Catechism Begins at Home

Pope Benedict’s retirement distressed me. All things equal, I’d prefer the secular world didn’t spend time analyzing and opining on the inner workings of the Catholic Church.

But I am glad of it for at least two reasons. For one thing, we are blessed with a new pope, and that is exciting. For another, it provided an unprecedented teaching moment for the kids. This kind of thing happens twice, maybe three times, in a lifetime. We have to make the most of it.

Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey do their best to raise their children in the faith even when papal succession is not leading the news, but it’s not always easy to know how we’re doing. Things occasionally fall through the cracks.

For example, Paddy turned to his mother recently and, with the shock of revelation in his eyes, said, “You mean, Jesus… is a boy!?” The child is only four, so certain gaps in his understanding are to be expected. But I couldn’t have guessed that the gender of the son of God would have been among them.

It goes to show how attentive we have to be about instructing the next generation. There was a time when being a Catholic meant you could acquire certain cultural and theological information by osmosis. Those days are gone. Now it takes a little work.

I was poorly catechized myself. My parents gave up on the Church when I was a teenager, so I was forced to fill in a lot of the basic facts when I returned to it on my own as an adult. There were—and are—some holes in my vocabulary.

For instance, I don’t think I ever heard the word “transubstantiation” once in 10 years of religious education. The Magisterium? Wasn’t too sure what that was. The College of Cardinals? Isn’t that the really good school out in California? What’s it called—Stamford?

My wife was brought up in a solidly Catholic home and went to a solidly Catholic high school. Nevertheless, she, too, had her blind spots. Like all Mets fans of a certain age, she loved slugger Dave Kingman. For the best part of her childhood, she says, she recited the relevant passage in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingman come, thy will be done.”

I find there is a generation gap at work here. Older Catholics often can’t fathom how us younger folks don’t know what we don’t know. They marinated in this stuff as kids, and they presumed we’d become Catholics the way they did: by proximity.

But the world changed in the ’70s and ’80s. The “traditional” Catholicism that produced our parents and grandparents—the Pat O’Brien priests and the Ingrid Bergman nuns—fell victim to some of the same destructive forces that swept through the larger culture. Be yourself. Follow your bliss. Live your truth.

Now, some will say, “Good. Catholicism needed some fresh air. It wasn’t all The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Which is fine, but I can’t help but think that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

As a young adult, I overheard a conversation between my father and an aunt in which one of them made mention of the Paraclete. I thought for sure I had heard them wrong.

“You mean parakeet, right?”

“No,” they said. “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.” They were bewildered by my ignorance. How could I not know what the Paraclete was? This was something they had learned as kids. It was as familiar to them as the air they breathed.

Their shock was legitimate, but it was misdirected. It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know what the Paraclete was. It was theirs.

Older people are prone to complaining about the state of the world—specifically what they think young people have done with it. But if things ain’t what they used to be, it’s usually because someone dropped the ball. Someone failed to keep faith with tradition. Centuries’ worth of hard-won cultural information doesn’t just pass itself along. It requires active stewardship.

All is not lost. We can revive tradition and educate ourselves. The dedicated catechists of this diocese and the larger Church who volunteer their time and energy to prepare the young people to receive the sacraments are truly inspiring.

A true catechism, however, must begin in the home.

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