- The profession of the faith — the creed;
- The sacraments;
- The commandments;
- And the prayer of believers, best expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.
These four pillars have been the basis of our catechisms throughout history. And they remain so today. The entire structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, rests upon these four pillars. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, published by the U.S. bishops in 2005, is also based on these four.
The 1992 catechism (revised in 1997) has four main parts, one for each of the four pillars:
- The Profession of Faith which details the Nicene Creed, the creed we say at Mass on Sunday. (This pillar comprises 38 percent of the catechism.)
- The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, which explores the seven sacraments. (This is 23 percent of the catechism.)
- Life in Christ, showing us how a follower of Christ is called to live, spends a great deal of time explaining the Ten Commandments. (This makes up 28 percent of the catechism.)
- Christian Prayer studies prayer life and traditions, and especially focuses on the Lord’s Prayer. (This section is 11 percent of the catechism.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published on Oct. 11, 1992 (the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council). In his official letter about the new catechism, Fidei Despositum, Pope John Paul II explained how the four parts of the catechism connected to the four pillars:
“The four parts are related one to the other: the Christian mystery is the object of faith (first part); it is celebrated and communicated in liturgical actions (second part); it is present to enlighten and sustain the children of God in their actions (third part); it is the basis for our prayer, the privileged expression of which is the Our Father, and it represents the object of our supplication, our praise and our intercession (fourth part).”
The late pope also noted that this catechism followed earlier teachings of the church, most specifically the last universal catechism — best known as the Roman Catechism. Published in 1566 by the Council of Trent, the Roman Catechism has various names, including the Catechism of St. Pius V, the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism for Parish Priests.
Its creation was suggested by St. Charles Borromeo and was in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was believed by the fathers of the Council of Trent that, if parish priests had such a catechism in their hands to use for reference, it would help them to counter errors about the faith.
The Council of Trent, in devising the Roman Catechism, relied on previous teachings of the church. They noted that “our predecessors in the faith have very wisely reduced all the doctrines of salvation to these four heads: The Apostles’ Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.”
Those four main elements are, of course, the four pillars. They, in turn, can be summed up in two elements, according to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Primate of Canada and now head of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops.
In an article about the 1992 Catechism, published in 1994, the cardinal described these two points (and their related pillars) as “the initiative of God who reveals himself (1) and gives himself (2); (and) … man’s free cooperation, with the grace of God in his actions (3) and his prayer (4).”
So, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church runs 688 pages in length (not counting the indexes), what we really only have to remember this basic truth: it all starts with God — since we could never approach God on our own — and it all ends with God, our final goal.
God wants to draw near to us — as we know from the creed and experience in the sacraments; and we want to be one with God — so we pray and we follow the Commandments.
Four pillars, giving us the foundation we need to anchor our lives so that nothing comes crashing down around our ears.
After all, if we use the four pillars as the place to park our lives, we’re on our way to getting the best parking spot of all: eternal life with God.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Vatican web site at www.vatican.va; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Communio magazine, fall 1994; and The Catechism of the Council of Trent.