Failing Like Adults, or Catechizing Mysticism

BW Heart by WolfS♡ul at Flickr
BW Heart by WolfS♡ul at Flickr

First off, apologies for being late to the party (and not in a cool way). Being a newly ordained priest, it’s taken me some time to catch up with the conversation.

Second off, I’m an adult pseudo-convert myself (received the early sacraments, confirmed as an Episcopalian, reversion via RCIA in college in order to be a Jesuit), so that certainly affects my opinion.

Third off, good on you, Joanne McPortland. I’m with you, and mainly because of this kind of thinking:

Let’s look at sacramental preparation (for all sacraments) as a parish family affair, in which adult Catholics form and prepare younger Catholics. Let’s make the faith formation of adults a priority, and believe me, their children will benefit.

The fundamental reason I agree with Joanne is because I agree with her understanding of the context we are in – one that well articulated by his eminence Karl Rahner, who wrote fifty-some-odd years ago: “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” By “mystic” what Rahner meant is that Christians must actually have, in his words, “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” This is the task of catechesis today.

I think Rahner is so insightful because he clarifies the problem our context presents. This quote says to us that the actual struggle is not to teach the facts of the faith, but to help people have an experience of the Living God. What Joanne’s piece really asks for is a more rigorous focus, from the homily (ouch; also fair) through all the rest, on helping people experience God. And then letting the vibrancy and dynamism of that experience stir up in them the desire to pass on similar experiences to others – all others, children included. Understanding catechesis as this kind of call to mysticism means that our responsibility is to teach a habit of relationship.

How do we do this? Leah Libresco (sounding a lot like cultural sociologist Ann Swidler) offers a helpful way to think about this problem when she writes:

It seems like the goal of catechesis… is to give you handles for the way religion works in your life. You don’t want to neglect to pass them on (where the kids, teens, or adults don’t walk out with a few new theological ideas) and you don’t want people to forget that handles need to be attached to something in order to give you any leverage. (emphasis mine)

These handles aren’t facts, they are handles on how to get into the relationship, into the genuine experience that emerges from the heart of our existence. Which leads me to, really, my only critique of Joanne’s piece – the problem of catechesis isn’t with the people, the problem isn’t that we’re focused on kids rather than parents. The problem is that we need to focus more on helping people have an experience of the living God and then show them how that experience blooms into the life and teaching of the church – the mystical body.

Elizabeth Duffy offers some insightful and practical suggestions for how this might look. She recommends that we start “not with classrooms and catechists – but rather, with a meal – Mass followed by a Parish-wide dinner,” and that we follow that up with the experience of prayer and then of service. So, give up teaching kids? Not at all. Kids can and do have experiences of the living God and communicate them in powerful and formative ways to adults. But instead of a catechesis of facts that “inoculat[es] most kids against a real encounter with Jesus”, we who teach the faith ought to understand “teach” to mean “help people have an experience of.” If we can do this we will be on the right track because we understand the real problem and – even more importantly – be ourselves in touch with the Living God who is the solution.

Image: alexskopje/Shutterstock

Just as important as clarifying the problem catechesis ought to address is identifying one of the interior hangups that can prevent us from acting on the kind of solution a number of us are proposing above. Simply put: we are afraid, especially afraid to fail at catechesis and afraid to give up control of the results of our catechizing.

Let me speak for myself here. Although I’ve been a Jesuit for twelve years, it’s only been seven months since my ordination; I’m still learning how to do this and failure risks less for me because of my relative youth. But among the most valuable and formative lessons I’m learning is how to live out this passage from the catechism (#1547):

While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit—, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.

I’m in the process of learning how to be a means for the unfolding of lives of faith and hope and charity. Which means that it is something more than a small problem that Jennifer Fitz at Amazing Catechist can write without irony that “We treat parents like babies,” and “The thought of leaving parents to instruct their own children is unthinkable.” My own experience concurs; all too often we end up treating adults like children in our Church – and I think this is because we are afraid to risk failure.

This really ought to stop. Like, yesterday. Which means that it’s the courage to fail that we need. This will look a bit different for each of us, but for me this looks like the courage, as I continue to learn to be a priest, to keep my focus relentlessly on this question: how am I supporting, encouraging, helping to bloom, the priestly, prophetic and royal vocation of the people of God? How am I facilitating their leadership? How am I treating the baptized like God treats me: as an adult, as one who is partner in a relationship that has real expectations put upon its upkeep and continued deepening?

I fail at this all the time. But it’s okay to fail.

Honestly, I think Pope Francis was challenging us to just this kind of courage when, in Evangelii Gaudium, he asked us to say “no” to spiritual worldliness and warring amongst ourselves and “yes” to the “revolution of tenderness” that happens inside us when we are in relationship with the Living God. It’s not a coincidence that it’s more contact with the Living God, more mysticism, that is the answer to both how we work with catechumens and how we ourselves continue to be catechized.

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