The Effectiveness of the Catechist Getting "Soaked in Scripture"STEPHEN PATTON
Most of us catechists want to do our work well, and are open to learning new and better ways to do it. But the best way of all is also the oldest and, unfortunately, often the most neglected.
Most of us catechists want to do our work well, and are open to learning new and better ways to do it. But the best way of all is also the oldest and, unfortunately, often the most neglected. It is in prayerfully and always more deeply studying, proclaiming and teaching from Scripture — both for our own sake and for the sake of our students.
Why this “method” can be so effective of course has everything to do with the uniquely divine nature of Scripture itself. But it also has everything to do with who we are as humans and who we are as catechists. In other words, Scripture can do what it does not only because of what it is, but because of who we are. Let us look first at the latter.
I. TO BE HUMAN IS TO RECEIVE AND TO PASS DOWN TRUTH
Humans are a curious mix of independence and need of others. We each prize self-direction and determination, but we each must also acknowledge, perhaps reluctantly, just how dependent upon others we really are. How obviously true this is at birth. Each of us enters upon this world’s stage not only knowing absolutely nothing, but not even knowing that we know nothing. And if that indignity were not enough, at that point we are also completely incapable of taking care of ourselves physically. Totally ignorant and totally helpless, we each begin the journey of life in deep need of others.
Though it becomes less obvious, even as we grow older and more capable of acting and thinking for ourselves, we still need others. We do indeed learn many truths from our own experience, but actually most of what we know and believe to be true we acquire by watching others or by listening to and reading what they have to say.
The fact is that though we each ultimately think and make decisions as individuals, we base those thoughts and decisions largely upon truths (or errors) we receive from listening to and interacting with others. Throughout our lives we constantly receive truths passed on to us from others, and in turn pass them on ourselves to others. The human experience is one of endless interdependent, intergenerational learning. We need to know things, and most of what we know we know through a certain faith and trust in what others tell us.
This is as much the case for the eternal truths about God as it is for the common, natural truths of this world. With rare exception God has chosen throughout the course of history to communicate the eternal truths about His nature and His plan of salvation not directly to each individual but indirectly through the medium of other humans. Even when He was visibly here among us in the flesh two thousand years ago He still purposefully chose not to write down a word Himself, but chose to have others write for and about Him.
Furthermore, He purposefully ascended into heaven when, being God, He could have chosen to stay here visibly on earth in His Resurrected Body. Had He done this each person throughout the world and throughout time could have come to see Him and listen to Him themselves, and not have to rely upon some other human medium. But instead He removed His visible presence and instructed His followers to go out and tell all the world about Him. God wants every human being to come to know Him personally, but principally by means of other human beings.
This is how we must look upon our work as catechists. We bring God to others even as others brought and bring Him to us. The same message of His saving truth has been passed on from one individual to another, from one generation to the next, century after century after century, all the way up to each of us in this present moment.
This reliance upon human messengers is not a flaw in God’s plan; it is His plan. He wants to receive into His kingdom only those who are humble enough to acknowledge their ignorance and receive His message from other humans, and only those generous enough to turn around and deliver it to others. But just what is it that God wants us to receive and to pass on?
II. CATECHISTS RECEIVE AND PASS DOWN GOD'S OWN TRUTH
The most important thing to know as catechists is that what we receive and what we pass down is not merely a message. We receive and we pass down a Person. This Person is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, who, though a pure and timeless Spirit, became enfleshed as a human and entered into our realm of time and space two thousand years ago in the person of Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth. He truly lived, talked, and walked among mere human beings. He came as the long-awaited fulfillment of prophetic promises given to the Israelite people over a span of several thousand years. He came for two reasons: to redeem a sinful humanity and to deliver a message.
Jesus’ mission was to offer Himself up as a sacrifice, a sin-offering for the sake of the human race which had from the fall of Adam and Eve been helplessly stuck in a self-made mire of sin. He died for our own death upon the cross and thereby obtained salvation for all of us who would receive it. He also came though, to teach us how we should live in this life so as to prepare ourselves for the next. He came then to open up the way to eternal life both by the deeds He worked and by the words He spoke. These two dimensions are inextricably interconnected in all of God’s interventions in history but most especially in Jesus’ life. As Dei Verbum declares:
...(T)he works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation.l
Just before He ascended from earth to heaven, Jesus commissioned His followers: “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” (Matthew 28:19,20). He instructed them to live as He had lived, that is, to make God present to all men both by works (“go,” “make,” “baptize”), and by words (“teach”). His disciples, soon to be empowered for this task at Pentecost by the very life of God in the Holy Spirit, were to become Christ’s own Body present on earth in a new and mystical way.
