Catechetical Day Keynote: Making Disciples Today

October 15, 2007

Making Disciples Today
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D.

Keynote Address at the Archdiocesan Catechetical Day
October 13, 2007

I am pleased to have the opportunity to join all of the catechetical leaders and catechists as we come together today to reflect on the challenges that come with being charged to pass on the good news. The theme for today’s gathering is: “Go Make Disciples.” That challenge brings us face to face with our responsibilities as catechists and evangelists.

This is something we are not always comfortable with but nonetheless it has to form part of our outlook as we move forward in our work as catechists and therefore, evangelists. The context of our activity is a world peopled with those who face many challenges, distractions and so many other voices offering direction, guidance and alternate ways of facing life.

We try to tell those entrusted to our care of Christ, of his way of life, of his invitation to faith and to life in him.

Context: Evangelization Within Today’s Culture

I want to begin our conversation today on some of the aspects of parish catechetical ministry and some of the challenges you face as parish catechetical directors and catechists with a brief introductory note. In my opinion one of the most helpful insights that guides catechetical and educational efforts in the Church today is the contextualizing of our efforts in the wider initiative of evangelization.

Underlining this focus on evangelization that we find in both the General Directory for Catechesis and our own National Directory for Catechesis is the recognition that we carry out our catechetical activities today in a situation where little knowledge of the faith can be presumed and where the teaching task is every bit as much to introduce someone into the faith as it is to strengthen and deepen their already present knowledge of the faith.

In our own ministry we have all experienced the effort to invite to the faith people who scarcely know Christ in any personal or meaningful way. We teach people, some of whom have not really tasted the joy of personal faith and who have found – in the confusion of MTV and late night television – few reasons for believing. The General Directory for Catechesis reminds us of what we know: that great numbers of our people “have lost a living sense of faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel.” (58)

The first thing we have to look at if we are going adequately to address catechesis today is the current American scene as the context of our catechesis – our catechetical effort.

Our culture is aggressively secular, to such an extent that the environment can be actually hostile to Christian faith. In examining our societal context today we can begin with the fact that the social mores, particularly in large urban centers and reflected in the means of social communications that reach the entire country, have so changed in the past years as to produce a climate that is not only secular but almost entirely focused on the material world. Today commentators often speak of a generation that has lost its moral compass.

Concomitant with this is the disintegration of the community and social structures that once supported religious faith and encouraged family life. The heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves. This impacts strongly on our capacity to call people to accept revealed teaching that cannot be changed by democratic process and to follow an absolute moral imperative that is not the result of prior popular approbation.

How often all of us have heard people say that whatever the point might be, “that is the Church’s view,” as if this were just one more among many equal opinions. Because Jesus has entrusted to his Church the words of everlasting life and because the Spirit guides the teaching office in the Church, the direction that comes from the bishops is not just one more among many opinions, all of which have equal worth. “He who hears you hears me,” Jesus said.

There is today, as there has always been to some extent, a temptation by some of the faithful to treat the Church as if it were incidental to salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has, perhaps, devoted such a large section to the function of bishops and priests precisely because the acceptance of the teaching authority of Christ exercised by bishops and priests in union with them throughout the world is a “hard saying” today.

This is not an academic question. Jesus who saves us was a historical person who died, rose and continues to be active in our lives in his risen glorified body through the sacramental re-presentation of the paschal ministry. To claim to know another Jesus – other than the Lord of history alive in his Church – is to know precisely “another” Jesus – other than the true, living Lord.

Evangelizing Young Families and Youth

In our pastoral experience often we encounter young parents, those who are called to be the first teachers of their children in the ways of the faith, who face their first serious personal catechesis when they themselves are invited to share in the catechetical programs for their children.

As lamentable as this situation may be, it is also an extraordinary one. This is a second chance for both them and for us. How many of our pastors have told us that for them the new evangelization is unfolding on two levels simultaneously: the introduction into the faith of very young children, and the instruction of their parents. For so many catechists and catechized, this is a particularly enriching moment because this time around the young adults may approach the faith with a great deal more openness and out of their own felt need to know more.

I would submit that the intuition of the General Directory for Catechesis and our National Directory for Catechesis and the pastoral experience in our country are identical. On the one hand there is a recognition that our catechesis is in many instances experienced as a first-time invitation to accept and live the faith and on the other hand there is the realization that many, many young people are eagerly searching for some spiritual meaning and value in their lives and are thus open to an introduction to Christ, his Church and his teaching in a way that perhaps we have not seen in recent years.

