Christian Formation. Where do we Start?

Editorial January – February 2012

Fr Ray Blake's internet blog ( is always informative and thought provoking. The post for Friday, October 21, 2011, "Conversation on a train", ran as follows:

An interesting conversation on a train the other day between a young university student who got on the train with some young Middle Eastern students. I don't know if the young man was Catholic or Orthodox, he looked southern Mediterranean.

"Yes, I used to go to Church every Sunday. I don't believe in it now".

There followed a short discussion on different cultures and family celebrations, including Eid.

"We have Christmas, which is a bit like Eid. We also have Easter".

"What is that about?"

"Someone betrayed him, I think it was Jesus, so we burn some wood".

"That's strange"

"Yeah, it is really weird isn't it?"

A good priest would have stood up and catechised the whole carriage, I didn't. I didn't know how to.

Tragically, scenarios like this, which are far from untypical, sum up the state of Christian formation for many young people across much of the Western world. Leaving aside the humble self-deprecation of the final comment, the post does touch on an important issue which is much debated at the moment. Where and how do we begin to address the appalling ignorance of the faith even among our own? Should we place the main emphasis of our efforts on catechesis or on liturgy? Or indeed should we concentrate on teaching personal prayer, spirituality and devotion, or perhaps on practical Christianity through charitable works and the transformation of society with Catholic values, such as pro-life issues.

Of course these are false contradictions, but a case can be made to support the observation that in the aftermath of Vatican II the Church was driven by competing factions, each emphasing an aspect of Christian formation at the expense of others. The predominant tendency was to emphasise action over belief, praxis over orthodoxy, 'values' rather than moral truths, and 'story' in place of doctrine. This was especially evident in our schools, but also in our parish courses for sacramental preparation. The flawed and hackneyed phrase "as long as you're sincere, it doesn't matter what you believe" was heard with maddening monotony in Catholic circles throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Catechesis of any kind often concentrated on the experiential to the exclusion of objective content. Catholic identity was presented almost entirely in terms of belonging to the local community, with little mention of supernatural relationships or a personal spiritual life. Calls for social action and justice rang out loud and clear from pulpits and pastoral letters, although pro-life issues were all too often noticeable by their absence. Meanwhile Catholic teaching and devotional activities, such as Benediction and the Rosary, were sidelined and all but died out in many places.

This is not to say that social witness is unimportant, nor that catechesis should not have an experiential dimension. The error lay in the downplaying of doctrine and devotion. Underlying this erroneous tendency, as Faith has pointed out many times over the last forty years, is the implicit or explicit denial of the transcendence of God, the Divinity of Christ, the historical objectivity of revelation and the authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals, and also the denial of the spiritual soul as a principle of existence that is distinct from yet integrates the material within the unity of our human nature.

Perhaps in reaction to this loss of a sense of the transcendent and of the spiritual, new movements took flight. One example was the Charismatic Renewal which emphasised the vital importance of having a personal relationship with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For many this proved a lifeline and a vehicle of genuine conversion from worldly ways of living, and a challenge to mediocrity and token Christianity.

But there are dangers in concentrating on the emotional, the ecstatic, and on extraordinary spiritual gifts and manifestations, especially if they are held to be greater signs of grace than the true highest gifts of the Spirit which are simple faith, hope and above all charity. Spiritual ecstasies and miraculous gifts are not in themselves alien to Catholic spirituality, being well attested in the lives of the saints. However, within Catholic tradition such phenomena are subject to the correctives of careful discernment and sound doctrine also found in the great spiritual writers and Doctors of the Church, together with a much greater emphasis on purification and contemplative stillness.

For many priests and ordinary people, contact with deep spiritual formation and with the spiritual writings of the saints had been lost well before the Council. In the schools and parishes of the Catholic heartlands rote learning of doctrines and duties - not a bad thing as such - was rarely brought to life in a vision of the personal love of God, with a clear path shown for achieving the heights of sanctity. There were many exceptions of course. We should not over-generalise, nor do we mean to join in the routine caricature of the era "before the Council" as all dust and darkness, any more than we believe that all has been all sweetness and light since 1968.

However, there was - and still is now - a need for renewal on many levels.

It is perhaps not surprising for these reasons that the charismatic phenomenon took its impetus from outside the Catholic tradition, specifically the Pentecostal movement which began among the evangelical Protestant groups in America. As well as the dangers already mentioned, this also meant, especially in the early days, that it had no clear connection to the sacramental and liturgical life, above all devotion to the Holy Eucharist, and all too often doctrinal and catechetical formation were dismissed as mere 'academics' or intellectualism; doctrinal formation and apologetics being seen as something purely for those of a 'theological bent'.

