet your parish’s RCIA program has its own curriculum requirements, and let’s not even get started on all the things parents try to teach their kids when it comes to the faith: the Mass, prayers, virtues, sacraments, Bible stories, etc. But the more I have taught the more I think this insight rings true: what we teach is Jesus Christ. In other words, everything we teach has to go back to him, and doctrine’s real power comes from communing with him. I like to use the analogy of when I tell people about your mother. If I say “she has brown hair” or that “she has green eyes,” the people who do not know her personally might think “That’s nice,” or they might even attempt to memorize those facts if they knew they had to take a test on them later. But for me, because I know her—as in, really know her—those simple observations mean the world to me. They are reasons for me to love her more. Pope Francis once said, “Christian doctrine is . . . living, is able to unsettle, is able to enliven. It has a face that is supple, a body that moves and develops, flesh that is tender: Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ.”[1]

 

I hope you can see what I mean when I say our job is to echo Christ in our teaching, because he is the original voice of catechesis and the very content of it. But there is a third aspect to this. In the 4th century, the golden-mouthed saint, John Chrysostom, reflected upon this echoing nature of teaching the faith and applied it to our hearers as well. For St. John, not only must I, and my teaching, be an echo of the Master, but that teaching is supposed to resound, or re-sound, within the heart of my hearers so much so that you can see it bear fruit in their lives.[2] One of your namesakes, St. John Paul II, puts it like this: Catechesis takes the seed of faith sown by evangelization and nourishes it so that the “whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word”; it continues to nourish that seed until Christ is born again in that person’s flesh, that he or she might learn to “think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments.”[3] Catechesis is very Marian in this regard. So, my son, always remember that your job is to echo our Lord. Let him be the Teacher, the content, and the end of your labors. Catechesis will always begin and end with him, and he will be the entire way through. 

 

Here is my second point: Catechesis is impossible apart from community. Since you unfortunately followed in my footsteps and became a theology major, you know that one of the best ways to describe the nature and mission of the Church since the Second Vatican Council is communion. I am convinced that if we really knew what that meant and took it to heart, a lot would change. The Church is, the Council taught, the great sacrament of salvation because the Church is Christ’s presence extended in history. The Church is a gatherer. As the Body of Christ, it takes the power of his Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection and unites all the brokenness of our humanity in itself. You know that hymn we sometimes sing at Mass, especially on Holy Thursday: “Ubi caritas, deus ibi est”? Well, in the 3rd century, Origen composed what you might call its anti-hymn when he wrote: “Ubi peccata, ibi est multitudo.”[4] Where there is sin, there is multitude or, you might say, fracture. Well, we should probably sing that in church, too! It would be a stark reminder that our sins separate us from God, from each other, from the world, and even from ourselves. It fractures things into pieces. But here is the great beauty of the Church, that it can gather and then reforge into unity was has been fractured. The image of sin is Babel; the image of redemption is Pentecost, in which men and women of all nations and tongues can understand the preaching of the apostles and are brought into communion with one another by word and sacrament.

 

But, I must admit, this was not what was on my mind when I first entered the fray of catechesis. In 2003, when I had my first swing at being a theology teacher at a Catholic high school, I had lots of other things to think about—how to manage my classroom; how to decorate it; how to keep a gradebook/ what would they think about the fact that I looked so young; and what am I supposed to teach? I do not think I am alone in this. A lot of our catechists, whether in a parish or a school or what have you, are roped into the job, and they come into it with a lot of heart and desire but also a lot of questions and very little time. What usually ends up happening is we do what has always been done. Underpaid and underresourced, yet overworked and overburdened, we fall back on what we know. Or, what the last person did. Or, on what the textbook says. Sometimes this is helpful. But more times than not, I wager, we end up getting stuck in a rut. At some point we begin to wonder if we are giving the impression that the faith is handed down only in classrooms or textbooks or quizzes rather than in the living, breathing communion that is the Church of God.

 

But, in the Church’s vision, catechesis is less like a classroom and more like introducing and nurturing a child into the life of a family. I doubt you remember much about when Damien was born, but I know you remember when we first welcomed your brother Kolbe into our family. What sort of things did we do to hand on the identity of being a Pedraza to your little brother? Or what kind of things would you say were important for being a member of our family? Was it the family meals at the dinner table? The way we said prayers every night invoking each of our patron saints? The time we decided to have a family performance of The Lion King in the living room with your stuffed animals and the soundtrack playing from my laptop? I suppose if we tried we could probably come up with things that resemble something of a textbook curriculum when it comes to our family life, but being received as a son in the Pedraza household is a reality that is composed of this usually beautiful, sometimes ugly, twisting and turning mix of things that make up who we are. It calls upon our history. It makes us think of what it means to be a part of this family and what we want for it, and the sacrifice and love required to reach those goals. It includes the special moments in which we celebrate what it means to be a part of our family, moments celebrated regularly so that we always remember who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. It requires the contributions of each family member, so that those contributions become a part of the very identity of our family’s life.