On the brighter side is a sense among some of our young people that the secular, material world does not provide them sufficient answers for their lives. Over and over, the phenomena of youth gatherings from as large as World Youth Day to as modest as small parish programs speak of the searching for value and direction that characterizes a growing number of our faithful. There is a hunger for God and the things of the Spirit, but it needs to be encouraged, informed and directed.

In reaching out to the young, I have experienced their openness, sense of searching, and desire for a clear affirmation of the faith. The basic truths of the faith often evoke in them a positive and affirmative response.

Where Do We Evangelize and Catechize?

Where does the catechetical evangelizing renewal that the Church calls for today take place? In a sense, the answer could very well be “everywhere.” There should be no geographical limit to our efforts to invite people to the faith. But for most of us, the parish is the location where we carry out our catechetical ministry. It is necessary to focus on the importance of the parish and how it is not only the place of our ministry but it becomes the structured setting within which we carry out our ministry.

While the diocesan church is the local or particular church — the manifestation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in a specific area — the work of the Church is carried out in great part at the parish level. Each parish is an expression of the diocesan Church and the members gathered around the pastor have the joy of living out the faith in a community of belief, worship, teaching and service. The same parish community has an obligation to participate in the Church’s mission of passing on the faith, giving example of how the faith is lived and growing more deeply into communion with Christ, particularly through the sacraments and especially through the Eucharist.

What the General and National Directories for Catechesis envision is a faith community gathered around their pastor in which parents begin the initiation of their children into the faith, supported by the structured religious education programs of a parish, either as a Catholic school or a parish religious education program that includes not only elementary and secondary level efforts but also adult faith formation that unfolds in a variety of ways, including sacramental preparation programs.

In this vision of passing on the faith, every single member of the parish takes on importance and has a significant role. Precisely as a faith community we profess our faith and should model what it means to come together in unity of belief, even while we are made up of divergent cultural ethnic and educational backgrounds.

In this view, parents look to the parish family for a living context in which their children experience what we speak of and what the Scriptures describe as the manifesting of God’s kingdom in our midst.

There should be, as well, a commitment across the board at every level of organized faith formation in the parish that there are many who should be with us and who simply are not. Part of our catechetical evangelizing outreach is an invitation extended over and over again to those of every age to join us at liturgy and in the experience of knowing more about our faith.

The first operating principle should be the recognition that somehow the entire Church must be invited into both the recognition that there is a need to evangelize and catechize and the commitment to participate in this effort. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the catechetical renewal today. Everyone in the parish, particularly parents and members of the extended family, but also colleagues, friends and people who work together on parish committees must be helped to see that there is a deficiency in the understanding of the faith today and in the intensity of the commitment to live it. Each of us individually and all of us together must assume responsibility for sharing with others the faith that we have received and that we so cherish.

All – school teachers, catechists, parents, youth ministers, adult education and sacramental preparation personnel together with representatives of parish councils and a wide range of parish apostolates – are invited to underline that the teaching of the faith is the responsibility of each of us, the whole parish church, regardless of our other duties. We cannot so compartmentalize our activities as to assume that sharing our faith is the work of someone else. Catechesis is a responsibility of the entire faith family.

A significant principle for an effective new evangelization recognizes the wide range of teachers of the faith beginning with parents who are the primary educators of their children on through religious and lay catechists who deal with specific groups in parish catechetical programs.

Catechetical leaders in the parish bear a special responsibility for faith formation because so much of the actual day-to-day activity of parish religious education is their particular charge. It is for this reason that parish catechetical leadership must be prepared, formed in the message of the Church and supported on the local level.

To ensure proper catechesis, a parish has to address the possibility of hiring properly trained directors of parish religious education programs and Catholic school principals – catechetical leaders who have a deep love for Jesus Christ and want to share the teachings of the Church with others. In addition, parish priests must provide for the proper training of the parish’s catechists and the use of catechetical texts and resource materials that are in conformity to the standards set forth by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An extremely important aspect of parish catechetical ministry today is the highlighting of the specific role of lay ecclesial ministers. While by ordination a priest or a deacon receives authorization to teach, at the parish level there are many lay ecclesial ministers who receive authorization through a delegation from the bishop and pastor to carry on explicitly in the name of the Church specific ministries. In this sense we recognize the growing numbers of lay men and women who have been entrusted with certain offices and roles connected with the ministry of ordained pastors.

What Do We Teach?

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded of how he reminded his hearers that he passed on what he had also received. Christ is the message and that message comes to us from Christ in and through his Church.

While we recognize that at the heart of our faith is the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, we also realize that such a meeting takes place within the context of the spiritual family he has brought into being. We come to know Christ in and through his Church that tells us who he is and how we become one with him.

