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The National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland

Comments of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

Dublin Diocesan Library, 5th January 2011

The new National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland is published at a very significant moment in the life of the Church in Ireland.   We are living in a time of great change in Irish religious culture and I believe that we have not yet faced the challenge of that change as fully as we should.

The place of faith education in schools is under scrutiny in a changing Ireland.  There are various contending voices and interest-groups, speaking often in a polarised way, and there is very little common reflection on what the right way forward should be.  I still believe that a broad National Forum on the future of education provision and the place of faith education in the Irish educational system would be of value.

This is the overall context within which the New National Directory will have to be put into practice.  The Directory has of course a much wider mandate than simply religious education in schools.

I was recently criticized for saying that we have a situation in Ireland in which many young people leave Catholic schools after years of catechesis “theologically illiterate”.  In their reactions to my comments, some showed that they had misread what I said and felt that I was saying that the Irish were a race of theological illiterates. Others showed their own theological illiteracy in saying that Christianity was not about theology in any vase, but simply about being good.    Certainly, being good is an essential fruit of being a true Christian and equally being a theologian does not necessarily make someone good.  But Christianity is not just about vague goodness but about how our goodness is shaped and sustained by the extraordinary reality of God who became man in Jesus Christ.

One way or other we have to recognise that our system of school catechesis is not drawing young people in sufficient numbers into the life of our sacramental communities.

If the new National Directory is to be effective for evangelization and renewal in the Church then it must address the actual situation directly.  My worry for the new Directory is that it could face what I call a Speck-savers reaction.  The directory is not a second pair of glasses, in a slightly more elegant frame, but with identical lenses as what we already have. The Directory is not just a new framework; it is a call to look at the challenge of evangelization with totally different lenses.  The change in religious culture in Ireland requires a real culture change in the way we evangelize.

Can we look briefly at some areas where I believe this lens-change must take place?  The first change of lens we need requires us to look at the way revelation takes place.

God communicates.  The God who is Trinity is not enclosed in self-power.  God has spoken in various ways throughout history.  He spoke firstly in creation and indeed continues to speak today through creation.  He spoke through the law and the prophets throughout the history of salvation and through his care for his people.  However with the mystery of the incarnation God communicates in a totally new way:  God reveals himself in Jesus who becomes one of us, a human bring.  God reveals himself as love.

In the Mystery of the Incarnation God communicates with us in a totally new way.  In Pope Benedict’s recent document – Verbum Domini – on the “Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”, he recalls that the revelation of the Word at the incarnation is no longer primarily a revelation in “discourse, concepts or rules” (#11).  The Pope writes: “Here we are set before the very person of Jesus himself; Jesus himself is the definitive Word which God speaks to humanity”.

The Pope had stressed the same theme, in a slightly different way, in Deus Caritas Est:  “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with…a person [Jesus Christ] which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction” (#1).

If the Christian faith is about an encounter with the person of Jesus, then our catechesis has to move beyond the ”discourse, concepts and rules”, of which the Pope spoke and which for so often dominated our catechesis, into a catechesis which introduces us  more directly into  knowledge of Jesus the person.

Renewal in the Church must focus on a renewed relationship with Jesus within a believing, sacramental faith community.  We all recognise the need for renewal especially at this time.   Renewal in the Church is not just of a necessary need to repent the criminal and sinful events which have emerged in these years concerning the abuse of children by priests and religious and the response of Church authorities.  Renewal is not just a question of renewing structures and developing new structures.  It is not just about improving the image of the Church.

Renewal of the Church will only come through a radical reawakening of what the Church is really about.  The Church is the place where the unprecedented and humanly inconceivable newness of the Word becoming flesh is proclaimed and celebrated as reality.  The Church is the place where the Word of God made flesh is proclaimed and celebrated.

This brings me to a second lens change.  It concerns precisely the place of the scriptures in catechesis.  In his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini Pope Benedict talks about a biblically inspired catechesis.  He quotes the General Catechetical Directory which talks of a Catechesis “permeated by the mindset of the Gospel through assiduous contact with the texts themselves.

