Tag Archives: life in Christ

Four Dimensions & Approaches to Catechesis


Time to bore you again with some of my dissertation research on this lovely sunny bank holiday weekend 😉 Haha, not really… PLEASE READ ON!

It’s good to remind ourselves every now and again of the ‘basics’ of catechesis, and to measure up our current practice against them. One of those basics (or maybe not if you’re new to this) is the four dimensions of the Christian life. Throughout the history of salvation, God has communicated himself to us not just through teaching us, but also in deeds, in giving his People liturgy, in giving them a way to live, and in forming them in prayer. This finds its culmination in the new Christian community we read about in Acts 2:42:

“These remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Therefore, all Christian formation needs to include these four dimensions in order to be “integral”, in order to be authentic Christian formation. Each catechetical session should include teaching, a liturgical dimension, experience of community, time of prayer.

What I’ve been researching is how approaches to catechesis can tend to emphasise one of these dimensions at the expense of the others. For example, a moral approach to catechesis focuses on the resulting moral action from the catechesis. We see this in the See-Judge-Act method of the Young Christian Workers movement, used by the Confirmation programme, Truth (Curtin, D. (2011) Truth – A Confirmation Course for Teenagers. Redemptorist Publications).

Another example of this approach is CAFOD, which has catechetical resources on its website in which topics are approached with regard to the resulting action, the outcome of the session: “When we make the choice to be confirmed, we are choosing to become active rather than passive members of God’s family.” These emphasise the third dimension – maybe at the expense of others – I will leave that to your analysis 😉

A further example is a doctrinal approach to catechesis. This is an interesting one. In some ways, we might say that this is ‘reactionary’ in that there has been such an emphasis on experience-based catechesis in the decades since Vatican II that some in the Church have (understandably) swung back in the opposite direction, stressing teaching of doctrine. I do not criticise this – knowing doctrine means we can build up a firm framework for understanding the whole of reality and our place within it. It means we have words to express the realities in which we believe. However, I think that some programmes emphasise this at the expense of the other three dimensions. Don’t get me wrong, they include teaching on these three dimensions (liturgy, life in Christ, prayer) but these dimensions are not included in the session themselves. There is no liturgical element to the session, or experience of community, or an opportunity for deeper prayer. You may be able to think of programmes which fall into this category.

Do you find you or your parish emphasises one approach above others in your catechesis? How can you aim at something more integral which forms the whole person?

Teaching Life in Christ

man and woman

The last few months in the UK have led to numerous discussions – both challenging and fruitful – between Catholics and their family members, colleagues and friends. The Same Sex Couples Bill is in many ways a tragedy for Britain – revealing our collective lapse of memory concerning who the human person is and even the most basic notion of a natural law. Last Tuesday evening, many of us watched with sinking hearts a debate in which only a few voiced authentic reason. Hearing the emotional appeals of many others leads us to wonder whether, as a nation, we have forgotten how to “think”, how to do philosophy, how to use our minds to discern truth.

How do we speak about this issue with others? How, when we are enjoying a drink in the pub with a group of friends, and one person raises this subject, do we approach it?

This is exactly the question we addressed a couple of weeks ago in the parish in our parents’ programme. In the lead up to the evening, we put out an online survey asking parents ‘what are the challenging questions about the Faith that your children ask you?’ Of course, any question such as this is a hidden way of discovering the questions that the parents themselves are asking.

We have been blessed during this parents’ programme to have an average gathering of around 50-60 parents who, I am pleased to say, are not ‘usual suspects’, most of whom have not been to other adult formation in the parish. I was therefore really glad when someone on the night brought up the question of gay marriage, and how to discuss it with children, because 98% of children in our catechesis programmes (who are old enough to have heard about this debate) think that the Church is being ‘unfair’. All of them are from practising Catholic families, all of them go to good Catholic schools, all have weekly catechesis.