It is God who speaks to us. We, in turn, learn the truth of God in revelation and simultaneously proclaim and live it. We receive the faith in the concrete world of personal experience, the same world in which we are called to live out the faith, and do so in a way that truly determines our actions and directs our life.

What is presumed is a corpus of revelation, a body of truth received by the Church, the body of Christ, in an act of learning that is ultimately an act of faith. What it also assumed is a continuous passing on of this corpus in a way that the living word of God is made present to generation after generation in a complete and authentic presentation.

Who we are and, therefore, how we relate to one another are radically different for the believer who not only sees the world through the eyes of faith but enters into the supernatural reality that we call the coming of God’s kingdom in our world in anticipation of its fullness in the life to come. Again, this realization highlights all the more why the content of the faith is utterly essential to the passing on of an encounter with the living Christ.

Today we not only recognize that the teaching of the Church – the content of the faith – is at the heart of catechesis and Catholic education, but also that we have the tools that bring consistency and authenticity to the effort.

Where Do We Find What Jesus Taught?

It is in and through the Church that we find Jesus. It allows us to reach back over twenty centuries and touch the person of Christ. Our ministry and teaching are in the name of and on behalf of the Church. Our communion with the Church’s teaching office verifies the truth of what we say. It is not ourselves but Jesus Christ we preach. Obviously it is not our word that authenticates what we proclaim. It is the teaching of the Church and our fidelity to it that gives a stamp of integrity to our proclamation.

A good catechist, a good witness to the faith, in addition to proclaiming the Word, is also the living authentication of his or her word’s relationship to the Gospel through its continuity in the Church with Christ.

There is a sequence in which you and I are participants. As Jesus was the Word who came to proclaim it, so we have received the Gospel which gives identity to our lives and calls us to be its heralds.
“The Church from the Apostles, the Apostles
from Christ, Christ from God”
(Tertullian, Clement to Corinthians, Ignatius of Antioch)

The Church is the place where heaven and earth touch. The kingdom of heaven is not only manifest in this world but is realized, at least initially, in this world.

How Do We Pass on the Teaching of Christ?

The example of Jesus provides us an answer to this important question. The Church speaks of divine pedagogy. Christ taught a message unlike any other. It was God’s word breaking into our world that he revealed. He did not look to the world for the answers to the great human questions and the response to the great drama of the human condition. He brought God’s wisdom as the answer to the great questions of human life.

The Church, and all of us who proclaim the Gospel in communion with the Church, assume the same teaching posture. We are confident in our message because it is God’s word. We do not hesitate to offer solutions to life’s present problems because we know that what we proclaim truly are the words of everlasting life.

To share this eternal word, Jesus not only came among us as one of us, but called, from among all of those who had heard him preach, some who would walk with him. He gradually shared with them the meaning of his message. They came to understand his proclamation of the kingdom come among us and therefore to grow in hope.

As he explained the meaning of his teaching he provided a whole new vision of the meaning of life in the context of God’s kingdom coming to be and of God’s Spirit actually dwelling with us.

When Jesus opened the scroll in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his public ministry, he chose a messianic text. He then announced that the very works that were to herald the messianic kingdom were being fulfilled, right then and there, by his very presence and deeds.

Jesus answered the great questions of life: How shall I live? What values should direct my life? What is the purpose of life?

In helping his disciples – his Apostles – come to accept the challenge he was to give them, he taught them to pray and then sent them out as his apprentices on mission and gave them the gift of the Spirit to sustain them.

Before them he placed the vision of the kingdom of God being realized in and through what we say and do.

How Do We Carry Out Our Responsibility?

The National Directory for Catechesis highlights the many ways Jesus taught: “Christ’s methodology was multidimensional. It included his words, his signs, and the wonders he worked. He reached out to the poor, to sinners, and to those on the margins of society. He proclaimed insistently the coming of the kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with the Father. Especially in his parables, Christ invited his listeners to a whole new manner of life sustained by faith in God, encouraged by hope in the kingdom, and animated by love for God and neighbor. He used every resource at his disposal to accomplish his redemptive mission” (92-93).

Scripture tells us at a certain point Jesus began to teach and to do. Gradually people came to understand who He was and what His message was. So it is for the witnesses of Jesus today.