These disciples who, like all human beings, had lived lives of receiving and passing down truth, would now do it in an entirely new and unique way. The truth which they would pass down and which would be passed down in turn by all who would receive it, would not simply be a set of principles or a propositions. It would be the very life and Person of Jesus, the Son of God Himself. And this truth would be passed down in two forms: the non-verbal, living witness of the disciple delivering it, and the actual words He would speak. Both in word and in deed, Jesus would be presented and, to the open, repentant heart, transmitted, just as if He Himself were actually there, speaking and acting. As successors in that line of transmission catechists are not simply handing on the teaching of the author of life. We are handing on the very life of the Teacher Himself, just as He had done.
With such a unique and all-important task, it is critical that the catechist, the one who is to hand on this Truth that is both Message and Person, be himself fully formed and informed by it. One cannot give what one does not himself have. We must be certain as we take up the great commission of Jesus that what we have received and will be handing on twenty centuries after the Ascension is the same Word and Person that was given to, received, and in turn delivered by the Apostles themselves.
III. SCRIPTURE IS GOD'S OWN WORDS OF TRUTH FOR MANKIND
In His wisdom Jesus knew that after His ascent into heaven it would not be prudent to leave His disciples throughout the ages without a written account of His life and teaching. Through the course of history there would surely be attempts to erode, dilute, add to, and otherwise corrupt the integrity of His Word, even by those claiming to do so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His disciples would need texts charged with His power and presence to draw upon and to teach from.
Jesus Himself had constantly referred to the texts of the Torah, God’s written Word of salvation history leading up to and pointing toward the Incarnation, both as a teaching tool and as a validation of His Messianic identity. He surely wanted His followers to draw upon the same sources He had drawn from. But He knew there would be a need for additional texts that would provide them with an inspired, particular account of His own life and teaching. He wanted those who would follow Him to have texts just as He had them, both to teach from and to validate their identity, that is, as ambassadors of the Messiah. The texts of the New Testament would provide this.
The Scriptures gave the Apostles and their successors much more than just great teaching material and a source of their own “teacher validation,” though. Jesus drew from Scripture because He knew there was a transforming power imbedded within it. The written words of Scripture are the very words of God Himself, spoken to all of mankind, and for our salvation. When Scripture is read from, God truly speaks His own Voice to the listener.
It is the job of the catechist to present the Person and the Voice of Jesus to all the world. Zealously learning and committing to one’s heart the written account of God’s own Word of Truth to the human race is of vital importance to the catechist in this task. This “soaking” in Scripture will have a double effect on the catechist. It will aid him in the ongoing, daily conversion of his own life and witness, and it will allow him to speak the Voice of Christ with more confident assurance. Let us look at each of these aspects a little more closely.
IV. SCRIPTURE TRANSFORMS THE LIFE OF THE CATECHIST HIMSELF
Jesus’ Ascension left his followers without the visible teaching authority they had had for the last three years to listen to and to ask questions. But it also left them without His visible Body to touch, His eyes to look into, and especially His actions of love and mercy to observe and emulate. But this was exactly His plan. He wanted them to go forth to all the nations and all the ages not only teaching (and administering the sacraments) for Him but as His Mystical Body, to see with His eyes and hear with His ears, to reach out with His tender physical touch, and to perform His works.
Newcomers to the faith learn what it means to live and act in the Body of Christ, to do as He had done, first by watching the lives of those who are already members of that Mystical Body. But the most complete way of discovering the depths of what it means to be a member of His Body calls for an examination of the Scriptural accounts themselves. Here we read exactly what He lived. We meditate upon the accounts, prayerfully entering into these situations ourselves, to learn.
But this learning does not stop at a mere understanding of what we are reading, or even an illumination by it. As we open our depths to the Holy Spirit, we are transformed by what we learn into the newness of life in God. God’s power is present in the reading of these texts just as He was present in the writing of them. We are day after day made more perfectly into new creatures, becoming more and more His own likeness on the earth. Soaking ourselves in the Scriptures helps to accomplish this in several profound ways.
We learn through both the New and the Old Testament stories, what it means to be a human, and moreover, how we please (and displease) God. We learn of God’s mercy and His faithfulness despite man’s sinful heart, and how He always calls us to return to Him. We learn most importantly what it means to be a son of God by imitating Jesus Christ.
Fulfilling the great commission of Jesus involves just as much the continued transformation of the believer’s own thinking and acting as it does in accurately and faithfully proclaiming the Word to non-believers. If those to whom the catechist proclaims the Gospel are to believe and follow it they must see first-hand, in the life of the one doing the proclaiming, what it means for a human to have his life grafted into the life of Jesus.