 

In the end, I think this is just a way of describing an ancient way of conceiving how to form Christians in the faith. In its earliest centuries, the Church thought of education in terms of what the Greeks called paideia. It is a difficult word to translate, but we can hear echoes of it in our English words like “pedagogue” and “pedagogy.” Back then, for the Greeks, and for the Romans who idolized them, pedagogy was not really about classroom strategies , and pedagogues were not teachers (at least for the ones who could afford it). Instead, pedagogy described the process of bringing up a son in moral discipline to the point of maturity. And the pedagogue was thus a disciplinarian—usually a trusted slave who was given the charge of watching over the moral growth of a young boy. With this as the background, education in the Roman Empire, whether pagan or Christian, was less about “head knowledge” and more about being formed into the kind of person who could freely contribute to the good of the community. This kind of formation included things you had to learn with your mind and perhaps even memorize, but it included much, much more.

 

I should probably add that I think it would be a mistake to say that this vision of formation was simply a translation of the Greco-Roman understanding of education to Christianity. Teaching as formation has a long tradition with roots in the Old Testament. Think of how the Israelites would have heard the word “Torah,” that which was received by Moses from Mt. Sinai and formed the basis of their identity. You know from your own studies that the Law was more than information but was a way of life, a way of being shaped, especially through liturgical practices. In the New Testament, think of Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the kind of formation embodied there.

 

So, my son, what does this mean for you and for your family? What does it mean when you approach teaching RCIA at your church? I want to leave the family part for a later point, but let me take up the teaching of RCIA right now. RCIA could and should be the greatest example of what it means to bring a new Christian into the family of God. The Church even claims that all forms of catechesis should take their inspiration from the baptismal catechumenate.[5] But how often are we inspired by RCIA in our parishes? Is it the thing we look to when we need encouragement in our own efforts to teach the faith to our children? Is that where teachers go when they need a new idea to bring life to their classroom? Or, is it more like when people realize they came to the Sunday Mass with the Scrutinies, they shudder because they know it is going to take longer—“Oh, no! We came to the Scrutinies Mass!” That is a sure sign that we do not understand the Church as a communion anymore. We do not think of everyone at the parish as one body, all attempting to ascend the great mountain of the beatitudes together, each of us roped to the others, with Christ at the lead.[6]

 

Therefore, if you get the chance, revisit what the ancient catechumenate looked like. Look at the writings we have from Cyril, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. When I read their descriptions of the catechumenate, I cannot help but think that it must have felt like these people, along with those they regularly attended Mass with, were on a great pilgrimage together. Remember that time I and your godfather and Damien’s godfather and a few more of my friends did that crazy thing called Exodus90 together? How we were all studying the book of Exodus, taking cold showers, fasting twice a week, exercising every day, and all of these other penitential and spiritual practices for 90 days? I think that gave me a taste of what the ancient catechumenate must have felt like when it was at its best. I have never felt such brotherhood, in which the prayers and sacrifices and charity of each member redounded to the entire community. There is something important we need to recover here if we are going to renew the way we do RCIA, and if RCIA is really going to become the inspiration for the way we hand on the faith in all contexts.

 

The catechumenate might be a good segue to my third point, because the RCIA is, of course, thoroughly liturgical. And my third point is that catechesis should always be steeped in the liturgy. This might seem like a no brainer, but there have been times when I have met people who have become so fired up for their faith: they go to conferences and retreats, pour their hearts out in praise and worship, go to Bible study, but they think the Mass is the most boring thing they do every week. Rather than approach the Christian life like a pilgrim on a journey, they approach it like a tourist looking for an experience. I know what it is like to be a tourist. I want to be entertained. I want to take-in delights and pleasures. It’s fun. The pilgrim takes in things, too, of course. But he takes them in such a way that, once consumed, they do not evaporate or vanish. Instead, they become a part of him, and he begins to see everything else in a different way. It is by this new vision that he is empowered to act differently, too. He begins to not only take in but to give out in sacrificial love. For the pilgrim, the Christian life becomes a way of seeing and doing that transforms you from the inside out.

