A History Of Liturgical Catechesis Part II

Themes: Liturgy, Scholar

The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is based on a long tradition of uniting the church’s ministry of teaching (catechesis) with its ministry of worship (liturgy). This tradition has been recovered in the past two centuries in what has come to be called the “?liturgical movement.?”

Pentecost. The second memory is enshrined in the story of the “?first imitation?” in the early community, the sequel to the Pentecost story. In that story, two questions, two moments, and two thresholds frame the experience of the first converts to the new way. After witnessing the Pentecostal event, they are filled with amazement and even a little cynicism about new wine. Their initial question is one of idle curiosity, “?What does this mean??” (Acts 2:12). This question triggers a kerygmatic moment, in which Peter cites prophet and Psalm to cast a different light on what they have experienced. Their question now becomes deeply personal, “?What are we to do, brothers??” (2:37). In asking this new question, they have crossed a threshold, from a curiosity of the mind to the searching of a heart now open to conversion and faith. Their question invites a catechetical moment, in which Peter instructs them and urges them to “?save yourselves from this generation?” (2:40). The account ends with an idealized description of the life in common of “?those who accepted his message?” (2:41–47).

Again, a few words are in order. The account reveals a nuanced connection between evangelization and catechesis staged to address the developing quest of the converts. As in the Emmaus story, their human experience provides the starting point; and their questions mark new stages along the way. And as in the Emmaus story, catechesis leads to a profession of faith set in a context of ritual action. This moment is prolonged into mystagogy, liturgical celebration, and mutual service.

The Catechumenate. The third illustration is not only a memory, for the ancient catechumenate has now been restored in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). In the RCIA, catechesis and ritual celebration are brought back together, especially in the periods of the catechumenate proper (RCIA 75) and of mystagogy (RCIA 244–247). Together catechesis and liturgy are set in an unfolding process, a spiritual journey (RCIA 4.5). Christ in his paschal mystery stands at the center of the process (RCIA 8); and the entire community is charged with active responsibility for the initiation of new members (RCIA 9). The RCIA brings to realization what both the catechetical and the liturgical movements have sought to recover.

Catechesis and Liturgy. Gathering some motifs from the longer tradition’s vision, it can be said that catechesis and liturgy are linked intrinsically to each other. Liturgy without catechesis can easily become an impoverished, hollow ritualism; and catechesis, which does not issue into liturgy, can become too intellectualized (C.T. 23). Both are rooted in faith. In its own way, each expresses, nurtures, and strengthens that faith as it enables people to reflect on its meaning in their lives. The goals of both are the same: to enable people to live the gospel, to be a prophetic voice in their world, and to share their faith and way of life with the next generation.

There is also a certain overlapping of the two that resists too radical a separation. Liturgy itself has a formative power (N.C.D. 36), exercised through proclamation of the Word and symbolic ritual gesture. As a ministry of the Word, catechesis also has a formative power to shape faith through reflection on what the Word proclaimed and celebrated means for daily Christian life. In a sense, catechesis itself is celebrative.

Catechesis and liturgy are not identical, however. In the larger sweep of pastoral care, catechesis first prepares people for full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy and then helps them reflect back on the worship experience to relate it to daily life (N.C.D. 113). Thus, catechesis and liturgy are caught up in a recurring cycle, in which each reinforces the other.

To clarify the relationship between catechesis and liturgy further, catechesis can be described as a systematic, sustained effort to reflect on God’s Word made known to us in the Scriptures, in liturgical proclamation and sacramental celebration, and in our experience of Christian life and service to God. This understanding, central to kerygmatic catechesis and the pedagogy of signs, points to an important aspect of the relation between catechesis and liturgy. In catechesis, the immediacy of God’s call experienced in proclamation, celebration, and living service gives way to reflective appropriation of that experience. The classical theological dictum that liturgy is “?first theology?” and that what the theologians do is “?second theology?” offers us a parallel. Liturgy with its formative power is a “?first catechesis,?” while the systematic reflection on that experience done under the guidance of a catechist is “?second catechesis.?”

Liturgical Catechesis

What, then, is liturgical catechesis and what qualities are to be sought in shaping an effective liturgical catechesis?

