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Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan

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Catechesis is the science of passing on the Faith and the art of planting and cultivating faith for ongoing conversion in the heart of individual believers. It is focused on beginning the process of conversion in an already baptized child and deepening and developing the faith of individual believers of any age. Facilitating ongoing conversion in the spiritual life is a major concern of catechesis because "true participation in the mystery of Christ is the final goal of all catechetical endeavor." [1]

It has that in common with preaching and both have their basis in the Scripture. Catechesis for liturgy, i.e., instruction which draws the believer to the "source and summit" of Catholic life, the Eucharistic liturgy, includes prophetic proclamation of the teaching of Jesus, orientation to the celebration of the feasts of the liturgical year, religious pedagogy conveying the immense realities of the liturgy, encouragement and instruction in worship which gives rise to zeal for the Lord, and catechesis which facilitates conversion.

Receiving the Word on the Authority of God Revealing

Msgr. Eugene Kevane, premier catechist in the United States and founder of Notre Dame Apostolic Catechetical Institute, points out that catechesis is actually a work of prophecy. What is passed on is the Word of the Lord, total and complete, just as Jesus, the Divine Teacher gave it to the fledgling Church. He is the apex, the pinnacle of prophetic ministry. He came only to do the will of the Father and to speak what the Father gave Him (John 12:49). "As the life of the Teaching Church reaches back to him for the content and pattern and baptismal purpose of its teaching, so the prophetic light shines forward toward him from Moses and the Prophets in the preparatory Testament." [2]

What is taught is Christ’s revelation of the Father, of Himself and of His Father’s plan for His creatures. Together those revelations encompass the deposit of faith referred to in 1 Tim. 6:20 and 2 Tim. 1:14. That deposit is the "instrument for witnessing" which the Church has carried on for centuries. With the deposit of faith she prophetically witnesses Christ to all peoples and at all times and, therefore, must carefully preserve it. Pope Paul VI commented on this concern for the integrity of doctrine:
The Catholic Church in the past and today, has given and gives much importance to the scrupulous preservation of the authentic Revelation. She considers it an inviolable treasure, and is sternly aware of her fundamental duty to defend and transmit the doctrine of the Faith in unequivocal terms. Orthodoxy is her first concern. [3]
The Church is passing on the "very Word of God" in catechesis, transmitting only what she has been given by Jesus, just as He did with His Father’s Word. This is the work of prophecy: to illuminate minds and souls with light, in this case, the "Light of the World." Teaching and prophesy are both facets of Jesus’ life, and teaching Christ and His Gospel is intricately linked with prophesying in His Name.

In catechesis on the liturgy the prophetical ministry of the Word cannot be overstated. Msgr. Kevane aptly puts it: "(Here) Catechesis (is) the receiving of a word on the authority of the God revealing." [4] The catechist receives the Word on God’s authority, speaks it on His authority, and the believer hears it on the same authority. Thus, the analogy with Isaiah 6:6-7 is apt: with lips cleansed by its fire the catechist must handle the Word and pass it on, blazing, to the believer. Too often the actual experience of the student/inquirer/believer is that the catechist enters and leaves the room with faith, never passing it on! A catechist burning with zeal for God’s Word must know how to give it away.

The liturgical context is the principle and normative means for that transmission. Biblical-historical narrative of Scripture and reading and meditation based on a study of the lessons from Sundays and Feast Days are the chief means to this end. Here the Church proclaims the Divine Word in the context which Christ entrusted to her, the re-presentation of His saving act, timeless and true. There the Word prepares the way for the meeting with Christ, just as it did on the road to Emmaus. The catechetical is intertwined with the prophetical.

