Jarred Mercer introduces his new edited book Catechesis: An Invitation to Living Faith
This is a question at the heart of this book and more importantly, at the heart of our faith. Catechesis comes from the Greek word for teaching, and catechesis does involve and depend upon teaching. But the aim of that teaching the holistic formation of people’s lives because that is what the truths of our faith do. That is what theology is all about. The gospel does not inform us. The gospel makes us new creations.
So, in catechesis we are talking about the shaping of a certain and distinctive kind of life: the making of a certain and distinctive type of human being for a certain and distinctive community. It is not just thinking right thoughts about God, or having bits of doctrine figured out, it is a shaping of the Christian imagination, offering a new vision of the world, ourselves, and God. And this brings us to the other sense of the word catechesis. It’s where we get our word ‘echo’. Catechesis is about learning to live as an echo of the life of Christ; learning to live a life in which Christ’s love and mercy resonates, reverberates in our world today.
This comes through teaching, yes, but teaching that is wedded to the grace of the sacraments and worship, the life of the community, service to the poor, proclamation of the truth, justice for the oppressed, hope for those in despair—it comes through the world looking more and more like the world Jesus shapes in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. In other words, catechesis is the Church living out holistically the life to which we are called and inviting others to join in.
So, why this book on Catechesis?
There are many good, even great, books out there on catechesis. Most of which are either providing catechetical material—discussions on the creeds, other confessions of faith, the ten commandments, beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, or broader discussions about doctrines and theological topics—or books about the history of catechesis or practical guides to its task. These kinds of books or wonderfully useful and we need them. This book grew out of a group of priests who are also scholars with a deep passion learning and teaching thinking through what we saw as missing in our own ministries and in the wider Church regarding the passing on of our faith and educating Christians in the way of Jesus. There has been a real focus on catechesis in much of the Church in the past several years, and this is a really good thing. Most of the authors in this book are in the Diocese of Oxford in the Church of England, and the Bishop of Oxford, for example, has made a huge and important push for catechesis in recent years.
As we look around in churches, however, or talk to other priests and pastors, there is a real hesitancy on the part of many of those charged with teaching and training up others in the faith, mainly, it seems, because they aren’t sure where to begin. Part of the holistic approach to this book is to say, ‘you’ve already begun’. In all your life together as a Christian community, all your doubts and struggles and questions, all your study of Scripture and listening to one another, all of your care for those in need and work for justice and equality in a divided and unjust world, you’ve already begun. We have to learn to see our whole being, the entire expression of our faith in worship, prayer, study, proclamation, service, mission, care for the sick and the lonely as the work of shaping the whole Church toward living that echo of Christ in the world. None of this is a substitute for serious teaching and engagement with Scripture, tradition, theology, and the world around us, it is rather to say that such engagement is lived out in all of these aspects of our faith and cannot be isolated or divorced from them.
The unique approach of this book is the emphasis on catechesis as the holistic life of the Christian community lived in the world. So, catechesis involves not just learning about God, even learning to love God, but learning how to live faithfully in our consumerist society, learning what the virtuous life looks like in our modern world, learning what it means to be an echo of Christ in a world far removed from his but at the same time full of the same human desires, the same aching losses, the same hopes, fears, and joys. We have no other world in which to live as that echo, and so being a properly catechized community has to involve living as the community in which Christ’s love resounds here, and now, in the places we find ourselves. We cannot learn, or teach, our faith ‘on paper’, at least not fully.
Catechists are not teaching an interesting religion course, or ‘passing’ people in an exam for confirmation or church membership. We are training others, training ourselves, to, yes, know God more deeply in our minds and intellect, but also to live deeply into the pains of others, to give of ourselves for the joy of others, to bring healing to a wounded world. As we sit in the darkness of this year—a year of pandemic, of division in our societies, of a deep sense of grief, a catechesis that is to be worthy of Christ, worthy of our calling, and worthy of the beautiful world we are called to serve can only be one that shapes lives that continue in the echo of the life of Jesus down through the centuries. Because we are not the people of the right answers, we are the people of the crucified and risen one.
Jarred Mercer, formerly a chaplain, postdoctoral researcher, and member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, is Rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
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