So, when our speaker came to offer an answer (and thanks be to God, it was none other than the can’t-help-but-always-agree-with-him apologist, Father Stephen Wang), it was like there was an enormous drumroll in the room and complete silence as we listened to his response.

Now, I am not going to do justice to it, because it was a really excellent response, and is summed up on Fr Stephen’s blog here. I have used this approach since when the topic has come up with cynical friends. It goes something like this:

Mostly, this question is broached as a question of fairness. If marriage is a ‘good thing’, which we are all agreeing it is, why shouldn’t gay couples have it open to them? The Church is discriminatory, unfair, cruel for not agreeing with this. However, the whole question needs to be turned around. The real question we should be asking is: what is marriage? At the heart of marriage has always been an understanding of sexual difference and complementarity. Saying that gay couples can get married is like saying a circle can be a square.


As I listened to the debate last week, it became strikingly clear that because we no longer accept a given reality in human nature, we can manipulate language to the reality we contrive.

All these arguments have been aired frequently and far more articulately than I have done here. My concern is catechesis: how do we teach people, and help them to accept, the reality of natural law, of human nature and dignity? In RCIA, we find that people often require a full 180 degree turn in their mindsets. They come from the mindset that demands, unreflectingly, fairness and equality at all costs. Gradually, with careful reasoning, clear teaching, and friendship, we need to help them to think more deeply. This is all part of the ‘third dimension’ of formation and the trickiest one, life in Christ. Life in Christ begins with a relationship with him, so unless that is there, we shouldn’t even begin on gay marriage. Don’t go there, whatever you do! I have seen this done in RCIA and it is not pretty. Only when someone falls in love with Him, will they have enough trust and enough grace (and hopefully sound reasoning too) to discern authentic truth in this area.

“Those who desire comforts have dialled the wrong number”

This may be one of my favourite EVER quotations from Pope Benedict XVI 🙂

It just makes me smile. He’s bang on! Anyone who tells us that Christianity is easy, that we can go on living a comfortable life, is not telling us the full truth.

No, Christianity is something far greater than a comfortable life.

This is a hard truth to grasp, which takes years of spiritual growth. On the one hand, it definitely does not mean that our life as a Christian is going to be unbearably miserable. No way! The joy of knowing Christ has the power to transform even the worst suffering. Christianity widens our hearts to a greater joy than we could ever imagine in our life before Christ. On the other hand, we must never forget the need for penance and ongoing conversion in our journey with the Lord, which, paradoxically, results in more joy in our hearts.

This is a very hard notion to introduce to enquirers, catechumens and candidates. Recently, I met with someone in the early stages of our RCIA who is eagerly seeking Christ. This person already has a strong relationship with him in many ways. And yet in this person’s life is a string of moral complexities which, let’s say, are not compatible with being a Catholic.

This is a tricky question in the period of enquiry. On the one hand, it is a period of evangelisation, of attracting a person to the beauty of Christ and the life he invites them to live.

And yet, in the early stages anyway, some of the moral teachings of the Church can present themselves as anything but beautiful to enquirers. They represent big and sometimes frightening lifestyle changes which people baulk at. In our culture today, it comes as a massive shock to some people that there are changes in their lives sooner or later they will need to make. When do we let them know this? How do we let them know?

What’s for sure is that our role as catechists and sponsors is more than simply presenting the information and ‘leaving it to their conscience’ (I’ve heard this view expressed more than once before). No, we need to pray for them, walk alongside them, mentor them, offer practical help.

Pope Benedict’s phrase could be addressed to RCIA catechists and sponsors: “If you desire an easy life, you’ve come to the wrong place!” RCIA is hard work, messy and requires much sacrifice and prayer on our part. If we don’t accept this, we will not witness many deep conversions in our brothers and sisters. Let’s have the courage to wisely and faithfully form disciples through the RCIA process. The last thing we need as a Church is more lukewarm Catholics.

With ongoing prayer, support and witness, the gradual unfolding of the teaching, and the grace of the liturgy, God has given enquirers the means to recognise life in Christ as a beauty, not a burden.