At times this led to unhelpful confusions and excesses which have harmed rather than helped the Catholic identity of some people. But there is no doubting the popularity and fruits of the charismatic influence, with many of its adherents being instinctively on the side of orthodox belief and moral precepts. So, as with many styles of spirituality and popular movements, the Church in her wisdom has brought it under her wing and there has been much progress in integrating all that is good with the full tradition of Catholic faith and life.

That process of integration might have been easier if the liturgical and catechetical life of the Church had been clear, vibrant and stable at the time; but it was not. Liturgy, as is well known, became something of a battle ground, which, sadly, it still is today. It was during the 1970s that liturgical battle lines were drawn between so-called 'progressives' and 'traditionalists'. Of course, liturgical differences were not the only issues at stake on either side of that divide; many doctrinal, moral and ecclesiastical questions became flash points for division, even, tragically, for schism in some cases.

As with so much else, the dominant tendency was anti-traditional, what has now been called the "hermeneutic of rupture". In terms of the liturgy this meant a culture of "creativity" based on the idea that liturgy is the expression of the local community. Once again, often underlying this has been an immanentist theology that sees the presence of Christ arising from the assembly and the human quality of its celebration. None of this is intrinsic to the Missa Normativa, but accretions and excesses have so often become identified with it in practice that it has fuelled the false perception, on both sides of the progressive/traditional divide, that the ancient (Extraordinary) and modern (Ordinary) forms of the Roman Rite embody two opposing ecclesiologies.

We live in times of reassessment, consolidation and rebuilding after these and other violent storms. Tradition is no longer a taboo word and traditional forms of prayer are once more being rediscovered and recognised as a treasure store and a priceless patrimony handed on to us by the saints of God across the ages. The liturgy is being re-established little by little, in the minds of God's people as the corporate worship not just of the local but of the whole Body of Christ, the universal Church, reaching across time and space and into heaven itself:

"You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven ... and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant" (Hebrews 12:22-24).

As we attempt to reconnect with our own history, which is after all a sacred history as far as the Divine Liturgy is concerned, the value of the Church's liturgical traditions are once again being emphasised not just as expressions of sacredness and beauty in the public work of God, but as the embodiment and carriers of the Church's faith.

It is true that the liturgy communicates orthodox faith and fosters true devotion through its language of sign and symbol, its times and seasons, and its repeated formulae and actions. This is precisely why the words and gestures we use and the rubrics we follow matter so much. They express and sacramentally effect a Reality and a Truth that is bigger than ourselves.

Yet, even if we could count on the faithfulness, obedience and liturgical dignity of all priests, is liturgical activity enough on its own to win back the lost generations and re-form the minds and hearts of God's people? There can be no doubt that authentic liturgical renewal is an essential component of that wider renewal, but the story told on Fr Blake's blog - which could be multiplied by many similar examples of lapsed young adults everywhere - is a cautionary tale.

The young man on the train clearly had experience of the Easter Triduum in some form, but all he had taken with him into adulthood was an incomprehensible memory that "they burn some wood" and that "it's got something to do with Jesus". The sad truth is that even the language of Christian sign and symbol has largely died out in people's consciousness, so deep is the sterilising effect of secularism upon our culture now. Even regular Sunday attendance at Mass throughout childhood does not necessarily communicate a clear understanding of the mysteries of Christ.

Another priest once told a story of a young boy who came regularly to serve at devotions and Benediction on a Friday night. A sure sign of burgeoning spirituality, perhaps? Then one time when the priest paused for a bit longer than usual before fetching the sacred species, the boy leant over and helpfully prompted in a stage whisper, "Father, you've got to put the stuff in the thing now!”

What he meant was, it's time to put the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, but it was clear he had no idea what was really going on.

It emerged that he came mainly to get some respite from a difficult home life, although he had indeed recognised something peaceful and attractive going on in the church. The evenings also gave him an opportunity to shine in a practical way. However, like Samuel, despite being frequently in the Temple he "did not yet know the Lord" (1 Samuel 3:7). It became a teachable moment, of course, but again it shows that understanding does not follow automatically from habit, especially in childhood. Without sustained catechesis, youthful involvement in liturgy is no guarantee of deep faith and it can drain away all too easily on growing older in a secularised and worldly culture.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s Faith Movement carried the flag in the UK for doctrinal catechesis and the renewal of apologetics. Doctrinal orthodoxy and loyalty to the Magisterium were not fashionable causes, and they were made less so by our calls for a real development of doctrine and a theological expression of Catholicism to revindicate orthodoxy in the age of science.

Times have been slowly changing in these matters too. There are now many voices championing orthodoxy in matters of faith, and new resources for communicating Catholic doctrine at a popular level, using all the creativity and power of the modern media. We still believe that in order to re-evangelise the modern world we do urgently need to develop the Christ-centred vision of Creation and Salvation which we promote and explore in these pages. Nonetheless, all of these new allies in orthodoxy are greatly to be welcomed. Let many flowers bloom.

