Updated: May 19, 2021
NOTE: The general outline of this post is taken from James Ussher’s Body of Divinitie, or, The Summe and Substance of Christian Religion Catechistically Propounded, and Explained, by Way of Question and Answer: Methodically and Familiarly Handled
The importance of catechesis has become clearer to me in the past year. In the past year I have worked as a catechist and in such a role I have been impressed with the importance of the practice for the life of the church. In my opinion, it is the abandonment of a rigorous life of catechesis that has brought us into the theological, moral, and ecclesiastical mess that we are currently in.
In times past, there was no “youth group,” rather there was a period of at least a half an hour of catechesis on Sundays. Further, parents who did not pass on the faith through catechizing their children were excommunicated for this serious offense. To bring about the Reformation of our churches we must step away from those methods which we currently practice that result in two thirds of young adults to apostatize, and go back to catechizing our kids.
What is Catechizing?
Catechesis is described by Archbishop Ussher as “A teaching by voyce and repetition of the grounds of Christian Religion.” (Body of Divinitie, pg. 4) A series of questions and answers are provided by the church which outline the basic tenants of the Christian faith (usually patterned on the Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, 10 Commandments, and the Sacraments). The purpose of catechesis is memory. The child (or new convert) is repeatedly asked these questions and “echoes” the answers which are written. This provides a memorable, pithy, and theologically sound framework for the person being catechized to be able to think about questions of theology and life, and to interpret scripture with. It is like learning a new language which the child can speak about the faith and understand the faith with.
Who is Responsible?
Archbishop Ussher lists two people who are responsible for this task. First is the minister. The minister is exhorted in scripture to act as the chief teacher for his parish in matters of faith and morals. This duty to catechize clearly flows from this responsibility, whether it be from himself, or whether he provides someone who is apt for the task under his watch. The 1604 Canons reflect this, saying,
“Every Parson, Vicar or Curate, upon every Sunday and Holy-day before Evening Prayer, shall for half an hour or more, examine and instruct the Youth, and ignorant Persons of his Parish, in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s Prayer: and shall diligently hear, instruct, and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer...And if any Minister neglect his Duty herein, let him be sharply reproved upon the first Complaint, and true Notice thereof given to the Bishop or Ordinary of the Place. If after submitting himself, he shall wilfully offend therein again, let him be suspended. If so the third time, there being little hope that he will be therein reformed, then Excommunicated, and so remain until he will be reformed.”
Further, the Father of a house is also especially responsible for the duty of catechizing, mirroring the minister, in that he is the chief teacher of theology within his house as his solemn duty. First, this is expressed in bringing them to be catechized within the church, as the 1604 Canons teach,
“And all Fathers, Mothers, Masters and Mistresses, shall cause their Children, Servants and Apprentices, which have not learned the Catechism, to come to the Church at the time appointed, obediently to hear, and to be ordered by the Minister, until they have learned the same....And likewise, if any of the said Fathers, Mothers, Masters or Mistresses, Children, Servants, or Apprentices shall neglect their Duties, as the one sort in not causing them to come, and the other in refusing to learn as aforesaid; let them be suspended by their Ordinaries (if they be not Children) and if they so persist by the space of a Month, then let them be Excommunicated.”
Further, this duty is not just expressed within the church in passively bringing children to catechesis, but is actively expressed in Fathers catechizing their children at home. For, as Archbishop Ussher writes, “houses are the Nurseries of the Church.” (Body of Divinitie, pg. 5).
Five Reasons Why We Must Catechize: The Furthering of the New Covenant
First, the covenant with Abraham was propagated through Catechizing. As it says in Genesis,
“I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.”
For, the duty outlined in this passage is “he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord.” This in essence is the catechizing of his children. Abraham taught them to “keep the way of the Lord,” that is, “true justice and judgement,” which is the foundational truth of the covenant. Analogous to this truth of the Abraham covenant passed on are those truths of the Christian covenant, as is found in the catechisms of the church. Further, this is the act which will establish the covenant amongst those descendants. In the same way, Christian catechesis is what establishes the covenant amongst our children.
The Command of God
Second, it is a duty explicitly commanded by God in Sacred Scripture, under pain of sin. As it says in Deuteronomy,
“and these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”
This passage immediately follows the giving of the ten commandments and refers also to the entire exposition given to Moses of the covenant. So too in the New Covenant we are bound to teach the truth of the gospel “diligently unto thy children.”
Further, in Ephesians, St. Paul teaches,
“ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Here, as in the Deuteronomy passage, the solemn responsibility of catechesis is put into the hands of the Father, confirming what was said before about the responsibility of the Father to catechize his children.
Third, from Original Sin. At birth, children are blind to the knowledge of God, the Gospel, and Religion. Further, they are “children of wrath” who face damnation. Catechism dispels this darkness and enlightens the mind with the truth of the gospel. Solomon tells us that children ought to be taught the precepts of the Lord that they will not eternally die (Proverbs 22:6).
Further, by “common equity” parents ought to be responsible for the catechesis of their children. For, through them passed corruption by which the minds of their children was corrupted, so too, through them ought to pass the light of the gospel by which the minds of their children are enlightened.
The Examples of the Saints
Fourth, from the examples of the saints who catechized their children in the knowledge and duty of religion. First, the example of Hannah, who
“When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the Lord in Shiloh: and the child was young”
Second, the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who
“when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.
In conclusion, Catechesis is the sword the church must wield to face the trials and tribulations in her future. It will strengthen her and Reform her from darkness into light. For, what has weakened her is the lack of catechesis, allowing our “minds to be taken captive through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Therefore, to breathe new life into her, we must catechize.