This month the Planning Guide takes a look at the coming year in general, so that we may plan the entire liturgical year to center on the celebration of Easter. We don't want to plan all the details, but we'd like to get the big picture.
The Nature of Catechesis
To start the whole project, let's begin with the end: Where would we like to be at the end of the liturgical year? What is the purpose of catechesis?
Catechesis is instruction that forms the whole Christian way of life. Its purpose is to provide a means for us to learn more about Christ and the church and to challenge us to live faithfully to the Gospel.
When are we done with catechesis? We never are. It's like asking when are we done learning the lessons of life, learning the person we love, or learning our own potential.
If catechesis takes forever, just what are its goals for one year? How do we know if we've succeeded next year at this time? We know we've succeeded if we have expanded our learning and reshaped our behavior. Next year we should be ahead of where we are this year. If we've regressed or just held steady, we have not benefited from catechesis.
The Setting for Catechesis
Catechesis may take place in many different settings. Most people think of it in a classroom, but it's much more than that.
Most of those who seek to join the church through the catechumenate will experience catechesis in regular sessions with a group of other catechumens and one or more catechists. Through their instruction, they will learn about the church and form their lives accordingly
Anyone preparing for other sacraments in the church or special events in their lives may also benefit from catechetical sessions. There they may reflect on the step they are about to take and its significance in their spiritual life. Examples are preparation for confirmation, first communion, marriage, and even ordination.
But catechesis is much more. It is the challenge to live and learn the Gospel -- a challenge all Christians face every week of our lives. Consequently, more and more adults are joining small communities of Christians where they may exchange ideas and learn about Christ together.
The lectionary is the most important source book for liturgical catechesis. There are many ways to study the church in catechetical settings, but the lectionary remains the primary book.
The reason is that all Christian teaching is rooted in the Bible. The Scriptures will contain the raw material for every belief we hold. Further, through selecting biblical readings according to an annual plan, the church so arranges the important passages of the Bible that they may help us see the role of God in the plan of our salvation.
Christians who reflect on the lectionary see the Bible through the eyes of salvation. And it's not just a study of salvation come and gone, but salvation alive in our midst year after year. The lectionary does not simply affirm with the liturgical year that Jesus was born, died, and rose again. It affirms that he does so each year in our communities and in each of us. The whole enterprise of catechesis - the whole purpose to learn more and to better shape our behavior - proclaims in faith that Jesus is alive in the Holy Spirit and will form us and our communities in the way of the Gospel year after year.
The Year Ahead
This is Year A of the lectionary cycle. There are three years to the cycle, and they are most easily characterized by the Gospel. For the most part, Year A follows Matthew, Year B mark, and Year C Luke. We hear from John each year during the Lent and Easter seasons.
During ordinary time each Sunday's readings are chosen according to a simple schema: We hear important passages from Matthew week after week in the same order they occur in the Gospel itself. The first reading is chosen from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) because it will match a theme from the Gospel. Knowing this point is absolutely critical for anyone engaged in lectionary catechesis. The lectionary has selected this first reading to make a deliberate catechetical point. You're a good catechist. You can figure this out.
The psalm is chosen because of its relationship to the first reading. It usually includes a refrain that puts us into the picture with the psalmist, and brings the psalm into the picture of our daily lives. Again, this is a good point the catechist can make: the psalms come from the eternal human condition. They are lyrical poems for us to ponder.
The second reading has nothing to do with the other two. It is a semi-continuous reading from one of the other books of the New Testament. Again, this is a critical point for the catechist and liturgist: beware trying to find a single theme that runs through all three readings. The lectionary just isn't designed that way. What happens in the second reading has more to do with what you heard there last week and will hear next week, than it has to do with the first and third readings on the same day.
During the year, we'll be exploring the seasons more carefully, but just so you have a complete overview, watch for these themes:
· Advent: This season begins big and then gets tiny. We start with prophecies about final judgment and end up in a manger in Bethlehem.
· Christmas: Remember, Christmas does not end on Christmas Day! It begins on Christmas Day! Leave the decorations up a couple more weeks so we can explore the whole Christmas mystery including Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.
· Lent: The catechetical season par excellence. You'll want to take full advantage of the marvelous Gospel stories in weeks three, four, and five. They'll say more about catechesis than any other Gospels this year.
· Easter: Ta-daa! What we've been waiting for all year. Now we celebrate our renewal in a season that's longer than Lent. Catechesis is not just a responsibility; it's a way of celebrating the presence of Christ. All Scriptures are drawn from the New Testament for the whole season.
This column makes a few expectations. It assumes that the catechist will plan some basic long-range themes so that the fullness of the paschal mystery will be made clear through careful catechesis. The liturgical year expresses the paschal mystery in time, so we can explore it week by week in depth.
Good catechesis requires attention not only to the Scriptures but also to the basic teachings of the church. In planning out the year the catechist will want to keep close at hand a few basic tools, which will ensure that our annual catechesis covers all the basics.
Four documents are essential: The General Catechetical Directory contains the principal lines of catechesis as expressed by the universal church. The National Catechetical Directory (Sharing the Light of Faith) puts those principles in their national perspective for the United States. "To Teach as Jesus Did" is a pastoral message on Catholic educations from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. And "Basic Teachings for Catholic Religious Education" by the same group will make the main points abundantly clear.
If the catechist is worrying, "Am I teaching enough?" he or she can simply compare the year's plan with the main points from any of the above documents. But this column assumes that the main topic for a given session will be inspired by the lectionary, its readings, and the season of the year. That will help us live out the paschal mystery not simply to learn about it.
The catechetical aids available to catechists are numerous. You will want to refer to them for guidance. But you may find at least two other sources helpful.
The lectionary. Keep growing familiar
with its plan. Let the message sink in year after year, cycle after cycle.
This column! The purpose here is to help you look at the lectionary with a catechist's eye, to see what topics you might explore. You'll also find here some other places to look that you may not think of. Frequently people ask, "What does the church say about...?" That's a hard question to answer because the church's opinion is scattered among many documents. This column will help you find the opinion of the church in our official publications. They’re hard to read, but you’ll find them in bite-sized references so you don't get discouraged.
Then, put it all together! Catechesis should be specific to the community and the catechist. You'll know your own group best. Let catechesis meet the specific needs of your community in this time and place. Let it open up the eternal word of God, which speaks to the heart of every human condition. Shape the catechesis in your own style. This column won't put it together for you, but it will give you the tools so you can make your catechesis work for you and your community.
Know that what you do is the work of the Holy Spirit. The first step of the process is to open your heart to the scriptures and let yourself be formed by them. Then you can share with others the mystery of Christ alive now for your people.