Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan |

Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan

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 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]

The same is true for innocent, baptized children who did not prepare for Baptism and did not acknowledge its gift. Both groups of the faithful need to be guided to a life that is in accord with their Baptism. Fr. Liege comments boldly on this:

All catechesis must bring man back to the initial act of his conversion, an act which, in one way, he never gets beyond. In the measure that conversion has not been chronologically distinct from catechesis, as for baptized infants, catechesis will always have a dialectic period of evangelization, without which it would be mere religious instruction. [14]
Currently, many evangelists and catechists are meeting those who have left the Church, and possibly God as well, and are ready to "come home." This is a burgeoning new apostolate focusing on returning souls to Christ and to the Church. For such souls a remedial catechesis in the mysteries must be prepared and applied to specific life situations.

Probably the most difficult area for conversion catechesis in the Church today is among the adult population who have not identified a need for more of Christ or His teachings. Often they simply don’t know that they don’t know. For them the heart of the Church cries out, "Who will preach, who will evangelize, who will teach them?" Pastors, preachers, evangelists, and catechists are needed who will rise to the occasion and storm heaven until a way is made clear for them to go after those so much in danger of perishing for lack of knowledge!

Adult education in the mystery of Christ is the chief form of catechesis according to no. 21 of the General Catechetical Directory of Pope Pius VI. This is because they are "persons who are capable of an adherence that is fully responsible." Among those in the catechetical ministry of the Church this adult conversion and catechesis is a much discussed topic. As yet, only a few are having any significant success with it. Christ is waiting for them. He is surely preparing the way, but "He has no hands but yours," which was the motto of the Lay Apostolate in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

The conversion of young children is a topic much discussed, written about and debated among catechists, pastors and liturgists. In fact, the Church recognizes the sanctity and religious potential of children of all ages in her canonization process. Many of the adult saints counted a conversion experience as a young child as pivotal for them.

Children are valuable to the Christian community not only because of their potential as adults, but primarily they are valuable in themselves. They are made in the image and likeness of God. When they are baptized God’s grace is active in them. Their guardian angels are vigilant on their behalf, urging them to come to know their heavenly Father and protecting them as much as possible.

Now they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them and when the disciples saw it they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him saying, "Let the children come to Me and do not hinder them for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Luke 18:15-17).

There is something Christ-like in the nature of young children: innocence, purity, love, trusting obedience. If the Gospel is explained to them they "get" it. According to Fr. Jean Mouroux, they are "capable of receiving and nurturing a personal faith and of recognizing an obligation of conscience" [15] at about the age of discretion. Both of these are crucial to authentic conversion for anyone.

The components of a catechesis for conversion are simple: announcement of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel (the kerygma), and introduction to Jesus Christ in His exact identity and in His glory in sacred history. [16] Fr. Jungmann explains the ramifications of the proclamation of the Gospel as leading to an understanding of "what we are and are called to be." In the light of Easter morning all believers have the grand vocation to "proclaim by a holy life the acts of Him Who has called them from the darkness to His admirable light" (1 Pethttp://www.ignatiusinsight.com2:9). "They must enter joyfully into the circle of those true adorers, who adore the Father in spirit and in truth" [17] (John 4: 24).

He further constrains the catechist to be sure to "show them the Original which faith will make them resemble" when describing grace to believers. Jesus must be vividly drawn from Scripture narration. Fr. Jungmann concludes:

Let us reveal, especially to the older ones, the great perspectives which are discovered by meditation on the life of grace of Christ at Easter, the Christ of the liturgy. Here the new creation has commenced; here the spiritual temple is being built of living stones; here the priestly people is assembled, from all nations and all centuries, able to offer the worthy sacrifice to God, because Christ the high priest is at its head [18] (1 Pet. 2:5).
Teaching Through the Liturgy

It is true that in the wake of the storm following Vatican Council II many attempts were made to correct the problems of faith and practice in the Church principally by liturgical experimentation (and catechetical reductionism). Atrocities such as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" themes for Eucharistic liturgies instead of Scripture, "Wonder" bread substitutions for unleavened bread, and free-for-all discussions in place of preaching the Word of God were commonplace. They did not convert folks to Christ or insert them deeper into the mystery of Christ. In fact, the flight from the Church reached staggering proportions during that period. For these reasons it would seem that the recent experimental attempts at liturgical reform were indeed the problem.