Scope and Range. One functional description of catechesis reads: “?Within the scope of pastoral activity, catechesis is the term to be used for that form of ecclesial action which leads both communities and individual members of the faithful to maturity of faith?” (G.C.D. 21). In this view, the task of catechesis is “?to foster mature faith?” (N.C.D. 33), to “?put people not only in touch, but in communion, in intimacy with Jesus Christ?” (C.T. 5). Similarly, the function of liturgical catechesis is to enable people to participate actively, both internally and externally (S.C. 19), in the liturgy which celebrates that faith.

As the name itself suggests, liturgical catechesis is only one part of that larger catechetical ministry. Naming it liturgical catechesis implies a narrowing of the catechetical focus in some way. One such focus is to make liturgy the object, the content of the catechesis. If this is the only focus, liturgical catechesis risks making people self-conscious worshipers and turning their symbols into didactic signs. Another way to narrow the focus is to give the catechetical process a liturgical framework and orientation. Various forms of prayer and celebration are incorporated into the catechetical process, so that participants experience a movement from prayer to reflection to celebration. For example, catechumens gather not only for instruction, but also around the Word and for blessings, anointings, and scrutinies. A third way to focus on the liturgy is to use liturgical experience as a source for catechetical reflection, not just on the liturgy itself, but on the relationship between God and God’s people celebrated in the liturgy. Though it is the most difficult of the three, this way of focusing liturgical catechesis is most central to its task.

In keeping with the model established for initiation, two kinds of liturgical catechesis should be distinguished. The RCIA calls for pre-baptismal catechesis and post-baptismal catechesis (mystagogia). The norm for every sacrament would then be both pre-sacramental and post-sacramental catechesis. The first prepares recipients for a sacramental rite, takes place in a specific period, and is of a more general, elementary kind. The second is life-long and leads people to reflect on their sacramental experience and its meaning for their lives (N.C.D. 6). In pre-sacramental catechesis, rehearsal of the rites and detailed interpretation of the symbols are far less important than a spiritual readying of the recipients to live in the liturgical moment when their growing relationship with the Lord is marked with a distinctive sacramental sign. Invitation into that relationship and formation in the symbolic ways, both human and religious, in which it is expressed, take pastoral priority for this catechesis. In post-sacramental catechesis, the liturgical experience of God’s presence and action provides the starting point and focus for the catechetical reflection. In broad strokes, this mystagogy might simply be described as the reflective continuation of the “?opening up of symbols?” begun in the liturgy itself (NCCB, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 15).

Desired Qualities. Liturgical catechesis should be Christ-centered, formative-transformative, communal, and experientially-based.

Christ-centered. The first concern of liturgical catechesis is to help people develop the individual and communal relationship the crucified and risen Christ first nurtured and sacramentalized in the experience of Christian initiation (RCIA 8). Christ is the center of Christian life, liturgy, and catechesis; and his paschal mystery is the focal point for all Christian spirituality. The ultimate concern of liturgical catechesis is not liturgical history, the rites, symbolic objects, or the truth “?taught?” by the liturgy, but the person of Jesus and how the assembled people meet God in him. The key sources for liturgical catechesis are to be found where that Jesus is revealed to his disciples: in the proclaimed Word, in sacramental gesture, and in the living witness of those who live as his disciples.

Formative-transformative. Liturgical catechesis, like all catechesis and like the liturgy itself, is a formative experience. Formation in faith and in conversion would thus seem to be the appropriate goal for both. But entering into and growing in a relationship with Christ is ultimately a transformative experience accomplished only through the work of the Spirit. The appropriate goal of both liturgy and catechesis is to form people in a way that invites them into transformation; neither can be so programmed as to transform people automatically. The same holds true of liturgical catechesis; it forms for the sake of transformation. And since transformation is a journey of faith and conversion that takes a lifetime, liturgical catechesis is needed by disciples of every age according to their level of development (S.C. 19; N.C.D. 177–189), with a certain primacy accorded to adult catechesis as the “?chief form of catechesis?” (N.C.D. 188).

