Catechist In-Service - Curtis Martin

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Encountering Christ Through an Authentic Witness of the Faith and an Ever-Greater Understanding of Its Contents

by Curtis A. Martin

Fellowship of Catholic University Students

"We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church." . . .Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.
(Pope Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World [Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN)]

In a typical classroom, a teacher turns to his students and asks, "Who can tell me the difference between ignorance and apathy?" After some time, no one answers. He repeats the question, but once more he receives no response. Finally, somewhat exasperated, he turns to one of the students and says, "Bethany, tell the class the difference between ignorance and apathy." The young woman thinks for a moment, looks up and responds, "I don't know and I don't care."

The work of evangelization must address both the problem of ignorance and that of apathy.  Recognizing the distinct challenges presented by each of these impediments is an important starting point. If people do not care, no amount of teaching will solve the problem, but once they care, teaching the content of the faith is an indispensable and irreplaceable component to leading people to the fullness of faith.

Each and every one of us is made by Love and made for love. God has created us in such a way that we have a compelling desire for truth, goodness, beauty, and love. To overcome apathy, we must draw men and women beyond the distractions of this life and invite them to encounter the reality for which they were created. As Catholics, we have discovered that the transcendent does not refer to mere abstractions; it exists, in perfection, in a Person. The first step in evangelization is an encounter with Jesus Christ, who came for you, lived for you, suffered and died for you, and rose again to heaven where he waits for you.

It is not sufficient to know about Jesus Christ. We must come to encounter him as a living person. While this encounter can take many forms, in its essence the encounter with Jesus Christ moves from an object for our consideration to a subject with whom we enter into personal relationship.

Think of it this way. As Catholics, we have a relationship with the pope. He is the earthly leader of the Church, and we are members of the Church. We pray for him at every Mass in the Eucharistic Prayer, and we develop a sense of closeness to him that is evidenced by the warm reception he receives throughout the world. But imagine that you went to Rome and were standing in the audience as he came by. As he passed, he reached out his hand and touched you. This would create a memory that would last a lifetime. But what if instead of just shaking your hand, he stopped, came over, and called you by name. He asked you to meet with him. When you met, he told you that he had heard of you and was aware of your family and of your interests and concerns. He invited you to begin meeting with him regularly and to help him with his work, and he offered to assist you with yours. Your relationship had moved from real, but formal, to one that was intimate and personal.

Similarly, all Catholics have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Many of us, however, experience this relationship as formal and not personal. Jesus, unlike the pope, is not limited in his ability to enter into an intimate and personal relationship with each of us, and he is inviting each of us to know him intimately and personally.

We are told in the Catechism, "Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony, and his Passion and gave himself up for each one of us: 'The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000], no.  478).

In other words, our salvation is a deeply personal undertaking on the part of Jesus. Our response, likewise, ought to be deeply personal, meeting him in a personal encounter, bringing about a reorientation in our life. We begin to care for the things he does. Once love has taken hold of us, we are eager to learn how we can know him and love him in ever increasing ways.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church represents an authoritative self-understanding of the Catholic Church. Before any of the 2,865 articles proposed for belief, the Catechism begins with three short quotes. The very first words of the Catechism directly quote Jesus Christ. "Father, . . . this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3)" (CCC, p. 7).

From this seminal statement, we can see that Catholicism, according to our founder's own understanding, is essentially relational. In fact, the Hebrew word for "relationship" is yada, "to know." It is a rich and poignant term. Far beyond knowledge of facts and doctrines, even beyond relational familiarity or acquaintance, to yada someone is to be in deep, intimate, life-giving, life-changing, covenantal relationship with him or her. The first time this term is used in Sacred Scripture, we read that "Adam knew (yada) his wife, and she conceived" (Gn 4:1 NRSV). Jesus defines eternal life in light of a deep, intimate, life-giving, life-changing, covenantal relationship with the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

The Catechism articulates this in the very first article. "God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church" (CCC, no. 1).

Love awakens desire. Once we encounter the person of Jesus, we desire to want what he wants. It is love that overcomes, indeed overwhelms, apathy. Our hearts, once distracted by a thousand lesser loves, encounter the pearl of great price, and we come to desire him above all things.

The dynamic connection between love and truth is manifested at the most pivotal of moments in history. Jesus himself, while on trial for his life, tells us the very reason for his birth. "So Pilate said to him, 'Then you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice'" (Jn 18:37).

So often, we educators within the Church have skipped this step of awakening desire. We begin the vitally important work of instruction without first having addressed the issue of yearning. Even the most sumptuous of meals will have little appeal to someone who is not hungry. But, for someone who is famished, food always seems to taste better. If we desire to instruct the mind, we must first awaken the heart.

Once someone has encountered Jesus, he or she wants to follow him. This desire creates an opening for instruction and formation. The content of the faith is presented to respond to two basic questions: First, what ought I know, so that I can think with the mind of Christ? Second, in what ought I be formed so that I can act with the character of Christ? Christian instruction informs the mind with the truths of the faith. Christian formation introduces believers to the virtues and character traits that will allow them, with the aid of God's grace, to live as men and women of whom the world is not worthy (see Heb 11:38).

God is free to act in any way that he chooses; however, he has given us a norm for spreading the faith. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (CCC, no. 2; see also Mt 28:18-20).

In this "Great Commission," we are instructed not to go and make converts, or believers, but to make disciples. Disciples are those who have experienced an encounter with Jesus and have turned to follow him. They are on the path of discipleship and are being instructed and formed in the practice of the faith. Their very lives are an authentic witness to what it means to be a person of faith. "Finally, the person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn" (EN, no. 24).

The New Springtime will be a blossoming of such disciples who know the Lord and know his teachings. Their lives provide the authentic witness that enables others to see with the eyes of faith.

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, copyright © 1975, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Some Scripture quotations contained herein are adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.