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Threshold of Faith in the New Catechism

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We address ourselves to the Threshold of Faith in the New Catechism in the light of the Holy Father's masterful dialogue on Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

If there is one underlying theme in the writings of the present Vicar of Christ it is to encourage the followers of Christ not to lose hope. In the most homicidal century of human history, when there have been more death casualties in war and more homicides of unborn children than in all the previous centuries from the dawn of the human race to the year 1900 - the temptation is not only to discouragement but to despair.

In our own country, the number of seminarians studying for the priesthood has dropped by ninety percent since the close of the Second Vatican Council. In the same thirty years, the number of religious sisters has dropped by 80,000; the number of students in Catholic grade schools has dropped by two and a half million, and the number of Catholic high school students has fallen by five hundred thousand.

All of these are not cold statistics. They are flames of fire warning professed Catholics in the United States to reassess the condition of the Church in their nation and to cooperate with the grace of God in performing nothing less than a series of moral miracles to change what is so obviously contrary to the will of God.

The dictionary defines "threshold" as "the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced." Our focus in this conference is not on physiology or psychology. It is on theology as the science of faith.

I sincerely believe with the Holy Father that we are on the threshold of a new era in the history of Christianity. St. Paul tells us that where sin has abounded, there grace will even more abound. Can anyone doubt that our century has abounded in sin? As Pope John Paul makes clear in his Splendor of the Truth, the whole moral order of once civilized nations has been subverted. Each person's mind is now the norm of morality, and each person's will is at liberty to choose what he or she wants, without dependence on the mind and will of the Creator.

What does this have to do with our subject, The Threshold of Faith in the New Catechism? Everything! Unless we realize the providential age through which the Church is now passing, we shall look upon the Catechism of the Catholic Church as just another book or just another piece of religious literature.

This catechism is of historic importance. Depending on how seriously we take it, the future of the Catholic Church will be shaped accordingly. We may legitimately look forward to the twenty-first century as the most glorious since the coming of Christ. But we must capitalize on the gift He is giving us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Understanding the Faith Taught in the Catechism

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a mere collection of doctrines. It provides the groundwork for understanding what we Catholics believe. On this level, the Catechism is unique.

The Holy Spirit is guiding the Church in the most academically sophisticated age of her history. In America alone, over five million students go to college every year. We are trained to the hilt in every humanistic subject from azymes to zygotes. But most Catholics are undereducated in their faith. The result is predictable. By the time they finish even their secondary education, they find themselves in conflict in their own minds. They are trained in science, history, and world literature. They know the structure of the atom and the composition of the moon. At the same time, their minds have been, to say the least, undertrained in the religion they profess. What happens? They abandon their Catholic faith as a remnant of childhood.

My Vatican superiors tell me that, "Most of your priests in America ordained since the Second Vatican Council should be re-educated." You do not lose millions of once professed Catholics to the faith without a reason. Attendance at Sunday Mass in many dioceses has dropped seventy-five percent since 1965. Again, not without a reason. The reason is massive ignorance of Christ's revealed truth in the most educated nation in the world.

Recall the parable of the sower in the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel. The sower sows all good seed, but on four different kinds of ground. Only the last soil produces any yield. It is especially the first fruitless soil that applies to our reflection here.

In the words of Christ, as the sower sows the seed, "Some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up."

When the disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, He told them, "When anyone hears the words of the kingdom without understanding; the Evil One comes and carries off what was sown in his heart. This is the man who receives the seed on the edge of the path" (Mt 13:10, 18-19).

That's it! It is both that simple and that serious. The seed of God's revealed truth has been sown in our hearts at Baptism. But this was only the beginning. We must do everything in our power to grasp the meaning of what we believe. Otherwise, the devil will come along and steal the faith from our hearts.

There has never been a substitute for understanding our Christian religion. There is no substitute today. But now this understanding is absolutely imperative. The world in which we live is too determined to take from our hearts what we believe.

That is why the Catechism is such a Godsend. It not only provides the believing Catholic with information about what to believe; it also gives us an explanation of the meaning of what we believe.

Of course, the Catechism is only a start. It promises to be a powerful initiative - a threshold, if you wish - for waking up a sleeping Catholic world to the duty we have to know:

  • what we are to believe on the revealed word of God;

  • what the faith we profess is all about;

  • that Christianity is the most credible religion in the world and, within Christianity, that the Catholic Church has the fullness of the truth;

  • that, as a result, we Catholics have a great responsibility for educating a world that is starving for knowledge of Christ and His truth.

Why the Catechism is so Important

It is one thing to know theoretically what Catholics are to believe. It is something else to know where to find the true faith expressed in straightforward and unambiguous language.

The confusion among Catholics on even the most fundamental doctrines of faith and morals is widespread.

We are now reading books and magazines, and hearing of classes and lectures that threaten the very essence of our sacramental faith. We are being told that the sacraments were not instituted by Christ but invented by Christians over a period of several centuries. What we call the sacraments, it is said, goes back to the ancient religions of pre-Christian times. The rituals that we call sacraments today are simply a continuation of what all the religions celebrated long before Christianity was born. Every sacrament of Catholic Christianity is being traced to its pre-Christian history. Washing with water, breaking and sharing of bread, the pouring and drinking of wine, anointing with oil, laying on of hands to bless and ordain, calling down divine power, pronouncing words of forgiveness, all of these, the faithful are told, are as ancient as religious history and were practiced long before the word "sacrament" was even used in religious discourse.