I have already spoken about the need to move from a catechesis of mere discourse, concepts and rules to a catechesis focused on a personal relationship with Jesus.  There is however a possible danger here.   Our relationship with Jesus cannot just be any kind of vague relationship in which I decide what Jesus would have done or would do in my circumstance.

Where will our people, younger and older, come to their knowledge of Jesus and where will they find the nourishment needed to enable their relationship with Jesus to develop and mature as their lives evolve and encounter ever new challenges?  A developed and mature Christian faith requires knowledge of the scriptures.

This again is something revolutionary in Irish Catholicism where most families may not even possess a bible and probably not even copy of the Gospels, and where reading the scriptures is far from being the order of the day in the home or the classroom.

Last year I had a quarter of a million copies a very elegant and well prepared edition of the Gospel of Saint Luke distributed to parishes in the Archdiocese of Dublin.  The initiative went very well.  However, some parishes did not feel any need to receive copies of the Gospel.  For others distributing the text was such a problem that it was even suggested that I should engage An Post or DHL to deliver it. I still encounter only mild embarrassment when I am led into a sacristy with hundreds of copies of the Gospel still unpacked.

When we speak, as the Pope does, of a catechesis “permeated by the mindset of the Gospel through assiduous contact with the texts themselves” then we are speaking of much more than adding a new chapter to our catechesis, but of letting the Word of God inspire every dimension of Church life.  The Word of God is the soul of all theology and the driving force of pastoral activity.  The reform that is called for is truly radical and we are only at the very beginning. Each of us has to begin to place the word of God at the centre of our own spirituality and of our Christian life. We have to know the scriptures, to love the scriptures, to understand the scriptures, to prayerfully read the scriptures.  All of us have to learn to take up the scriptures every day.

Those parishes which took part in the distribution of the Gospel of Saint Luke – and they are the majority – have made a leap forward in the right direction and they are aware of this.  They have recognised the centrality of formation, prayer and knowledge of the scriptures in all their pastoral activity.  But they know that there a huge path still ahead.  Pope Benedict stresses this need – which is more than urgent – for “provision to be made for the suitable preparation of priests and lay persons who can instruct the People of God in the genuine approach to scripture” (#73).

Let me look at another lens change.  The new Directory proposes various new structures regarding catechesis in the life of the Church.  Once again, it is not a question of adding some new structures but of revolutionising all our structures.

The National Directory is directed to and must involve the entire Church in Ireland.  It is not a document entrusted to the catechetical establishment.  It is a time bomb thrown into the catechetical establishment and indeed into the religious education establishment.  It is an invitation to break away from our current situation which is overly school-oriented and bring back into the picture in a more focussed way the central role of the parish and the family.  It is a reminder that catechesis does not end with the Leaving Certificate.

History has left Ireland with a unique system of school-based religious education, which it would be wrong to say has not served us well.  Our teachers have contributed and continue to contribute so much to passing on of the faith in difficult times.

But times have changed.  What has changed is the wider Irish religious culture.  Indeed the strongest critique of the current situation that I hear comes precisely from committed teachers of religion themselves who are more aware than anyone of the fact that children arrive in their schools without almost any of the presuppositions for the development of their faith. These teachers feel left on their own.  Parish and family have not been playing their part.  There are many parishes – not all – where an invader from Mars if asked what went on there, would be very surprised to be told that parishes were vibrant focal points abuzz with people of all ages being constantly educated and updated about their faith.

If the new Directory is to be successful, we have to understand that it aims at much more than tweaking at the current system. The current system has been very comfortable for parishes.  The principle work has been done by the teachers.  Efforts are being made to invite greater participation by families and they have had a certain success, especially where there is geographical contiguity between parish and school community.  This is of course much less the case in urban areas.  It is not the case with secondary schools.

