Getting Catechesis Back on Track


PART 1: Recovering the Lost Tools

The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa once remarked in the middle of the Arian controversy of the 4th Century, “If you ask anyone in Constantinople for change, he will start discussing with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of the bread, you will get the answer: ‘The Father is greater, the Son is less.’ If you suggest taking a bath, you will be told: ‘There was nothing before the Son was created.’” The quantity of heresy, let alone the quality, is shocking, I know. But if Gregory is to be believed, even if he is being a bit hyperbolic, can you imagine it? Questions of Christology taking center stage in contemporary life?

Gregory’s point in those days was this: doctrinal battles are not fought in councils but in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, as the Church seeks to catechize and form those hearts and minds in the Faith once delivered. He knew as well as anyone that the heretics, especially the Arians, were undertaking massive efforts at Catechesis, and he and his confreres, the Cappadocians, took great efforts to win hearts and minds with persuasive and attractive teaching on Holy Scripture and especially the teaching it contains on creation, the person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit. This is what won the day.


Today, we are in a similar position. Christians are being won over by efforts to redefine marriage and many are being persuaded by the passionate pleas of famous atheists. Young people are disaffiliating from the Church. As James K.A. Smith has noted: “We need to remember that for every finger we point at Millennials, there are three pointing back at us. We have failed them. We have failed to catechize them. This is our fault.” In this, the first of a three part series, I hope to tackle the question, how may we succeed in catechesis, first looking at recovering the lost tools of catechesis.

It always happens when I have some job to do at our house. The precise tool I need goes missing. I know where all the other tools are, just not the one I need! As I have practiced the art of Catechesis these last several years, I have come to the conclusion that there are at least five essential tools in the toolbox of any solid catechist. (By catechist, I mean one who instructs Christians or those about to become Christians in those truths by which they must live and how to live by them.)

Here they are:

1) The Bible in Forty-Five Minutes. Many Christians have grown up seeing the Bible as a series of disconnected mini-narratives and not as a narrative whole. How to fix it? Learn to tell the whole story of Scripture quickly but comprehensively. The master catechist can do this in a few minutes or an hour, it doesn’t matter which, but what he allows in this is for those being instructed to begin to see the whole story from Creation to Christ and even to Cincinnati, or wherever the catechesis is taking place. Saint Augustine once wrote in his basic manual for Catechists, de Catechizandis Rudibus:

“The narration is full when each person is catechized in the first instance from what is written in the text, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, on to the present times of the Church. This does not imply, however, either that we ought to repeat by memory the entire Pentateuch, the entire Books of Judges, and Kings, and Esdras, and the entire Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, if we have learned all these words for word; or that we should put all the matters which are contained in these volumes into our own words, and in that manner unfold and expound them as a whole. For neither does the time admit of that nor does any necessity demand it. But what we ought to do is to give a comprehensive statement of all things, summarily and generally, so that certain of the more wonderful facts may be selected which are listened to with superior gratification and which have been ranked so remarkably among the exact turning points (of the history); that, instead of exhibiting them to view only in their wrappings, if we may so speak, and then instantly snatching them from our sight, we ought to dwell on them for a certain space, and thus, as it were, unfold them and open them out to vision, and present them to the minds of the hearers as things to be examined and admired.”

2) The Apostle’s Creed as the Rule of Faith. Every major catechism has included the “Three Pillars” of Catechesis, often called the “Catholic Standards.” The first is the Apostle’s Creed, which has been taught as the inheritance and received the responsibility of every Christian. Saint Ambrose told his hearers in a rhetorical flair that, while untrue, is still instructive – that the Apostle’s Creed was the sum of the contributions of each of the twelve apostles and that, as in a joint stock company, each contributor is responsible for the whole. He taught the Creed to catechumens on the last week before their baptisms orally, requiring that they recite it silently in their minds. The Creed was considered to be part of the Tradition, passed down to each generation of Christians as their responsibility and joy.

Today, I daresay, we have seen the effects of a Church which has all but abandoned creedal instruction. We do so to our peril. Many Christians would not know Arianism, Gnosticism, or Patripassionism, for that matter, if it was uttered in even the most material of manners. As Dorothy Sayers said of this, we are sending men and women into pitched battle with peashooters. She wrote: “…it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country, not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion of what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.” She wrote that in 1942.

3) Teach Us to Pray. “Teach us to pray,” the disciples asked of the Lord. It is one of the few things they ask and the only thing for which they ask for specific teaching. It should not surprise us that in these times of indifference and materialism, Christians should ask, even demand, to learn to pray. Prayer, of course, is a gift of God to his people. That he even hears is a miracle in itself, and yet our prayers are so poorly formed and sloppy that the order of the day is to teach spiritual discipline. The catechist instructs upon the Lord’s Prayer as a means of establishing the “pattern and practice of prayer,” and in so doing, participates in the making of a people of prayer.

Saint John Chrysostom, as soon as neophytes emerged from the waters of baptism, would place their hands on his head and implore them: “Pray for me.” The prayer they prayed was the Lord’s Prayer. John believed, as did most ancient Christians, that the neophyte had mystical and miraculous powers in prayer but also that no one could really pray until they had first been made children of God in the waters of baptism. A master catechist is not content to simply teach prayer as a practice, but desires to see men, women, and children pray as adopted children of God, once disinherited princes allowed once again to dwell in the household of God the Father.

4) The Decalogue. The Anglican theologian and catechist Jim Packer writes: “The moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God’s people in every age.” Despite what some say, true repentance will always look like obedience to God’s revealed will as revealed in the Law and most perfectly in Jesus Christ. Many good pastors have completely forgotten that all people live in a world of moral questions. The police officer asks when he may draw and fire his weapon. The lawyer desires to know when confidences may be kept or not. The young student desires to know what constitutes cheating or plagiarism. They all have moral consciences that will be formed either by intuition, contemporary mores, or solid catechesis. We should desire the flourishing of the latter.

The Catechist seeks to aid in the conversion of the catechumen’s life and ways by not only teaching the truth of what God has done for our sinful selves but also that we really are sinners and in what way we may be reformed. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the most important gift and the catechumen should be instructed in discerning the voice of God in his or her conscience. This requires deep formation, not merely information.

5) A Class, but not a Class. Catechetical instruction will most often look like a class, taught at regular intervals and for a sustained season, perhaps even as long as one to two years. It will be seen as the normal course of instruction prior to baptism and/or confirmation and will be followed up by further explorations. This class aims to make mature disciples who are able to make disciples.

But even though it looks like a class, it is not a class. Western pedagogy assumes the filling of the mind but not the training of the heart or the soul. Catechesis is an appeal that seeks to cut through to the heart, rightly wielding the Word of God and the Church’s teaching to pierce “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) The Scriptures, when taught in abstraction from the affairs of the heart, become lifeless and dull. But, when taken up by a skilled catechist who desires to see true conversion in the catechumen, catechesis is a passionate and sacred exercise. I have routinely seen people weep during a teaching on the most basic doctrines, not because they were taught persuasively but because they were aimed at the heart.

In the next two installments of this series, we will look at the recovery of the old ways and methods of Catechesis and the recovery of a whole culture of Catechesis and what that means for the Church, but especially to you and to me, those called to shepherd the sheep “to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion or for viciousness in life.” (The Ordinal, 1662)

Published on

January 28, 2015


Lee Nelson

The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C., is a priest, church planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas.

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