Our task is to bear witness to the person and Gospel of Jesus as did the first apostolic community. In his October 19, 2006 homily at the Fourth National Ecclesial Convention in Verona, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, reminded us of the countercultural witness of so many, especially the martyrs, of the early Church and that “today we are the heirs of those victorious witnesses!” He goes on to tell us that in order to be a witness our faith must come alive in us so that we are able to give a reason to everyone for the hope that is in us. In that same homily our Holy Father reminded us “to do this, we must return to proclaiming powerfully and joyfully the event of Christ’s death and resurrection, the heart of Christianity, principle fulcrum of our faith, powerful lever of our certainty, impetuous wind that sweeps away every fear and indecision, every doubt and human calculation.”

Our role is to step forward in this society, in this culture, in this community and speak the words of everlasting life. We need to introduce a whole new generation and their children into the revelation. To do this, we need to be confident of our own identity and, therefore, our warrant to speak.

What we have to say, and our claim to be heard, rests on our identity — who we are as members of the Church. Jesus spoke with authority. They all marveled that unlike the scribes he spoke with authority. Jesus’ authority came from who he was — the Way, the Truth and the Life.

His authority rested on his identity. So does ours. To the extent that we are members of the Church and participate in the authentic teaching of the Church and her sacramental life, we can be confident voices proclaiming the truth with assurance.

It is one thing to proclaim the faith and to bear witness to it, it is another to help people realize its value and meaning in their lives. The witness to the faith and the bearer of the tradition must live the faith so that its meaning and impact are apparent for others.

The catechist / teacher / witness, through his or her words and deeds, bears testimony to Jesus, tells the story of Jesus, lives the story of Jesus. Teacher is an ancient and well-honored title. The catechist is the storyteller of the faith family. He or she passes on the collective memory of the community so that each generation can benefit from the living faith of the past generations. Otherwise, each generation has to begin from zero. This, in the world of faith, is impossible because Jesus does not repeat the original Incarnation for each new age. He relies on his Church — his new body.

We begin to share when we tell others of Jesus. We live and talk in such a manner that the truth of what we proclaim inspires others to accept and follow the Lord. This is the primary role of the catechist — to tell the story of Jesus with such conviction and with such witness power that others want to follow him. Faith begins with this witness.

The witness to the faith lives the faith — lives for Christ. The invitation to others to accept our witness must be based not only on what we say, but on what we do. More powerful than our words are our actions and how we live our words. The silent pedagogy of our lives is a powerful part of witness.

Somehow, in everything we are and do, others must come to see in us our certainty that our life has meaning, joy and fulfillment because we live now what will be entirely complete in the blessed vision of God. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him”(1 Cor 2:9; cf. Is 64:3).

How Does the Content of Catechesis Foster Witness?

Yet this proclamation of the kingdom of God is more than personal enthusiasm. It is anchored in the knowledge that Christ has died and that Christ has risen. Hence, the creed. It is the summary of our faith. Faith is a response to the Son of God we have come to know. Knowledge of Him is, therefore, an essential, integral part of faith. We come to know Christ as a reality and decide to follow him and his way. Without the knowledge of who He is and what He wants us to do, we cannot approach the moment when we willingly and lovingly say yes to Him.

Authentic Catholic faith is never partial or selective. It is always universal. We say yes to the whole mystery of the faith and to each of its elements because of our personal faith in God. We believe the truth that God reveals because we believe God, and we believe that God is still teaching in and through the Church. When Peter came to recognize that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, he was prepared to believe any word of Christ, for it was clear to him that God is always to be believed. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God”(Jn 6:68-69).

The witness to the faith knows the faith. Since there is a content to the Gospel message that is passed on from age to age, it is necessary that the catechist know well the story not just in broad outline but in intimate detail. The story of Jesus is not the dead letter of a printed page but the living word alive in the Church nourished and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Hence, the Gospel of Jesus includes the living tradition of the Church as the Church has experienced Jesus in our midst.


In concluding these reflections on making disciples today, as we attempt to do the work we all so much love – telling others the story of Jesus – we are reminded of the challenges we face in becoming every day a disciple more reflective of the face of Christ.

At times the work of teaching the Gospel in today’s culture and of passing on the story of Jesus can seem daunting. But we know that it is Christ who calls us, empowers us, teaches us and leads us. While he may ask us to “set out into the deep” he nonetheless pledges to be there with us.

We might very well hold before our mind’s eye the image of Peter when Jesus asked him to step out of the boat onto the water. The Gospel tells us that Peter only began to slip beneath the waves when he lost faith in what Christ asked him to do. But even then, Jesus reached out his hand and held Peter in his firm grip to keep him from being overwhelmed.

You and I, each day, we set out into the deep, we try to walk where Christ asks us to walk and we do so with the assurance that he is with us and will sustain us.

May God bless you, your ministry and your service to this Church, its young people, and its future.

Thank you.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]