The Catechist and Catholic School Teacher as Leaders and Models of Prayer
by Sr. M. Johanna Paruch
When catechesis is permeated by a climate of prayer, the assimilation of the entire Christian life reaches its summit (General Directory for Catechesis, 85).
Prayer in Salvation History
"The revelation of prayer in the economy of salvation teaches us that faith rests on God's action in history" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2738). In Genesis, we see Adam and Eve walking with God in the coolness of the evening. This imagery shows an intimacy that was shattered by their sin. Our salvation history after the Fall shows God's desire to draw his people back to himself with bonds of love. He chose particular individuals to help his people to respond to him, in love. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and many others had personal conversations with God: this was prayer. Some of them hesitated or even refused to be faithful, but they repented, and this too was prayer. They begged him to free them from their slavery, and this too was prayer. They thanked him for his mercy and goodness to them, and this too was prayer. And they adored him and this was the highest prayer.
God revealed himself to the Hebrew people gradually and invited them to respond in the obedience of faith. Their leaders on the pilgrimage of faith compelled, cajoled, encouraged, and even ordered the Hebrew people to respond in faith. They often failed to achieve this end, but did not give up their efforts in the name of God, and for some, this cost them their lives.
God chose Moses and Aaron the priest to lead his people in a carefully constructed liturgy and liturgical cycle in order to worship him. God's specificity led the Hebrews in a structured form of prayer that was able to withstand occupation, exile, and destruction. The source of their liturgical life was the Passover, which was to become the central celebration of Judaism.
The Psalms became the central form of prayer for the Jews, through which they directed sorrow, adoration, petition, and thanksgiving to God.
The effects of Original Sin prevented the people of Israel from attaining the intimacy with God that Adam and Eve experienced. But in the fullness of time, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." (Jn 3:16-17)
The Father sent the angel Gabriel to ask the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. The angel's dialogue with Mary reflected the many conversations that God had with his people. Her response, her fiat, was immediate. Through the profundity of her response, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, through his life, death, and Resurrection, restored to us the intimacy that had been violated by Adam and Eve. He redeemed us: yet we must work out our own salvation. St. Paul encouraged the Philippians, "So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). St. Paul commended them for their obedience: that obedience that was prefigured in the Old Testament and in the fiat of Our Lady, and in Jesus Christ himself, who "humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). And in his obedience to the Father, Jesus prayed.
Jesus and Prayer
"Like all Christians, catechists are called to continuing conversion and growth in their faith, and for this reason are called to ongoing spiritual formation" (National Directory for Catechesis, 236). As catechists, we are immersed in salvation history and look to Mary as the model of catechists. We are personally seeking an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and leading those we catechize into union with him. St. John Paul II wrote, "[in] the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, 'the only Son from the Father . . . full of grace and truth,' who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever" (CT, 5). The Holy Father also wrote, "Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ" (CT, 5).
The General Directory for Catechesis says, "Communion with Jesus Christ leads the disciples to assume the attitude of prayer and contemplation which the Master himself had" (GDC, 85). As catechists, we are aware of how important prayer is. This awareness doesn't always mean that we are praying or that we could actually teach someone how to pray. For many people, prayer means the recitation of prayers. This isn't a bad thing. When the apostles asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father, a prayer that is so important to the Church that it is recited daily in the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, is prayed during the recitation of the rosary, and is probably part of our own private prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes one third of the section on Christian Prayer to the Lord's Prayer.
Jesus did much more than leave us a prayer. He taught us how to pray by praying. He is the model of prayer. He often stole away to pray to his Heavenly Father. It could seem odd that Jesus prayed at all, because he was true God, but he was also true man. The Catechism states, "He learned to pray according to his human heart. He learns the formulas of prayer from his mother, who kept in her heart and meditated upon all the 'great things' done by the Almighty" (CCC, no. 2599). As a Jew, he was rooted in the prayer of the entire Old Testament that Mary also taught him. "As He sat on her lap and later as He listened to her throughout the hidden life at Nazareth, this Son, who was 'the only Son from the Father,' 'full of grace and truth,' was formed by her in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God's plan for His people, and in adoration of the Father" (CT, 73).