The priority of the liturgy over the Bible must be respected in light of the Church’s mission but she cannot do the liturgy without Scripture. It gives her security and truth. She relies on it for the very words of consecration. Dom Theodore Ghesquiere, O.S.B., Doctor of Theology and abbot, explained it thus:
The message of the divine word, borne by the Church to all human generations, becomes in the liturgy a living word, efficacious and up to date, in which the people of the messianic times discover the secret of their destiny in the light of the Holy Spirit. [5]

"Magnificent Unity / Sublime Manner"

In order to grow in participation in the mystery of Christ the Church wisely arranges the liturgical year to cover all of the mighty acts of God. The possibility for contemplation of all of the stages of God’s salvific action in sacred history are there. The Church maintains the important link between God’s promise and His oath: from the promise of and subsequent longing for redemption in Advent; to the stupendous realization of God’s Word in the Incarnation; to the depths of His love in the events of Christ’s Pasch; to the establishment of His Mystical Body, the Church, on Good Friday and Pentecost. The "sacraments" of the Old Testament prefigure the sacramental order of the New Testament and the promises which precede Christ are all fulfilled in Him.

Even more important in the scheme of the liturgical year then the recounting of sacred history centered on Christological events is the prime mystery of the Trinity, wherein lies the birth of the plan for mankind: union with God in the Trinitarian family. There is one Sunday set aside for celebration of the Triune Godhead but in reality all of the feasts of the Church converge upon the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

This central mystery of the Faith is always presupposed and so must always be freshly proposed, therefore the wisdom of the Church provides regular opportunities to reconsider it. In fact, each liturgical event which the Church celebrates has more and more depth to plumb. Dom Ghesquiere makes the following point:

The great stages of the history of salvation are outlined in the chain of their providential development: Israel, the Church on earth, the Church in Heaven. Facts speak, events answer one another, the mysterious links which God has willed are brought out by the conjunctions which in themselves are worth more than any commentary. [6]
Catechesis should carefully shape itself around the mysteries found in those events and remember that what is most crucial in the liturgical year is that the faithful are called to live the celebrations of the feasts. In Mediator Dei (no. 176) Pope Pius XII taught that:
... the liturgical year ...is no cold and lifeless presentation of past events, no mere historical record. It is Christ Himself, living on in His Church ... (The mysteries of His life) ... are still now consistently present and active ... (and are) sources of divine grace for us by reason of the merits and intercession of the Redeemer.
Preparation for these feasts is an integral factor in them not becoming "lifeless presentations of past events." These mysteries should "form the high points of biblical catechesis" according to Fr. Hofinger. He emphasizes that believers will experience the mysteries in the liturgy long before they may understand them. There they become "present religious values" and not just historical narratives. [7] In fact, it is often after the fact that at the practical level the liturgical year becomes a principal means by which the effects of the mystery of Christ are conveyed. It is a "magnificent unity" expressed in a "sublime manner," which plunges the believer directly into the heart of God’s plan.

Religious Pedagogy

The Word of God is only explicable by itself. God has set, within the limits of His Revelation, the answers to its own questions. Explaining one Testament by the other is religious pedagogy or the "law of pedagogy of revelation." Fr. Oster comments, "The unique grandeur of the New Testament will become apparent as well as its ‘justification,’ not rational but much deeper, interior ‘justification’ which is rooted in God’s fidelity and the wisdom of His plan." [8] The Old Testament will cease to be just proscriptions and lists. It will be seen to contain hidden jewels of the Father’s love and indomitable commitment to His covenant oaths. Everything begins to make sense and wonder grows as His plan is revealed more deeply.

This method of catechesis cannot be forsaken. The Eucharist, especially, must be carefully taught. Helping the believer to see the Old Testament and the New Testament meanings of the deepest mysteries of Christ unlocks some of the mystery, transforming it from personal opinion or magic or a "traditional belief system" to a reality whose sweetness and profundity can be tasted and plumbed in the liturgical encounter, if not exhausted and mastered. The Eucharistic presence is an astounding fact but if that is the extent of understanding of the sacred liturgy and the meeting therein it will not suffice to sustain the life of faith. To the question, "What happens at Mass?" there must be more of an answer than, "God comes." There must also be the understanding of "Why?" and "What difference does it make?" Religious pedagogy uncovers the answers to those questions.

Using the means of narrative reading and explication of Scripture, religious pedagogy opens the way for a sense of the immense reality entered into in the liturgy. The "marvelous things" which the Lord does, (Job 9:10; Ps. 118:23; Isa. 29:14), are summed up in the fulfillment of His covenant promises: the Incarnation. On that occasion the Mother of God is known to have exclaimed the ultimate realization of God’s "marvelous" actions in sacred history: the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). This prayer, this acclamation, is the prototype of the response stirred up in the human heart on realizing the scope of this tremendous love worked out in the economy of salvation or in the drama of the covenantal relationship with God.

