Quenching the Catechetical Thirst
An Interview with Marianne Cuthbertson FAITH Magazine January-February 2008
A big handicap for many priests in the work of spiritual formation is the marked degree of religious ignorance of many parishioners. The Church does have a remedy for this, which is being attempted at the parish of St Benedict’s, Ealing Abbey It seems to be bearing fruit.
The Parish Priest of St Benedict’s is Dom Peter Burns and the Catechetical Co-ordinator is Marianne Cuthbertson. Marianne conducts her catechetical work in the light of the fact that the Parish Priest is responsible to the Bishop and before God for handing on the faith. She is responsible at the Abbey for running sacramental preparation programmes, catechist training and other more general adult catechesis.
Over the last few years she has run a short parish-based programme for handing on the faith, produced by Maryvale, called Echoes. She has now run it five times touching the lives of 180 parishioners who have followed the 11 session course. Seventy of these are now active trained catechists and many are now pursuing further studies at Maryvale ranging from certificate to BA and MA levels.
This interview with Marianne brings out the substance and the practical application of the Church’s own catechetical vision for integral catechesis as outlined in the two great catechetical gifts of the Church for our time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis. It would seem to be a timely illustration.
Marianne is married with three children, is an experienced teacher and has recently completed a BA in Applied Theology specialising in catechesis after six years of part time study at the Maryvale Institute. She continues to enjoy support and formation from there and now works with the BA Course Director Caroline Farey as an associate member of staff in the catechetical team.
Editor: As a professional teacher and practising Catholic you discerned a call to work as a parish catechist. Could you tell us a little more about this moment?
Marianne: In my initial desire to help in the catechesis in my own parish I knew that being a teacher and a practising Catholic was not enough and that I needed training and formation. My search began for a place that would guide me, not into anything primarily speculative or experiential, but into that which, in complete faithfulness to the Magisterium, would enable me to learn the Catholic faith more fully from the Church herself. I found what I was looking for at the Maryvale Institute.
My first lecture at Maryvale was on the Holy Trinity. Although I had always thought of myself as an educated Catholic, I was shocked to realise the depths of my ignorance. For a short while I became quite angry because I had come to see that this is the birthright of every baptised person and I had not been offered the opportunity to hear the fullness of the truth, the truth that sets us free.
The Church teaches us that there are three stages in Christian formation: receiving the faith proclaimed, catechesis and then ongoing adult formation for the rest of our lives. The riches of the faith are so deep and so wonderful that we’ll never ever in our lifetime have our thirst for truth satiated.
Editor: How do you understand the purpose of the catechesis in which you engage?
Marianne: Catechesis is the handing on of Christ with the fullness and integrity that nourishes communion with Him in all the dimensions of our being ( cf Catechesi Tradendae 5).
Many people think catechesis is only about knowledge, others think it is only about a religious experience: the Church is always richer in her thinking than any one of us, and asks us to participate in this integral, objective and personal handing on. The context for everything we teach is salvation history.
I understand the purpose of all catechesis in the way that this is described in Acts 2:42. This little verse outlines the four dimensions of the Christian life. These have been handed down to us through Tradition as the ‘four pillars’ of the Catholic faith and these are present in the four parts of the Catechism. The General Directory for Catechesis describes them as faith believed, celebrated, lived and prayed. (GDC 122)
Editor: Would you say that there is a perception among some people that if you simply teach content, say directly from the Catechism, it can be off-putting, it can be boring for people, it can make them not want to go deeper into their faith? It can make the faith seem like an abstract system.
Marianne: There are several issues here. As I have said, catechesis is not simply the teaching of content. Such teaching is vital but it is only one of the dimensions of life in Christ and therefore of catechesis. Secondly, if catechesis is boring it is usually due to a lack of conviction or lack of love in the catechist. A catechist should approach this task with the attitude that the Catechism is awesome, it is wonderful, it is awe-inspiring. Thirdly, God’s Revelation, which is what the Catechism contains, is life-giving. It is often wrongly portrayed as an abstract system, but if one trusts the Church when she speaks of her dogmas as ‘lights along the path’ (CCC 89) then as a catechist one does not separate truth from life.
Editor: What is at the heart of expressing the content of the faith with awe and wonder?
Marianne: I think it is very important that catechists be convinced of the truth of the faith for themselves. Sadly, some catechists have a relativist approach which is not helpful when catechising because it suggests that we don’t know what is really true, but by Revelation we do. We come to bring a wonderful truth, given to us by the Holy Trinity.
Editor: What methodology do you use?
Marianne: In this country, for the last thirty or forty years the experiential method, often described as the Pastoral Cycle has been prevalent. We don’t use that method. We use what is called the Ecclesial method, reflecting the methodology of the early Church Fathers. It is a rich methodology, chosen in ‘the light of the pedagogy of God’ as described in the GDC Part 3. The steps of this pedagogy can be followed in the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel where the angel Gabriel announces a truth that God wants people to know. At the beginning of a session we take time to turn to God, because the message that is being given is a message from the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is at work in catechesis. We need to distinguish catechesis from teaching in the secular sense. Something different is going on here.