Thoroughly and daily soaking his mind and especially his heart in the Word of Sacred Scripture continuously effects this transformation in the catechist. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Jesus Christ.” It follows then that a thorough, transforming knowledge of the Scriptures is also a thorough, transforming knowledge of Jesus Christ.
V. SCRIPTURE PROVIDES THE CATECHIST WITH GOD'S OWN VOICE TO PROCLAIM
Whether they accepted Him as the Son of God or rejected Him as a fraud, one thing is clear: when Jesus spoke people not only listened, but they were brought ineluctably to a point where they had to make a decision about Him. There was an unearthly power and authority in His words that commanded a response. He quoted out of the Torah as though the words in it were His own thoughts. His teaching was not merely that of an exceedingly wise and commanding orator. It was a teaching infused with a divine, supernatural force that drove it into the souls of its listeners. His voice was the very Voice of God, gently, lovingly and firmly calling for the response of faith.
Jesus surely wants His followers to speak with this same voice so as to draw the same response. We must know that what we teach is not of this world. If what a person teaches is solely human, solely “this-worldly” in origin, then the best response he can expect is also solely human, and solely “this worldly,” that is, he can only expect to provide an intellectual and emotional illumination. (As one might experience in art appreciation for example.)
But if what we are teaching is divine, that is, supernatural, in origin, then we can expect a supernatural response: metanoia, conversion of heart. As Msgr. Kevane puts it, what we teach “is a content from God, a kerygma that involves the personal decision and personal life of the learner in the dimension of his relationship to the Lord God of the universe and hence of his everlasting destiny.”2
It is Jesus Himself speaking through the catechist. We present the Word of God Himself, and He “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). It is not simply human argumentation and persuasion. The Spirit of God within us does the real work in bringing about metanoia. We do not change hearts, He does.
This is cause for both relief and humility for the catechist! We are not alone and we come not on our own behalf but on behalf of the God who sent us. We can even take comfort in knowing that if we are rejected as frauds or idiots by some of those who hear us, Jesus Himself was similarly rejected by some. He allowed those without faith to mistake His Voice as merely a human (if not crazy) voice, and He will allow the same for us.
Just as Jesus drew upon the Scriptures in His program of proclaiming the Gospel, so does He wish His followers, His catechists, to do so in theirs. We however, teach not just from the Word as it is presented in the Old Testament, but from the New as well, and especially from the accounts of His life and teachings portrayed in the Gospels. How important it is then that the catechist be so thoroughly soaked in the Scriptures that what they contain becomes truly “written on his heart” (cf. Jer 31:33). Then when he teaches he does not merely quote from the Bible as an authority, but he proclaims out of it as if he were proclaiming out of his own heart.
VI. WHY WOULD GOD USE SCRIPTURE? WHY WOULD HE USE CATECHISTS?
Why would God bother Himself with the mediums of Scripture writers and catechists and not simply convey His truths by infused knowledge directly to each individual human person? In fact why would He not have dwelt among us in a visible corporeal form from the very beginning of the human experience until the end of time rather than only for some thirty odd years and only in Palestine? Why would He in so doing not permit everyone of us to speak with Him directly and not have to find out about Him and His eternal truths indirectly through someone else? Why would He have put us in this position where we have to rely so intimately on other humans to tell us about Him? In fact why would He put us in such a position of intimate interreliance for most other truths as well, instead of communicating all truths to each individual directly?
The reason is that His plan for all of mankind in this first, temporary, earthly life is to learn how to live with, trust, and rely upon one another as a human community, in order that we might reflect, understand and prepare ourselves for entry into His own final, eternal, divine community. If He communicated truth to each of us only as individuals, there would be little need for one another.
And so, even the most important truths He wants us learn, those about Himself and about our eternal destiny, He wants us to learn through other humans, whether they be the authors of His Scriptures or the teachers of His catechism. Through all of this He is ever drawing us closer together as a human family, thereby forming us into the image of His own divine family.
1. Dei Verbum, Section 2, Documents of Vatican II, Austin P Flannery, Ed., (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1978), p. 751. 2 Msgr. Eugene Kevane, Jesus the Divine Teacher, 1991. 2. Msgr. Eugene Kevane, Jesus the Divine Teacher, 1991.
Patton, Stephen. “The Effectiveness of the Catechist Getting ‘Soaked in Scripture’.” The Catholic Faith 4, no. 4 (November/December 1999): 46-47.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.
Stephen Patton is the Director of Family Life Ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls.
Copyright © 1999 TheCatholicFaith
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