Part of the experimentation that was carried out during that period involved using the liturgy to teach, as a catechetical tool. The catechetical value of liturgical practice is not the point because most liturgical practice would need considerable, and probably boring, explication to make it didactically utilitarian. The sacred liturgy is not about utility.

Liturgy teaches by forming its participants. The experience of a carefully and reverently done Nuptial Mass speaks to the assembled believers of God’s love for His Church, of the significance of the marriage covenant and even of the meaning of life. The experience of the baptisms at the Easter Vigil stirs up appreciation of one’s own Baptism and of the richness of life as a son of God. Lessons on these topics, no matter how well done, cannot accomplish the realizations that are gained by participating in such liturgies. The example of the disciples on the road to Emmaus reiterates that.

Liturgy teaches by presenting the mystery of Christ concretely. Actual participation always teaches better than theoretical explanation. (Consider John 6:57-59; Rom. 6:3-14; Col. 2:12; Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 12:13.) Therefore, the meeting with Christ which is the heart of any liturgy cannot be replaced or duplicated and must not be tampered with. "They recognized Him in the breaking of the bread" cannot be redacted or didactically maneuvered.

Catechism, Profound Union with the Liturgy

The content of catechesis is the deposit of faith which Jesus left to the apostles. This was a rich treasure to them, hence, St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:20) to guard it. Since the time of the apostles the Church has faithfully protected this deposit so that it would not be enhanced or reduced, but only carefully explained in increasing depth and clarity. Things hidden there have been discovered by theology and the pious sense of the faithful. Likewise, in catechetical endeavors it is essential that nothing of the deposit be omitted.

For this reason the compendium of the deposit of faith, the catechism, was used from the earliest times to teach the Faith. Historically, the Catholic catechisms, notably that of the Council of Trent, have corresponded to Jesus’ own pattern of teaching, i.e., the Faith and the correlative triple response of the metanoia: conversion of heart and obedience to God, sacramental interaction with Christ Himself, and a spiritual life marked especially by prayer and a relationship with the Father. (This pattern, or rule, is referred to in Rom. 6:17.)

The catechetical renewal which preceded Vatican Council II, known as the kerygmatic movement, attempted to return catechetics to the practice of proclamation of the Word of God and to the context of the narration of Scripture. Sound catechetical technique had, in fact, been lost in favor of an academic approach to passing on the Faith. The catechism had enhanced the academic schemata because it lends itself to rote memorization of facts. The Roman Catechism is anything but a dry compendium of facts, however. It is clearly a prophetic study and definition of Jesus’ teaching in the deposit He left to the Church. The recently released Catechism of the Catholic Church is written in that same vein. Msgr. Kevane explains that, "One must consider that the catechism is simply the Church’s own historic explanation of the Apostles’ Creed and the three basic activities of the Way of Life which responds to the baptismal Creed." [19]

In the catechetical renewal movement there was no intention of discarding a valuable prophetic tool, like the catechism, but there was the attempt to move catechesis back to Christocentrism and the focus on conversion to Christ and participation in the mysteries. With the liberties that were taken immediately after Vatican Council II came more and more aberrations in catechetical practice. Some parts of the kerygmatic renewal were abrogated to the "new methodology" of the ‘60’s and the ‘70’s, others were not. All of the catechism approach was discarded, especially any emphasis on memorization. (None of this was the work of the Church per se.)

