I was crushed. I went home and cried to my mother. She had me sing the song, listened carefully and then said, “Well, you forgot three letters.” I guess I had critics even then.
Forgetting part of something — like Q, R and S in the alphabet — can cause confusion. It’s the same with the basics of our faith. If we forget something as we’re learning, it can cause confusion later. That’s why we have catechisms, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is marking its 20th anniversary during this Year of Faith.
The first catechisms were like my alphabet song — memorized. The word “catechism” comes from a Greek word that means “to echo” as in to “instruct orally.” A student echoes the teacher until the meaning of the words sinks in.
Passing on our faith in Christ is similar to an echo — except that we, as the church, echo Christ’s message. That is the whole purpose of Christian teaching — passing on Christ’s words, sharing the Gospel.
Teaching our faith started with the apostles. Christ told them to teach “what I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Spreading the good news — echoing what Jesus taught by words and actions — became their task.
Of course, before long, that teaching was written down — first in letters, such as those of Paul, and then the Gospels. Later writers added insights, including saints such as Cyril, Ambrose and Augustine. To this, the instructions of church councils such as Nicaea, Trent and Vatican II were added.
Official catechisms, teaching books, did not become common until the 15th century with the printing press. Martin Luther’s “Large Catechism” and “Small Catechism” were among the first, produced in 1529-1530. However, Ss. Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine also produced popular catechisms in the 16th century. And, since catechisms were often in a question and answer format, we also credit the great work of Thomas Aquinas — the Summa Theologica (1273) — as a catechism.
However, what might be considered the first universal catechism of the Roman Catholic Church was the “Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566); more popularly called “The Roman Catechism.”
The Roman Catechism was suggested by St. Charles Borromeo in response to the Protestant Reformation. The bishops of the Council of Trent believed that, if parish priests had a catechism to use for reference, it would help them counter errors about the faith.
The Council of Trent, in devising the Roman Catechism, relied on previous teaching. 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.” In our Catholic belief, these are the four pillars of our faith.
These pillars have been the foundation of our catechisms throughout history and remain so today. The structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992 (revised 1997), rests on them. “The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults”, issued in 2005, also uses the four pillars.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published on Oct. 11, 1992 (the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council), Blessed John Paul II also issued a teaching letter — Fidei Despositum. In it, he explained how the four parts of the catechism related to the pillars of faith:
“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 largest part of the 1992 catechism, also its first part, deals with the profession of faith (38 percent of the book). The second-largest part is “Life in Christ” (28 percent), followed by the sacraments (23 percent) and prayer, which gets only 11 percent of the total.
Perhaps, besides technology, one of the reasons we didn’t have “official catechisms” for so long in the church is that our forebears realized that all teaching about the faith remains a living reference. As Blessed John Paul said in 1992, the catechism is meant to “illumine with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past. … The catechism will thus contain the new and the old (cf. Mt 13:52), because the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light.”
Catechisms change because our perspectives change; new events and ideas need to be addressed by the living body of Christ, the church. But Christ does not change; the Gospel does not change. The original voice, which church teaching echoes, remains. Christ is always there, revealing the good news, in ways both new and old. And we all hear the echoes as the Spirit prompts. That’s why catechisms are renewed.
We learn the ABCs in different ways — as the Spirit prompts and the church guides.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Catechism of Council of Trent” at www.cin.org; Vatican website at www.vatican.va; “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”