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Catechesis, Discipleship and the Diaconate

Making disciples by teaching

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Jesus told the apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Reading this in English, one might assume the main verb is “go,” and the three things we are supposed to go and do are 1) make disciples, 2) baptize and 3) teach. However, in the original Greek, the main verb in that command is “make disciples.” So, a more appropriate way to understand the Great Commission is that we make disciples by 1) going, 2) baptizing and 3) teaching.

This is a subtle but important emphasis, especially for the last point: “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” The teaching Jesus commands is not merely an educational endeavor, something we are supposed to go and do. Instead, Jesus told his apostles to make disciples by teaching. This is at the heart of the ministry of catechesis.

The Directory for Catechesis called catechesis “a privileged stage in the process of evangelization.” Unfortunately, in the United States especially, the word “catechesis” has become synonymous with “education.” It is unfortunate, not because education is a negative word, but because it is a different one. It could be said that, just as catechesis is an important part of the wider ministry of evangelization, education plays an important part in the wider ministry of catechesis. But to make the two synonymous with each other diminishes the richness of what catechesis should truly be about.

In his exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (“On the Catechesis in Our Time”), Pope St. John Paul II articulated it best when he wrote, “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (No. 5). Since “the whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 25), the aim of catechesis is not just to learn about a subject but to fall in love with a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.

It is not uncommon to hear a lament that many in the Church are catechized but not evangelized. While communicating an important point (specifically, that many Catholics have not heard a clear proclamation of the kerygma), it misuses the way the Church would have us understand catechesis. Perhaps “educated but not evangelized” would be more appropriate. Since the aim of catechesis is intimacy with Jesus, can one be too catechized? Is the problem that Catholics are too intimate with Jesus? No, the problem is there is too much of a focus on “what” the Church teaches instead of “who” God is. The former is educational; the latter transformational. It is only by falling in love with Jesus that one would want to be like him.

St. John Paul II wrote in Catechesi Tradendae, “Very soon (after the Great Commission) the name of catechesis was given to the whole of the efforts within the Church to make disciples, to help people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life and thus build up the Body of Christ” (No. 1). An argument could be made that, in contemporary usage, catechesis and discipleship have emerged as more distinct from each other than it was in the life of the early Church. Regardless of how one defines those terms, it is important to recognize that they are intrinsically linked to each other, just as they were in the Great Commission. One cannot “make disciples” unless one teaches others to “observe all that I commanded of you” (Mt 28:20).

Catechetical Formation

Because of his unique mission as a permanent deacon — “a cleric living a lay life,” as James Keating writes in “The Heart of the Diaconate” (Paulist Press, $12.95) — a deacon who is formed properly in the ministry of catechesis can initiate others into discipleship in truly profound ways, for “the quality of catechesis in a community depends in part on the ordained ministers who care for it” (Directory for Catechesis, No. 151).

The Directory for Catechesis proposed three dimensions necessary to form those in catechetical ministry, some of which are reflected in diaconate formation. The first is forming the “being” of the catechist, “a witness of faith and a keeper of the memory of God” (No. 139). The ministry of catechesis flows from one’s life. Deacons, as ordained ministers of the Gospel, are ontologically configured to Christ the Servant. His role in catechesis flows from that configuration — it is more who he “is” than what he “does.”

Second is knowledge of the Faith, which takes place primarily through understanding the sacred Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. Directory for Catechesis, No. 143). The study of Scripture and the doctrines of the Faith often take up the bulk of diaconate formation, and rightly so. But some programs of formation might not reflect the directory’s insistence that a “a detailed and profound understanding of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (No. 152) is necessary for those preparing for ordination. Those deacons who feel that part of their formation was lacking can easily remedy this by prayerfully reading the Catechism every day.

However, the last element is not often included in diaconate formation, and one that ordained permanent deacons should seek out. The directory calls it savior-faire: “In the dimension of savoir-faire, the catechist is formed to grow as an educator and communicator” (No. 148). This is more than being a good public speaker, for the ministry of catechesis isn’t about making others listen to one’s own voice but helping others hear the voice of God through what has been revealed. “The catechist, recognizing that his hearer is an active participant in whom the grace of God is dynamically at work, will present himself as a respectful facilitator of an experience of faith of which he is not in charge” (No. 148).

There is both a science and an art to this. The National Directory for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (cf. No. 130) rightly proposes that formation in catechesis falls, not under intellectual formation, but pastoral formation. It requires docility to the Holy Spirit and understanding the people to whom the Faith is being proclaimed. Like all skills, it takes practice to master.

Even though some deacons may not have the catechetical formation of others as their primary role, all deacons have accepted the call to “teach what you believe” at their ordination. This is an essential part of the Church’s mission to “make disciples of all nations.” Deacons should approach the ministry of catechesis as a craft to be learned, humbly seeking opportunities to become more effective in leading others into intimacy with Jesus Christ.

DEACON BOB RICE, Ph.D., is a professor of catechetics and the director of the Master of Arts in Catechetics and Evangelization at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a deacon for the Diocese of Steubenville.

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