On these grounds, it would not only be mistaken but deceptive to associate and, much less, identify the sacraments with the ritual of the Catholic Church.

To speak of the Church founded by Christ as a universal sacrament of salvation is at best a misnomer and at worst a blasphemy. Christ has no claim, we are told, on our human destiny. Nor does the Church He is said to have founded have any monopoly on the goodness of God.

Someone somewhere in the Church founded by Christ must be in a position to tell the faithful, "This is true and that is false," or, "This is morally good, and that is morally bad." Otherwise, the very existence of Christianity is in danger and the survival of the Catholic Church in any given country or society is in jeopardy.

That is why the Catechism has not been released one month too soon. It is the hope of restoring unity in a widely dismembered Christianity.

How to Use the Catechism

We are speaking of the Threshold of Faith in the New Catechism. There is one important aspect we still have to explain. How is the Catechism to be put into apostolic use.

Before going any further, let us make sure we know that the Catechism is no mere reference work that we may occasionally consult, like a standard dictionary or encyclopedia. Nor is the Catechism a mere summary of religious ideas or ideals that provides a readable handbook on how Catholics think. No, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an indispensable arm of instruction on every level of the teaching apostolate.

We now have a one volume reservoir of Catholic truth and practice for everyone who wants to bring others to Christ, if they are not yet Christians, to deepen and solidify the faith of those who have been baptized.

The question, however, still remains. How to use the Catechism in the apostolate of evangelization and catechesis.

Know The Catechism. Our most fundamental duty is to know the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How do you come to know anything? By reading, by discussing, by hearing it explained by competent persons.

Speed reading of the Catechism would be self-defeating if anything, the Catechism should be not only read, but prayerfully meditated. I repeat. Set aside some time for reflecting, in God's presence, what the Catechism teaches through more than five hundred pages of print.

How much time people waste in useless reading, or worse. Is it too much for Christ to expect us to spend a few hours a week in reading, alone or with others, what promises to be the food that feeds the soul on revealed truth?

There is a special problem that we, who speak the English language, have in understanding our Catholic faith. The problem is that our English vocabulary is so notoriously non-Catholic. That is why we need to know the Catholic meaning of the words we read or hear. That is also why this speaker has published a Modern Catholic Dictionary and a Question and Answer synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Live The Catechism. This is no pious platitude. Teaching the true faith is unlike any other form of pedagogy.

The purpose of teaching the Catholic faith was to enable those you are teaching to practice the virtue that Christ expects of His followers. Very well; but how do you enable those you teach to practice what they have learned? You don't! Only Christ can give them the grace they need to practice what they believe. So how do they get the grace they need? From Christ, of course; but, through you, their teachers.

What are we saying? We are saying that God uses holy people as channels of His grace to others. In the measure of our own union with Him, He will communicate to those we teach the light and strength they need to live the Christian faith. God uses humble people to give others the gift of humility. He uses chaste people as conduits of His grace of chastity, patient people to inspire patience, prayerful people to make others prayerful.

In a word, we must live the Catechism. If we do, we become instruments of divine faith to everyone whose life we touch. This, we may say, is the law of spiritual generation. Sanctity is reproductive; holiness us procreative.

Share The Catechism. On the last day, we shall be judged on our practice of charity. How we hope that when Christ appeared, He will say to us, "Come, blessed of my Father, and possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. I was hungry and you gave me to eat; thirsty and you gave me to drink."

There is no hunger of the human body that more needs to be satisfied than the hunger of the human mind for the truth. There is no thirst that more needs to be quenched than the thirst of the human heart for God.

But where is this hunger and thirst to be nourished if not with the truth and the love which the Church founded by Christ provides for those who believe in His name?

The Catechism and Consecrated Life

Over the two millennia of the Church's history, men and women living the consecrated life have been in the vanguard of bringing Christ and His teaching to the world. I do not hesitate to say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a threshold of the faith especially for those dedicated to a life of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience.

Why is this true? Because somewhere near the center of the crisis which has affected consecrated life is a crisis of faith. That is why the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on consecrated life is the bedrock on which religious life is founded.

Christ proposes the practice of charity to all His followers. Yet, the Catechism makes clear that among the faithful are "those who freely follow the call to the consecrated life" by embracing "the obligation of practicing chastity and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, poverty and obedience. It is the profession of these councils, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church that characterizes the life consecrated to God"(915).

The Catechism goes on to say that the religious state is a way of "experiencing a more intimate consecration, rooted in baptism and dedicated totally to God". In the consecrated life, therefore, "Christ's faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, proposed to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come" (916).

No doubt the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a threshold of faith for all believers in Christ. But it is at the very heart of the faith for those living a consecrated life.

In the closing paragraphs of his apostolic letter on The Consecrated Life just a month ago, the Holy Father invokes the Blessed Virgin.

Mary, image of the Church, the bride without spot or wrinkle, which by imitating you “preserves with virginal purity an integral faith, a firm hope and a sincere charity," sustain consecrated persons on that journey towards the sole and eternal Blessedness.
To you, Virgin of the Visitation, do we entrust them that they may go forth to meet human needs, to bring help, but above all to bring Jesus. Teach them to proclaim mighty things which the Lord accomplishes in the world, that all peoples may extol the greatness of His name support them in their work for the poor, the hungry, those without hope, the little ones and all who seek your Son with a sincere heart.

These sentiments of the Vicar of Christ are at once the threshold of faith and of hope for those in consecrated life, and through them to the whole world.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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