The family Bible once held an honored, but neglected, place in Catholic homes. It was important to have a Bible and to note the special times of passage — marriage, baptisms and First Communions — in the special section set aside for that purpose.
But in most homes, regular reading from that Bible did not occur. The Bible was something we had, not something we knew.
In the last 30 years, that has begun to change. Catholics have begun to blow the dust off the Bible, to read it, to study it and even to talk about it with other Catholics. This is one of the most remarkable changes to take place in the post-Vatican II church.
The publication of the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church last year threatens to launch yet another publication into the exclusive realm of treasured Catholic dust collectors. The catechism is a weighty volume which needs to be digested in small morsels, rather than to be gulped down in a couple of readings. It was written as a reference book, not as a home study program. It uses prose which is at times difficult for the contemporary North American reader.
Moreover, its original intended audience was bishops, pastors and theologians. During the writing process, however, a shift occurred and the idea arose that the catechism deserved a place in every Catholic home.
The publication of the catechism represents a unique opportunity for the church — an opportunity to renew and deepen the faith of great masses of ordinary Catholics. But average lay Catholics will need help in wading through the 581 pages (not including indices) of the catechism.
The opportunity: The catechism states that "Periods of renewal in the church are also intense moments of catechesis" (#8). The WCR is a unique vehicle for encouraging Catholics to read the catechism and to thus spur a process of renewal. It reaches a huge audience, many of whom have only a tenuous connection with the church. The WCR can perhaps make this moment of catechesis all that more "intense."
The obstacle: Many readers will need not so much an explanation of the content of the catechism as a way of reflecting on that content. They are quite capable of reading the catechism. But they may need encouragement to begin the task, stay with it and to reflect on the meaning of our faith.
My purpose in these weekly articles — which will stretch over the next couple of years — is not to explain the catechism section by section. It is to invite people to enter into each section of the catechism and to explore, on their own and with an active mind, its spiritual treasures. Although there will likely be over 100 articles in this series, the amount of teaching in the catechism is so great that even such a lengthy series can only skim the surface.
A few of these articles will be autobiographical. Others will do something the catechism does not do — relate church teaching to prevalent attitudes and opinions in our culture. I do this not to run down the beliefs of others, but to bring those beliefs into contact with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The catechism needs feet. If it is to start walking in today's world, it needs to run up against the questions which we have as individuals and as a society.
I believe we are at a point where we need to reconstruct the foundations of our faith. Since the Second Vatican Council, we have gone through an agonizing period of deconstruction. A once-stable Catholic culture has been shaken. In some ways, this has been good. The church was in need of and is receiving spiritual renewal.
But this period has also been catastrophic. Many, many people have lost their moorings and turned away from the faith. Dissension and contention over church teachings have been rampant. Discussion within the church has been notable more for its anger than for its charity.
This has perhaps been most evident on the liberal wing of the church. But "traditionalists" too have undermined the tradition by presenting it as a museum piece fixed in all its details at some unspecified point in the past. Vatican II has sometimes been presented as either unimportant or as a break with the tradition.
Tradition for Catholics, however, is a living, breathing tradition. The catechism is faithful to the living tradition and draws more heavily on the documents of Vatican II than on those of any other church council. The catechism serves not to guard a museum or to narrow our vision; it is an invitation to a wider and deeper faith. It provides a framework for conversations with each other and with our children about what is really meaningful in life.
Haunting me have been the words of the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr: "Our people are dying for lack of vision, for lack of transcendent meaning to name their soul and their struggles. . . . Why would a young person join a group of 50-year-old complainers who are unwilling to speak of God and joy and peace beyond comprehension?"
One would not immediately think of the catechism as a joy-filled document. But it is a gateway to life in the Holy Spirit, whose fruits do include joy, peace, kindness and generosity. It is the basis of a vision which we must again offer the world, a vision which must not only reconstruct the church, but also contribute to the life of the world as we enter the third millennium.
Thanks in part to the leadership of an unusually gifted and holy pontiff, the church is coming out of its exile. And like the Jewish exiles who returned to Jerusalem, we must set out in hope to rebuild the city and the temple:
"You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burnt down. Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer. . . . 'Let us start,' they exclaimed. 'Let us be up and building;' and with willing hands they set about the good work with vigor" (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
The catechism is one part of that rebuilding task. My hope is that this series of articles will, through the intercession of Mary the Mother of God, be of some help in deepening the faith of our readers.
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