In the early Church, much attention was given to instructing those who were new to the faith. Individuals were entering the Church as adults from families that were not Christian. Many were coming from backgrounds that were at odds with the Christian faith. Belonging to the Church was not simply a matter of making a profession of faith. One's life had to be consistent with the teaching of Jesus.
For the first 500 years after the birth of Christianity, there was a careful, prayerful training in the faith for new believers. St Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) gave Christian educators a gradual plan to follow in forming others to be true Christians.
First, he urged them to help others embrace the person of Jesus and to commit themselves to his way of life. Second, he told them to help new Christians adopt Christian values and to train them how to put these values into practice by a virtuous life. And, then, third and finally, they were to give explicit doctrinal teaching.
The third century treatise called the Apostolic Tradition provides the earliest detailed information about instructing new believers. It gives this rather clear advice: "If one is a brothel keeper who is a caretaker of prostitutes, either let him cease or be cast out. If he is a maker of idols ..., let him be taught not to make idols either let them cease or be cast out" ( Apostolic Tradition 16, 2-3). Certain behaviours and ways of life were simply not consistent with bearing the name of Christ.
It was true then. It is true today! Unfortunately, some educators and politicians, who profess to be Catholic, advocate positions contrary to the gospel. Such behaviour, in many cases, can be traced to poor catechesis, even at the university and graduate levels.
The early Church did not rush the formation of those converting to the faith. It was never a matter of cramming into a single program what to believe or how to behave as a Christian. Instruction would last for at least three years. The Apostolic Tradition says, "Let the catechumens hear the Word for three years" (17, 1). St Clement of Alexandria also refers to such a three-year period of initiation (cf. Stromata 2, 18).
For St Cyril of Jerusalem, such a process of initiation was vital. It made for Christians solidly formed and stable in their commitment. St Cyril says, "Let me compare catechising to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted" ( Prochatechesis, 11).
This training, this forming of character and instruction in the faith, this catechesis, helped new Christians grow in their understanding of doctrine, devotion and duty.
With the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the gradual formation of a Christian society, the situation changed. Children were now being born into families already Christian. The culture itself was Christianised. From parents and relatives, young children learned how to lead Christian lives and what to believe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, Christianity still permeated all levels of society.
But the division caused by the Reformation changed the way the faith was passed on, even within a Christian society. One's doctrinal beliefs received greater emphasis. An individual's precise doctrinal beliefs were important, not just religiously, but politically. Did one believe that Baptism and Eucharist were the only sacraments? Or did one accept that there were seven sacraments, not two? The answer could determine what side a person took when a war broke out between Protestants and Catholics.
To help individuals know where they stood, for the next 300 years after the Reformation, the faith was passed on through a question-and-answer catechism. With the newly invented printing press, reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, published and distributed small catechisms to make sure children knew the essentials of their faith. Catholics followed their example after the Council of Trent.
Thus, both Catholics and Protestants came to identify catechesis with doctrinal instruction. All the while this was happening, the culture was still predominantly Christian. In the home and in society at large, being a Christian was accepted as something more than just knowing the teachings of the faith. Christianity was deeply intertwined with ordinary and everyday life. Even the arts surrounded people with the faith.
But that has all changed. Contemporary Western culture no longer mediates or encourages faith as in previous times. In fact, our post-modern situation can be seen as inimical to faith. We live in a culture that is predominantly humanistic. In many ways, today's culture is attempting to exclude God and ban religious belief and its expression from the public square.
And so Popes in our day, beginning with Paul VI, have called for a new evangelisation for the transmission of the faith. Within this new cultural context, catechesis is of vital importance to evangelisation (Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, 18).
This de-Christianisation of our society is so deep that it cannot be ignored in the way we catechise our children and young adults. As a result, catechesis cannot be reduced to the preparation that is given for the reception of Penance, First Eucharist and Confirmation. It never was in the early Church. It cannot be today.
Nor can the work of catechising our young be contained within a classroom. Knowing the faith and being formed as a Catholic cannot be realistically accomplished merely by sacramental preparation. Again and again during his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI emphasised that the Christian life is not about a set of rules. Like the early Fathers of the Church, the Pope made clear that the Christian life centres on the person of Christ and the need to conform to his image. A relationship, a friendship with Jesus, means not simply knowing about him, but truly knowing him. And, this takes time.
There are many well-intentioned parents who want their children to be Catholics. They do not neglect their duty to bring them to their parishes for catechetical instruction. But, sadly, some think that this is all that is needed. It is not!
Being Catholic is never just learning about the teachings of the faith. It is also about living them. It means entering a personal relationship with Jesus within his Church. Catechesis is, as the early Church understood, not simply the teaching of a set of truths and rules. Good catechesis is, ultimately, the communication of the living mystery of God. And, this mystery is lived and experienced in liturgy.
Liturgy, that is, the celebration of Mass and the sacraments, is foundational. It cannot be dispensed with. It is the source from which every Catholic drinks deeply of the Spirit of Christ. To frequent programs to prepare for the sacraments, and then not participate in Sunday Mass is not to embrace the way of Christ. Not just for children and young adults, but for all believers, the liturgy is the permanent catechesis of the Church, the inexhaustible source of union with Jesus and the font of the grace needed to follow him as a true believer.
There can be no true formation and growth in the faith, no authentic catechesis, without devout participation in Sunday Mass.