You have likely noticed that I reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church quite often when writing articles and reflections for the weekly bulletin. The Catechism is a book that can seem quite intimidating. First of all, it is a very big book. My version contains 904 pages. It is also filled with numbers, both at the beginning of each paragraph as well as in the margins, and there are tons of footnotes. There are numerous topics and it is difficult to know even where to begin. This week I would like to spend some time talking about this book, how to use it, and how it is a helpful and beautiful resource for Catholics wanting to know more about their Faith.
There have been various catechisms printed over the years, all containing elements of Church teaching, but they were primarily used by Church leaders. Wanting to make the truths of the Faith more accessible to the laity, Pope St. John Paul II appointed a commission in 1986 to produce a user-friendly, but thorough catechism. This commission was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI. The catechism was first published in French in 1992 and was promulgated in Latin by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997. All publications since then have contained his promulgation letter, Laetamur Magnopere. The book has since been translated into many other languages, making it accessible to Catholics all over the world.
So, why do we need a Catechism in the first place? The reason the Catholic Church exists is for the salvation of souls. She does this by leading people to conversions of heart by presenting the truth about who God is and what His will is for humanity. This collection of truths is called the “Deposit of Faith.” Catechesis is the term used to describe the process of teaching the Deposit of Faith in a way that facilitates becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, who then goes on to help build up the Body of Christ (CCC #4). So, the Catechism is a physical collection of the essential and fundamental contents of the Deposit of Faith, through which we can learn what the Faith teaches on any given topic, increasing our understanding of how to be a better disciple, and to help do our part in the Church’s mission of saving souls.
The Catechism is organized into four sections. The first is The Profession of Faith. This section gives a detailed explanation of what is given to us by virtue of our Baptism as adopted children of God. It also breaks down the Creed into great detail, explaining what we are really saying in each and every loaded sentence when we profess our faith. Here, the Blessed Trinity is also covered in detail. The second section is The Sacraments of Faith in which we learn about how God acts in the physical world to bring about salvation. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all made present in the Church’s liturgical activity, especially in the seven sacraments. The third section is The Life of Faith. This section covers morality, what it means to live as a Christian in the world, and how we achieve our final end in the beatific vision in heaven. We are assisted in living rightly by God’s law and grace and Jesus’ new commands of loving God and others. Finally, the fourth section is Prayer in the Life of Faith. Nothing can be achieved in the formation of a Christian disciple without communication with God. In this section, the Lord’s Prayer is dissected in great detail.
The authors of the Catechism use the term organic to describe how the book presents the contents of the Catholic faith in its entirety (CCC #18). In other words, no teaching or doctrine stands alone. Everything the Church teaches is connected to every other teaching by virtue of truth. This is why all of the numbers are significant. Rather than explaining it in technical terms, let’s use an example of how to use the Catechism in the organic way it is designed in order to dig deeper into a Church teaching. You can choose any topic at all and the index is quite comprehensive. Let’s say I want to know more about Jesus as the Son of God. I turn to the index of the Catechism and look under “Christ.” I see there are numerous subheadings and choose “eternal Son of God assuming a human nature.” The index leads me to paragraphs 461-63 which fall under the first section, The Profession of Faith. These paragraphs describe the Incarnation as the Son of God taking on human nature in order to redeem. The paragraphs contain quotes from Scripture where St. Paul refers to the mystery of the Incarnation in his letters, both to the Philippians and the Hebrews. Paragraph 463 explains that belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God is the “distinctive sign of the Christian faith” and brings about great joy. Now, if I look in the margins next to those paragraphs, I see numbers to related paragraphs in italics. I choose one and turn to paragraph 661, which is also in the first section. Here it is explained that because Christ descended from the Father in the Incarnation and ascended back to the Father, we can only come to the Father ourselves through Christ. Choosing another paragraph in the margin, I turn to #792. Here I read that Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church and the means by which we are led to the Father. Again, I turn to paragraph #1119 which is now in the second section of the Catechism, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery. This paragraph explains that the mystical body of the Church is “an organically structured priestly community,” which administers the sacraments and celebrates the liturgy for the sake of the faithful.
I will end there, but the exercise can be continued on infinitely, or at least until you have reached some level of satisfaction. You will find that if you do this for several more layers, you will eventually cover all four sections of the Catechism. Again, this is because everything the Church teaches is interconnected. If you believe something, you practice it. Believing it and practicing it leads you into a particular way of living and acting, and all of it is held together by your relationship with God in prayer. This exercise, in addition to being informative, is an excellent one for meditation. Meditating on how all the truths of the Faith connect to one another and apply directly to your life, can draw you more deeply into the mysteries contained in the Deposit of Faith.
If you don’t have a Catechism already, I highly encourage you to look into getting one. They come in hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions at varying prices. You can also easily access it online for free. Furthermore, there are other versions of catechisms that were adapted from this primary one. For example, there is the YouCat (Youth Catechism) designed for teens and young adults that puts the contents in terminology specifically targeted to that age group. There are also pocket catechisms that are easier to carry with you. If you are a parent of younger children, it is very wise to have a complete one in your home so that, as your children have questions, you can answer them thoroughly. If you are older and perhaps wondering why you have been doing certain things as part of your Faith your entire life, this may be a good opportunity to draw more deeply into your understanding of those practices. The Catechism is for everyone and is a useful tool for discipleship in Christ.
If you were someone who may have been intimidated by the Catechism before, my hope is that you are now a little less so. Perhaps you may be inspired to explore this beautiful document more deeply. Either way, take some time in prayer to thank God for providing us with this Deposit of Faith, so that we can be better disciples of Jesus Christ for the purpose of our salvation.
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