Communal. By its very nature, liturgy is a communal action. The assembly itself is the most important of the liturgical signs (NCCB, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 28). The very act of gathering , the constant use of the first person plural in public prayer, the common hearing of the Word of God, and the one sacramental action in which all participate shape the liturgical experience as a communal one in which the people meet Christ together. Liturgical catechesis needs a setting and a format, in which the reflection on the meaning of the liturgical experience can be done in common since the meaning is a public, shared meaning. Liturgical catechesis should also be communal in the sense that it is the common work of all in the community. All are to accept the formative role their witness has for others (RCIA 9). Adults in particular are to play a central role in their own catechesis (N.C.D. 185).

Experientially based. If catechesis in general should be concerned with making people attentive to their more significant experiences (G.C.D. 74), this holds especially true for liturgical catechesis. And if it is crucial for any learning method to take account, not only the goals and the learners, but also the subject to be studied, liturgical catechesis needs to devise methodologies that are attentive to what is most characteristic of the liturgical experience. Four such characteristics stand out.

First, liturgical celebration is repetitious. General structural patterns of gathering and sending, word and action, prescribed ritual dialogue, and patterned action repeat themselves in almost every rite. Within a given liturgical rite, most words are prescribed, even prescripted; and the ritual interactions are stylized and predictable. Like all ritual, liturgy is a “?known language?” in which people dwell and which they use, not to create a totally new story, but tell of and mark a journey of discipleship already underway.

Second, liturgical celebration is symbolic in expression. This is true not only of ritual actions, but to a great extent of the words as well. Liturgy conveys its meaning not in an explanatory, didactic fashion, but in a metaphoric, evocative way. Symbols speak to the whole persons in whole ways, not just to the mind for the sake of information sharing. Space, time, action, and speech form a highly nonverbal array of interlocking liturgical languages. In addition, the symbols used in the liturgy have roots not only in religious tradition, but also in human usage. For example, bathing and anointing someone or sharing food together serve as both human and religious symbols. Religious symbolism typically incorporates and builds on human symbolism.

Third, liturgical celebration is at its core symbolic ritual action. Ritual has its own way of valuing and knowing, prior to and often without words. Liturgical rites enact meaning rather than talk about it. In liturgy, God and people literally keep covenant in Christ, in the remembrance of his dying and rising. Liturgy is a saying-doing of the complete God-human Amen uttered in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

Fourth, liturgical celebration is repeated symbolic ritual action which the people do together. Though each one in the assembly can find personal meaning in the rites, the meaning symbolically enacted is a shared, public meaning, which goes beyond personal meanings. In the moment of ritual, individual stories and journeys are transposed and become part of the larger story told and enacted in memory of what God has done in Christ.

These four characteristics together urge that liturgical catechesis follow a procedure which does several things. From the perspective of human experience, liturgical catechesis first evokes the experience beneath liturgical symbols, such as bathing with water and anointing with oil, not just in its individual expression, but also in its cultural, political, and socioeconomic context. It attends to the dark side of the symbols as well as the bright side, e.g., that we both bond and fight with food. Second, it enables people to interpret that experience in its fullness and in the light of God’s Word revealed in Jesus and handed on to us in the community, such as the memory of the breaking of the bread. Third, it entrusts to people the tasks of living out that human experience in the world in full consonance with faith, so they may spread the story of how they came to know him.

What does this mean from the religious point of view? First, liturgical catechesis will start with the people’s experience of the liturgy itself. It will pay careful attention to the ways in which symbol and ritual help them to see and mark the place of God’s presence and action in their lives and to hear the call to further conversion. Second, the larger liturgical tradition will be presented as a living history of a people at prayer to the God, who walks as a companion on the journey so that we as Christians can more easily relate to that story. Third, the meaning of liturgy for people today and tomorrow should not be imposed, but should be called forth in the creative meeting of contemporary human experience and received tradition.

The twin renewal movements in liturgy and catechesis have opened the way to a closer collaboration between these two ministries. A more holistic vision of pastoral ministry, in which liturgy and catechesis support and complement each other, can now be recovered. Out of that vision, a liturgical catechesis that is Christ-centered, formative-transformative, communal, and experientially based can take shape.

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