Jesus chose to initiate the Sacraments of the Eucharist and the Priesthood during the celebration of the Passover. The most important liturgical celebration of the People of Israel became the "source and summit" of our liturgical life and of all Christian life (CCC, no. 1324). St. John gave us the very moving account of Christ praying for us during this celebration, knowing that he would offer the perfect sacrifice of himself on the Cross. Jesus entered into an intimate prayer to his Father (John 17). He prayed for those whom he chose because he was leaving them. We see his full obedience to the will of his Father, and his profound love for the apostles. He prayed his Father would keep them from the evil one (Jn 17:15), that they would be consecrated to the Truth (Jn17:17), that they would be one (Jn 17:20-23), and that the love that Jesus has with his father would be in them (Jn 17:25). And Jesus prayed "not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word" (20). And in the Garden, he prayed that the cup would pass, but asserted his obedience to the will of his Father (Mt 26:36-56).
Prayer and Catechists
Catechists and those who teach in Catholic schools are persons whose words bring others to believe in Christ. Jesus prayed for us, for catechists, and teachers. "The catechist is essentially a mediator. He facilitates communication between the people and the mystery of God, between subjects amongst themselves, as well as with the community" (GDC, 156). For this mediation to be efficacious, there must be prayer. We cannot lead those whom we catechize into intimacy with Jesus Christ if we fail to strive for intimacy ourselves.
The GDC says, "Communion with Jesus Christ leads the disciples to assume the attitude of prayer and contemplation which the Master himself had. To learn to pray with Jesus is to pray with the same sentiments with which he turned to the Father: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, filial confidence, supplication and awe for his glory" (GDC, 85). In essence, the reason we pray is to become holy. In an address to catechists during the Year of Faith, Pope Francis urged, "So keep this in mind: I didn't say to do the 'work' of catechists, but to 'be' catechists, because this is something that embraces our whole life. It means leading people to encounter Christ by our words and our lives, by giving witness" (September 17, 2013, Jubilee for Catechists in the Year of Faith). During the Jubilee Year of 2000, St. John Paul said, "Holiness, a message that convinces without the need for words, is the living reflection of the face of Christ" (Novo Millennio Ineunte [NMI], 7). He also warned, "Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face" (NMI, 16).
We must be prayerful and thus models of prayer. We can look to the example of the early Church. "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles [Creed] and to the communal life [Morality], to the breaking of the bread [Sacraments] and to the prayers [Prayer]" (Acts 2:42). These four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are based on the life of the early Church. We can see these aspects of a holy life pre-figured in the Old Testament: the Shema, the preeminent belief of the Hebrew people that God is one (Dt 6:42); the Ten Commandments; the Passover; and the Psalms.
These four pillars of the Catholic faith are not to be assimilated consecutively: they must be encompassed simultaneously. Our Christian lives must be integrated. Our prayer lives cannot be properly formed unless we infuse into them what we believe, how we worship, and how we behave.
And how does our lived experience of all four pillars take root in our lives? Love! The Catechism says that all doctrine is directed to the love that never ends (CCC, no. 25). Pope Francis, in the address above, continued, "To 'be' a catechist requires love, an ever stronger love for Christ, a love for his holy people . . . This love comes from Christ! It is Christ's gift! And if it comes from Christ, it also starts with Christ, and we too need to start anew with Christ, from the love he gives us". He gave three ways that we, as catechists, can start anew. The first is to remain close to Christ, abiding in him, forever. The second is to leave ourselves behind and go out to others. And the third is going with Christ to the outskirts. These are integral to Francis' pontificate, but also echo the Doxology of the Mass, "Through him, with him, and in him." Of the ways to start anew, the hardest one for most of us is to leave ourselves behind. Therefore, we must always seek conversion. Our self-love can rob us of generosity; it can make our catechetical endeavors self-centered rather than Christ-centered. We can build our own kingdoms rather than building up the kingdom of God.