Superfluum / Gift of Superabundance

The overflowing of the heart which is evident in the Virgin Mary’s Magnificat is a further example of the aim of liturgical worship and catechesis for liturgy. Man was made for the glory of God, he was made to receive the fullness of divine life: to be filled to the maximum with God and to flood those around him with his excess of God’s life and love. This is exactly what happened when Mary’s prayer burst forth from her lips.

Catechesis for liturgy must aim at "rousing amazement in the soul" [9] much the same as that found in the Psalms, (especially Pss. 111, 135, and 136). This "mirari," wonder and amazement, contains an element of fear and of attraction, as well as exultation which engenders praise. Consider the reactions of those who had encountered the works of the living God in the New Testament. For example, after Jesus calmed the storm at sea, "they were filled with awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?’" (Mark 4:41 and Matt. 8:27) (cf. John 7:46; Luke 8:56; Luke 5:8-9; Luke 7:16; Mark 7:37 as cited in Oster.)

Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand, eminent Catholic philosopher and ethicist, recounts the importance of the response of astonishment and wonder in the believer during the liturgy. He uses the term superfluum or gift of superabundance which comes to the believer from the Holy Spirit in the context of the worship.
Thus the deepest and most organic transformation of man in the spirit of Christ is found precisely at that point where we purely respond to values, in the giving up of ourselves to God’s glory, in the glorifying of God performed as divine service, in the abiding Coram ipso, (in standing before Him), in the rejoicing in God’s existence, in the Gloria Domini, (the glory of the Lord), in the magnalia Dei, (the great deed of the Lord). As we pray and sacrifice liturgically–and this means through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ–glorifying God, the Spirit of Christ is imprinted upon us, Induere Christum, as the liturgy proclaims. [10]
It cannot be emphasized enough that this response of the heart and soul to the action of the Holy Spirit during worship is not a particular spirituality or a matter of personal preference. Rather, liturgy is the work of God’s people, who were made for "the praise of His glory" (Eph.1:12).

And more than this, the face of Christ is revealed in the liturgy: it is Christ praying. To learn the fundamental dispositions embodied in the liturgy means to penetrate more deeply into the great mystery of the adoration of God, which is Jesus Christ. [11]

Catechesis for the sake of liturgy affects the mind. Liturgical worship affects both mind and heart, directing the soul both to God and back to catechesis for more of His Word.

Be Reconciled to God

The message of the Gospel succinctly is: God loves you, repent and turn to Him–to Jesus–the Savior of your soul, turn away from all else, join yourself to His Body on earth and receive the promises He has for you (cf. Acts 2:14-39). Conversion, continual conversion, is the basis of the Christian life. All that God does is designed to woo man to turn away from everything but Him and claim the love and inheritance that has been set aside for him from the beginning of time. The sacred liturgy includes a powerful attraction for the heart and soul of man because he is made in the image and likeness of God and for the "praise of His glory." Nevertheless, participation in the Eucharistic liturgy presumes a conversion of heart and mind to God which must be prepared for by evangelistic Biblical catechesis.

In the case of the unbaptized adult Fr. Hofinger describes conversion as, "That decisive change of mind by which man admits the basic insufficiency and error of his accustomed view of the world and of life, and willingly accepts God’s message as the basis for the life he has determined to start." [12] Of course, the Christian life includes many similar re-turnings to God but that initial decision which sets the course of a man’s life is pivotal and crucial. After that he can learn how to return and knows the peace and joy of life in Christ, the "hope of glory."

Fr. Hofinger further refers conversion to those faithful who are catechized but not truly converted:
Have they in their hearts truly broken with Satan and the world as they solemnly promised to do before baptism? For those who have never done so, or who have unfortunately turned back to the "flesh pots of Egypt" after a first surrender to God, religious formation must of necessity possess a function similar to that of prebaptismal catechesis. It must discover and remove obstacles and prepare the way for a sincere and complete conversion. [13]

Read Part 2 of "Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion"


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