Of course, there are no more guarantees of winning souls through catechetical formation any more than with liturgical or spiritual activity. Many parents and priests know, often with deep personal sadness, how a young person may readily give notional assent to the words of a respected and loved adult, only to reject what they have learned when other ideas, ambitions and desires overwhelm them.

The seed of faith can spring up without root and wither in the heat of the midday sun, or it can be choked by the cares, ambitions and temptations of the world. On the other hand, we have also seen, many times, the fruits of patient, long term instruction and formation given with personal warmth and intellectual cogency, yet without compromise on doctrinal or moral issues, and together with a constant encouragement to live the sacramental spiritual life.

As we observed earlier, it is false to set in mutual opposition catechetics, liturgy, spirituality and practical charity as templates for evangelical activity. A fully rounded Christian formation must naturally involve all these elements. Nonetheless there is an order to human life and communication, as indeed there is an order within the Divine Life and in Divine communication.

There is a long-standing debate in the history of theology over the relative priority of the intellect and the will in human nature. The Franciscan schools tended to be "voluntarist" in prioritising the will as the primary faculty by which we grasp God's Self-revelation to us, whereas the Dominican school, with St. Thomas Aquinas as its greatest champion, gave priority to the intellect. Once again, there is a danger of false contradiction in this debate. It is the whole person that grasps revelation, yet it remains true that you cannot love what you do not know. Charity exercised through the will founded on grace is indeed the terminus of the life of faith, but the knowledge of God recognised and accepted as Wisdom and the Light of Life is its genesis.

So while on other issues, such as the motives for the Incarnation, our own vision is more at one with historically Franciscan streams of thought, on this issue we are clearly with the Thomists. As Fr Holloway, the co-founder of Faith movement, would often remark, "Truth without love is cold and heartless, but love without truth is blind and diffuse." Without a clear vision of truth, faith becomes mere aspirations which have no substance, direction or staying power.

For too long catechesis in the West has been dominated by the error that the act of faith is something separate and independent from the assent of the intellect to specific teachings. Faith does involve the assent of the mind to the truths of revelation, although it does not rest in the intellect alone. "Faith is caught not taught" runs the popular saying, but actually it is both. Our Lord formed the minds and hearts of the Apostles by his teaching, his example and his sanctifying presence, for Jesus is the Living Word or Mind of God who is the source of Life in its fullness by his communion with us in the flesh.

According to Catholic tradition the priority of Wisdom is found in God Himself in the very processions of the Blessed Trinity. For the Father communicates the fullness of Himself to the Son, who is the Divine Self-possession according to Wisdom; and the Holy Spirit, who is the Living Joy of the Divine Self-possession in Love, proceeds from the Father through the Son. So too all the works of the Father in Creation are done through the Logos, the Divine Wisdom, who is Christ for us, prompted and sanctified through the Holy Spirit of Divine Charity. This is the vision that informs the whole of the New Testament, most clearly perhaps in the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians.

To insist on the priority of the intellect over the will is not to reduce faith to a purely academic or intellectual concern. In the processions of the Blessed Trinity, we are taught that there is a "circumincession" or mutual inflowing (penchoresis in Greek) of the Divine Persons, as each is fully and wholly God in all Divine attributes and yet all three are distinct in their eternal relationships. So too in Christian formation and evangelisation there needs to be a mutual inflow and interplay of the doctrinal, liturgical, spiritual and practical aspects of Catholic faith and life.

The ultimate priority, in ourselves as in the Godhead, is really the priority of Being. In that sense we must all be existentialist in our outlook. Effective Christian formation requires the total impact of the Word believed and lived in personal conversion, bearing fruit in the absolute love of God and neighbour. The work of evangelisation is a work of seeking, finding, befriending, proclaiming, teaching, guiding, correcting, supporting, suffering with and for, consoling and giving in love that Christ may be all in all.

Yet such Christian existentialism cannot and must not bypass the need for assent to the truths of the Catholic faith and to grasp their meaning at the appropriate level of the believer. Without instruction in those truths, which are saving truths, and without a convincing vision of the truth of the message we proclaim, people will not be convinced and will sooner or later fall away. So catechetical and apologetic renewal remain essential priorities for the pastoral Church. However, unless that vision is rooted in the sacramental and liturgical realities it proclaims, and in a personal life of the spirit, and unless that formation is translated into action in the moral and social life of the individuals and group, there will be little or no harvest.

The ultimate priority of Being reminds us that all evangelisation is a work of grace not simply one of human effort and debate, for it is the work of God the Father through the gift of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is also a work in which we are all actively involved and for which we all have a responsibility through our union and communion in the Church with the Word made Flesh and the Holy Spirit whom he has poured out upon us.

Faith Magazine