 

Here is a case in point: in 2005 I was a pilgrim guide for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. I was guiding this big group and, at first, I was so excited because it seemed like a lot of them really came with the best of intentions and wanted to embrace a true pilgrim’s mentality. But as the trip went on, I began to notice that some of the group were really there to take a vacation. Spending time with one part of the group versus the other yielded such a sharp contrast. Half of them were becoming more spiritually attuned, more joyful, more sacrificial, even when circumstances got hard, as they always do on a pilgrimage. The other half became angrier or more aloof, more demanding, at times even selfish. The pinnacle of every World Youth Day is when everyone makes a long walk to the place where the Holy Father joins us for vigil and then Mass the next day. You spend the night in a field—it is usually cold and sometimes damp, but you embrace it with everyone else from around the world because you know it is a sacrifice offered in love as one Body of Christ. Well, when we got to the field, I asked for volunteers to help me collect food for the whole group and, to my surprise, one of the more “touristy” men jumped up to offer assistance. We walked a long way to the food tents, waited in line a while, and finally collected the boxes of food to bring back to our group. And after the long walk back to the campsite, I am handing out food to people and eventually run out. I look for the man, and instead of finding that he had handed out the food to others, it turns out he had kept it all for himself and his family. What can you do? You probably will not be surprised when I tell you that the “pilgrimy” half of the group spent a long cold night together, figuring out how to keep each other warm and sacrifice for one another, while the “touristy” half got up in the middle of the night and left to go back to the hotel.

 

The point of this story, my son, is simply this: the Mass is for pilgrims. We have to teach people in such a way that they are not expecting entertainment but are being apprenticed in what it means to be a pilgrim on the way. A pilgrim comes to Mass both to receive and to give. A pilgrim knows, trusts, and believes that the Mass is the center of all reality—that it’s the place of greatest transformation. The namesake of your uncle and of Grand Dad, St. Leo the Great, once said: “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.”[7] That means, if we truly want to encounter the Savior, to know him personally and be transformed by him, we need to come to Mass. Not only come to Mass, but participate in it by receiving its mystery into the depths of ourselves and giving ourselves over to it, so that it transforms us into Christ. As St. Augustine once told the newly baptized in one of their first Masses after becoming Catholic, “Be what you see. Receive what you are!”[8]

 

This kind of being and receiving takes practice. The kind of “receiving” Augustine is talking about is not purely passive; it is active. It is less like watching Netflix and more like listening attentively to a friend. The kind of “being” that is required is the kind where you put your whole heart into something, even if it does not look like you are doing anything. Remember what it was like when your first child was born? I remember being there in the hospital with your mother during the passion of her labor with you. I was at her side, and though, to an outsider, it may have looked like I was not “doing” anything, certainly not in comparison to what the nurses and doctor were doing, in a certain sense I was doing more than all of them combined. I was being with your mother, willing what she willed, giving my whole heart to the moment in which her suffering was bringing new life into the world—yours. This is the way we need to teach people to encounter the mystery of Christ in the liturgy. This kind of teaching will take some explanation, yes, but even more it will simply take continually doing the thing together with everyone, always re-aiming their attention to the great mystery we are all entering into. As Fr. Thomas used to tell me, “The Mass is boring until it bores through.”

 

I mentioned before that I would eventually get back to your family and the question of how to raise your children. This is where my fourth point comes in: remember that your family is the Church in miniature. It is the “Domestic Church.”[9] Everything I said above about the Church as communion and the importance of liturgy will apply to the community of your family and its own liturgy of daily life. Mom and I worked hard at giving you and your brothers a routine to rely on, something that would create a sort of path that made it easier for you guys to grow in virtue. You know how, when you are sledding on fresh snow, it is pretty hard to get going, but after you have done it over and over, you smooth out a path in which you can really fly down the hill? That is what we always tried to do by giving you a regular way of doing things, in hopes that one day you would eventually be old enough to see why things should be done that way and, secondly, so that after seeing it, it would be a lot easier to do the right thing. We also spent a lot of time talking about what our family traditions would be, how to celebrate holidays and birthdays and baptism days and feast days in ways that you and your brothers would come to expect when you got older. We also wanted to make sure you guys were contributing to our family traditions, so that you would see how important you are to the identity of who we are. Remember how I would always tell you about our celebration of your first feast day of John Paul II? You were so little, just a year old, and we gave you your first cupcake and I said, “Happy feast day, Son! Can you say, ‘Here’s to you JP2’?” You stuck out your little cake-covered crummy hand and said, “Bah bah!” And every October the 22nd afterward, we have always said “bah bah!” as a family with gusto to mark the occasion.

 

These are the ways we celebrated the liturgy of our domestic church, so that our family would become a real school of virtue, a place of formation in the Christian life. We did not always do it right, but even those times became opportunities for your mother and I to show you how to apologize and how to forgive. There were many nights, after tucking you in bed, I would kneel beside you, and after giving you your blessing, I would apologize to you for getting mad that day or being a bad example. I would tell you how much I love you and how proud I was of you. I hope even my failures became important moments of learning for you—please God!