Editor: How would a particular session flow?
Marianne: We indicate something different is going on firstly by preparing the room, always having a focal table utilising elements of our rich Catholic heritage, together with cloths and candles. The crucifix must always have a prominent position together with the Sacred Scriptures. The session will always begin and end with prayer. The end prayer will be a little longer, usually with some link to the liturgy of the Mass.
We first proclaim the teaching, then explain it using brief notes. We don’t give a pre-prepared speech. It’s very important that the catechist is extremely familiar with the Catechism text and uses an appropriate Scripture passage as the driving force of the talk, the doctrine hanging on the Scripture. We invite questions and discussion, it’s so important that they understand what is being handed on. And then we ask those being catechised the question: “How does this apply to your life?”
There will also be some social time, fellowship in the Holy Spirit.
Editor: How would you approach a lack of acceptance or understanding?
Marianne: We encourage people to question with the purpose of clarifying meaning and understanding. For example people might say, “I have a problem here, can you help me on this, can you clarify.” It is the catechists job to respond to that type of question, as patiently and painstakingly as is necessary – for instance to explain apostolic authority, that Christ gives his authority to the Church.
If on the other hand someone is saying “You, or the Church, has a problem here” or in general has a problem in believing, that is different, it is a deeper spiritual problem. So, for example someone might say that they don’t believe in the Church’s teaching on contraception. That is a more difficult situation than not quite understanding. This is not the catechist’s task to resolve because it is a spiritual problem that requires a priest. We would try to guide the person towards confiding in a priest. Fundamentally the catechists’ role is to assist the Parish Priest.
Editor: Could you talk a little about preparation for a particular session?
Marianne: Prayer is the most important thing of all. We encourage all catechists to pray before they begin their preparation. Closely allied with this is reminding ourselves that we are about to proclaim the faith of the Church. The catechist then prepares the lesson plan focusing firstly on the purpose and the key points of the teaching as outlined in the Catechism ensuring that every session is Christocentric (according to the four types of Christocentricity in GDC 98). The relevant scriptural passages and liturgical references which are given in the Catechism’s footnotes are studied and selections made for the session. We reflect the liturgical and devotional dimensions through the use of sacramentals and the rich prayer heritage of the Church.
Editor: Does your training as a teacher help you in your role as a catechist?
Marianne: I would say that my training as a teacher has helped me in that I am able to talk to groups and give explanations. But catechesis is quite different from teaching. It is about formation of the whole person. That is why the demeanor of the catechist is important. Negative attitudes such as “this is going to be difficult material”, or “this might be a bit sticky tonight”, or “you’re not going to like this” are unacceptable. The faith is beautiful and the only appropriate attitude is to teach it as such. That’s why it’s so important that the catechist truly believes everything that he or she is teaching, believes that it’s from God and that it gives life. This manner permeates the whole session. I would note here that Dom Peter requires all the catechists at the Abbey, in public during Sunday Mass, to take the mandatum, the oath of fidelity to the Church’s teaching.
So in terms of my current role my training and formation at Maryvale has been much more important than my training as a teacher.
Editor: Could you mention for us some of the feedback you have had?
Marianne: One of the parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion told me that in the bar after their sessions parents will ask another “Did you know any of that?” Most of the parents will say no. For example: many of them have never heard of the heavenly liturgy, they don’t know what “memorial” means, or the meaning of interior participation. Many have been thinking of the Mass as a community celebration without an understanding of the depth of the link with the Paschal Mystery. Even more fundamentally not a few have an understanding of the Holy Trinity that is simply incompatible with Church teaching. So a lot of our teaching is very new to them especially the theological language. There has been an erroneous attitude that people can’t possibly understand the language of the Church. This is a profound disservice to our people. The human mind is made to receive God’s revelation, and therefore to receive the truth that the theological language conveys. Our pedagogical technique attempts to take account of the fact that we are imparting language which is new to many. We introduce them to appropriate texts and most come back for more
Editor: What might be the main thing you have learnt from your pastoral experience at Ealing Abbey?
Marianne: I think it was in 2005 that the Holy Father spoke to the Bishops of Austria and encouraged them not to dilute doctrine, not to be frightened of giving people the fullness of the truth. I have discovered that after hearing part of the fullness of the truth most want more. They become more excited by the faith and want to pass the faith on. The message that we’re increasingly trying to get through to our parishioners at the Abbey is that today people don’t know that they don’t know. And once they recognise that they don’t truly know they become hungry. They then want to pass the faith on, but you cannot pass on what you have not yet first received. This experience gives one a deeper appreciation of St Paul’s proclamation:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received”. (1 Cor 15:3)
I myself am still hungry and thirsty for the truth about the love that never ends (CCC 25) and I recognise that the people who come for catechesis are hungry and thirsty too.
"The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of Our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective and to arrive at love. (n. 25)