What is being proposed here in the Directory is revolutionary for our parishes.  There is need to provide a new generation of catechists in our parishes, both full-time professional catechists but above all as a new group of committed lay people who will take on a period of formation to be voluntary catechists in their parishes.  Again I am not saying that what teachers are doing is ineffective.  But the locus of faith formation is primarily within the worshipping faith community.

I know that what I am saying may upset some and that it might also delight those who would like to see all forms of faith formation removed from schools that receive State funding.   The right of parents to choose the type of education they wish for children is a fundamental right.   This right is not an invention of the Catholic Church in Ireland or of an out-of-date Irish Constitution.  It is clearly present in all the major international human rights instruments.  The validity of this right is upheld on both sides of the debate.  An appeal to the same right of parents is used by parents who wish their children to attend religious education and by those parents who do not wish their children to attend religious instruction.

One of the problems is that the Church as an institution for many years under-appreciated the essential role of parents and did not involve them adequately   The overwhelming dominance still today of the Roman Catholic Church in the provision of primary education does not facilitate the provision of alternatives and indeed can damage the principle of parental right and damage the very idea of the Catholic school.

Reducing the role of parents in educational choice is not just a challenge for religious education but also for freedom and pluralism in education overall.   Our current system favours parental choice and community rootedness in education, thus reducing the danger of leaving decisions exclusively to an educational burocracy and even the politicization of the provision of education, which has inevitably had negative effects wherever that happened.

The final lens change that I would propose is deeper cultural one.   We can no longer assume faith on the part of young people who have attended catholic schools nor indeed young people who come from Catholic families.   This is not to say that there is a lack of goodness and generosity and idealism among young people.  This is not to say that in many there is not a search for deeper values and meaning in their lives.

The problem is that there is a growing undermining of religious sense in our culture.  This religious sense will not arise automatically from within contemporary culture as was to a great extent the case in the past.  There are aspects of our contemporary culture which can lead us all to deviate from a true religious sense. Even our liturgies can loose the sense of a transcendent God.

A positivistic current in our culture alters our understanding of our relationship with reality.  This is especially so in parts of an Anglo-Saxon culture in which language can be formed and transformed in different ways, leaving the impression that in the same way meaning and reality are being changed.  A strong individualism in contemporary culture can make it more and more difficult to encapsulate the relational dimension of being.  This has catastrophic consequences when the relational dimension of sexuality is undermined or not adequately appreciated.  A radical individualist understanding of faith can undermine the sense of the Church.

A positivistic understanding of reality makes it difficult to appreciate the fundamental categories of religious language and sense such as given-ness and dependence which are fundamental to the reality of being created.  Dependence is looked on as failure in human realization.

Our catechesis must assist people to enter into the religious sense in a culture in which it is increasingly absent.  Without this, catechesis would only become indoctrination, and a catechesis of indoctrination does lead not to freedom but to fundamentalism.  This is not just pre-catechesis; it is a much more necessary and fundamental pre-condition for the ability to understand the Gospel and it is something that was not necessary in the Ireland of the past.

I may have drifted a long way away from what I was expected to say this morning.    I may have given the impression that I am less than enthusiastic about the new Directory and about the point where we are in catechesis in Ireland.  That was not my intention.  I welcome the Directory wholeheartedly but I simply wish to point out that it is not a magic formula or a programme which can be launched in the way one would launch a sales push or a political platform.

Faith is a deeper matter; it is a matter of a deep encounter between the individual and God.  Such an encounter cannot be forced on someone or pushed through like a hard sell.  Evangelization is always counter cultural but not a-cultural. Culture must ne evangelized by men and women who live within that culture and who are contaminated by some negative aspects of that culture.   Evangelization is about an encounter with the God who is totally other, but who became incarnate as one of us to enable us to know ourselves more fully and thus to find our true identity.

That faith finds it roots and nourishment in the faith community which is the Body of Christ, where Christ is active in our midst calling each of us to holiness, renewing his people as he did throughout human history through his faithful love.