 

There is a lot more I could say about this, but God willing, we will have time for many more conversations about raising a family. Maybe even reading this letter will spark some thoughts that you will want to talk about later. But for now, let me turn to my fifth and final point about handing on the faith; in some sense, I want to end where I began. My final point is this: spend time with Our Lord. Every day, commune with him. Contemplate him. There is a passage from Luke that has always been one of my favorites, the short little story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:38-42).

How often are we like Martha? Always doing, doing, doing. It is unavoidable as a catechist. There will always be more to do than we possibly have the capacity for. But that is why I think there is a certain path laid out in this story. Sometimes the tradition has read this story as one of two different paths: the contemplative life and the active life. But I like to think of it as giving us a certain order in which to undertake the task of Christian ministry. We have to be Mary before we can be Martha. Before we can give and give and give, we first have to sit at the feet of the Master and let him teach us, let him love us.

 

Think of this: the task of a catechist is an impossible one, when left to our own powers. We are powerless to convert hearts, and to make the Word of God grow inside of people. We can only plant and water, but he must give the increase (1 Cor 3:6). This should drive us to constantly come back to the only place where we can find refuge and solace for such an arduous task: the Sacred Heart of Our Lord.

 

There are two ways in which I would like you to think of contemplation, my son, when it comes to receiving from Christ before we hand on the faith. The first comes from the words of teaching Mary surely heard when sitting at the feet of Jesus, and by this I mean the contemplative life of study. Before all, know the Scriptures and know them well. Chew on them until they release their nourishment. Then, know the doctrines of the Church, which find their source in Scripture. How many times have I brought up that my two desert island books would be the Bible and the Catechism? They are books that could feed you for a lifetime. By the way, if you are wondering why I keep going back to this food analogy, then perhaps you might think of the prophet Ezekiel. Before he spoke the Word to broken house of Israel, Ezekiel was shown a scroll. The Lord then told the prophet to “eat the scroll” (Ez 3:3) before proclaiming the word to his people. We need to eat the scroll, too. To contemplate the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church is not simply to read and memorize them, but to take them in and digest them until they become a part of you, your very flesh. It’s in doing this, and seeing how the rich Word applies to every part and experience of your life, that you’ll best be able to teach others, no matter what experiences they bring to the table.

 

The second way I want you to think of contemplation is the way in which Mary not only heard teaching but simply sat in his presence and received him and adored him. It is the prayer of contemplation, of being actively receptive, much like what I was saying about being present at Mass. Spend time with our Lord in the quiet sanctuary of your heart every day. There be nourished by him. The journey is long and the sacrifice demanded is great. Only by constantly being filled with Christ’s presence will you be able to be an effective teacher of the faith. Pope Francis puts it like this:

The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence.[10]

He continues:

It is impossible to persevere . . . unless we have been convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to.[11]

So, reside in his Sacred Heart regularly. Then let him pump you from that Heart to the extremities of the Body, where you might gather more people and draw them back to the furnace of Divine Love. There is perhaps nothing more important that I could tell you about teaching the faith and the vocation of a catechist than this.

 

My coffee grows cold, but I am glad your mother put me up to this and that I had the chance to write you this letter. I think it even afforded me the opportunity to let these things take deeper root in my own heart. Please know that mom and I are praying for you Son. The fact that, miracle of miracles, you and your siblings all hold the faith so dear means more to us than anything we have ever done. Since we are joined in this great communion that is the Church, know that, along with the intercession of the saints, our prayers and sacrifices go with you in all your endeavors. They will be with you in the joys and sufferings of raising your children and in the great responsibility of teaching those men and women who want to join the Church through RCIA.

Love,

Dad

 

Editorial Note: Find out about the McGrath Institute's Echo graduate service learning program here.


[1] Meeting with the Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church, 10 November 2015.

[2] Catechetical Instruction 12.1.

[3] Catechesi Tradendae, §20.

[4] On Ezekiel 9.1.

[5] General Directory for Catechesis, §59.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Palm Sunday, World Youth Day, 28 March 2010.

[7] Sermon 74.2

[8] Sermon 272.

[9] Lumen Gentium, §11.

[10] Evangelii Gaudium, §264.

[11] Ibid., §266.

 

Featured Image: Carl Larsson, My Acid Workshop (Where I do my Etching), 1910; Source: Wikiart, PD-Old-100.

Author

Brian Pedraza

Brian Pedraza is Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, in Baton Rouge, LA. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience.

Read more by Brian Pedraza