The result was chaos in the ministry of catechetics, especially in the western Church, and the focus of catechesis was shifted from Christ and His plan to the individual believer. The cult of the "experts," profane and sacred, became the driving force of catechetics, instead of the Scriptures. The effect of all of this on the worship of Catholics was profound. Today it is unlikely that a young adult Catholic can be readily found who could explain the purpose of the Eucharistic liturgy, or the meaning of the Incarnation or sin and redemption for that matter! Yet they are being lured away by many other specious ideologies. They need answers to life’s most important questions just as much as their ancestors did, maybe more.

In the ministry of catechetics the need is very great for a return to the reality of sacred history as the mystery of Christ. The focus must be on God and His plan, His interactions with man and His Way of Life. The narrative approach to Biblical catechesis must be relearned. Fr. Vagaggini points out that if these things are done the "catechism will thereby discover its profound union with the liturgy." [20] It will be the preparation to liturgical life just as Christ’s exposition of the Scriptures was for the Emmaus disciples.

The liturgical life will appear as the sacral concretization, (under the veil of the sensible and efficacious signs of the sanctification and the worship of the Church,) of the world of the catechism; and the world of the catechism will be lived sacrally in its most important act. [21]
The baptized child, the adult catechumen, the young people seldom in the pews, and the family struggling against the onslaughts of secularism have a right to the truth which sets them free. They have the right to be catechized, to be led to the altar singing for joy, to know their Father, to participate in the very mystery of Christ. Therefore, let us "pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Matt. 9:37).

(This article originally appeared in the January/February 1997 issue of The Catholic Faith magazine.)

End Notes:

[1] Hofinger, Johannes, S.J. and Francis J. Buckley, S.J., The Good News and Its Proclamation, p. 26.
[2] Kevane, Msgr. Kevane, "Toward Research in Fundamental Catechetics," Angelicum, p. 372.
[3] Pope Paul VI in L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, Jan. 27, 1972, p. 1.
[4] Kevane, p. 372.
[5] Ghesquiere, Dom Theodore, O.S.B., "Bible-Reading and Liturgical Life," Lumen Vitae, p. 173.
[6] Ghesquiere, Dom Theodore, O.S.B., "Bible-Reading and Liturgical Life," Lumen Vitae, p. 175.
[7] Hofinger and Buckley, p. 57, 76.
[8] Oster, Fr. Henri, "God’s Plan," Lumen Vitae, p. 50.
[9] Oster, p. 49. Fr. Oster’s extensive footnote regarding astonishment or admiration are paraphrased in the following text.
[10] Von Hildebrand, Dietrich, Liturgy and Personality, pp. 7-8.
[11] Ibid., p. 8, Dr. von Hildebrand points out later that the liturgy must become a "way of following Christ into transformation into Him," p. 9.
[12] Hofinger and Buckley, p. 32.
[13] Ibid, p. 35. These are the folks in the pews. Many have never really been catechized and virtually all have never been evangelized.
[14] Liege, Andre, O.P., "The Ministry of the Word: from Kerygma to Catechesis," Lumen Vitae., pp. 33-34.
[15] Mouroux, Fr. Jean, From Baptism to the Act of Faith, p. 35. This book is an invaluable aid to understanding faith and moral development in children up to the age of discretion. It could be especially helpful to parents and to catechists of children at about the age of discretion.
[16] Liege, p. 33.
[17] Jungmann, Joseph-Andre, S.J., "Liturgy and the History of Salvation," Lumen Vitae, 1955, p. 268.
[18] Ibid., p.267. My own experience as a catechist is that when the Easter Vigil liturgy was restored and assumed its glorious place as queen of liturgical celebrations, without exception my students, (of various ages), "saw" the liturgy, the Eucharist and Baptism in a whole new light. They loved it as they never had previously. See also 2 Tim. 1:12 and 2 Cor. 5:20.
[19] Kevane, p. 367.
[20] Vagaggini, Cyrian, O.S.B., Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, p. 891.
[21] Ibid., p. 891.

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Barbara Morgan is Director of Catechetics and RCIA at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She holds a Master’s degree in catechetics from the Notre Dame Institute as well as the Pontifical Diploma in Catechetics. She has over forty years experience in teaching the Faith. She and her husband have five children and forty grandchildren.

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