A Life of Prayer
It is only in a prayer-filled life that the catechist can live out his or her vocation. The section of the Catechism on Christian Prayer helps us to understand how we can accomplish this. It stresses the point that fundamentally, "Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him" (CCC, no. 2560). Prayer is God's initiative, and we respond to him in prayer. All that is good in our lives begins with God. It is God who gives us the grace to respond.
How do we become models of prayer? We must pray. Authentic prayer is not just a matter of saying prayers. There is a richness of different spiritualities of prayer in the Church, such as Carmelite, Ignatian, Franciscan, etc. Other movements in the Church have their own spirituality as well, such as charismatic renewal, the Neo-catechumenal Way, etc. "The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today" (CCC, no. 683). A spirituality, like prayer in general, is judged by its fruits (Mt 7:16).
The Catechism (nos. 2700-2719) helps us to understand how broad and deep our prayer life can be. The expressions of Christian prayer can be separated into vocal prayer, meditative prayer, and contemplative prayer.
Vocal prayer consists of the prayers we say, and where "our prayer takes on flesh" (CCC, no. 2700). Some examples are the rosary or novenas, and others too numerous to list.
Meditative prayer is mental prayer, so to speak: we use "thought, imagination, emotion, and desire" (CCC, no. 2708) to enter into the mysteries of salvation history, especially the Paschal Mystery. The rosary combines both vocal and meditative prayer.
Contemplative prayer is often confused as prayer only for those religious who live a cloistered or "contemplative" life. This is not the case. "Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more" (CCC, no. 2712).
Five forms of prayer were seen in the lives of the Hebrews and in the early Church, and we continue to pray in those ways, blessing and adoration; petition; intercession; thanksgiving, and praise. (CCC, nos. 2626-2643) The Our Father, from the Lord himself, contains all these expressions of prayer.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of our faith (CCC, no. 1324) encompasses all these expressions of prayer. It is indeed the perfect prayer. It is from the Eucharist that our lives take their nourishment and strength. It is the true food for the journey, our viaticum. From the Mass, we gain the gift of grace that allows us to persevere in prayer. The Sacrament of Penance sets us back on our journey when we stray. The Liturgy of the Hours helps us to stay in contact with the Mass. "It is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom" (CCC, no. 1174).
We must pray, liturgically, mentally, vocally. If we have let prayer slide by the wayside, it is time to step back on the path. As catechists, we can gain consolation as we hand on the faith. "There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure" (CCC, no. 89).
Prayer begets more prayer. Prayer helps us to persevere in prayer. Through Christ in the Spirit we make our way into the open arms of our loving Father. St. Paul urges us to "pray always" (1 Thes 5:17). All of the other letter writers in the New Testament urge us to pray, and to fix our eyes on Christ. The Book of Revelation provides that wonderfully dramatic depiction of our lives in the heavenly Jerusalem. The last verses of the last book of the Bible speak of the prayers of all the citizens of heaven, who continue their lives of prayer in perpetual adoration of the Lamb who sits on the throne. Again, we see God thirsting for us, "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' Let the hearer say, 'Come.' Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it to receive the gift of life-giving water" (Rev 22:17). Our thirst will be fulfilled. "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all" (Rev 22:20-21).
Continuing formation in the faith is directed not only to individual Christians, to accompany them in their journeys toward holiness. It is directed also to the Christian community so that it may mature in its interior life of love of God and of the brethren, as well as in its openness to the world as a missionary community. The desire of Jesus and his prayer to the Father are an unceasing appeal: "May they all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn 17:20-22). Approaching this ideal, little by little, demands of the community a great fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit, the constant nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ, and continuing education in the faith, listening all the time to the Word.
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Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte,copyright © 2001, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City; Used with permission. All rights reserved.