Teaching Aid - Petroc Willey

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The Catechism: A Symphony of Faith

by Petroc Willey, BD, STL, PhD, PhD (Lateran)
Dean of Research
Maryvale Institute in England
Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) surprises many who begin to read it because it describes itself as a symphony. A picture on the front cover depicts a pastoral scene of a shepherd, seated under the shade of a tree, playing panpipes. Lying attentively at his feet, gazing at the shepherd, is a lamb. A short paragraph on the inside cover explains that this simple image "suggests certain characteristic aspects of this Catechism: Christ, the Good Shepherd who leads and protects his faithful (the lamb) by his authority (the staff), draws them by the melodious symphony of the truth (the panpipes) and makes them lie down in the shade of the tree of life, his redeeming Cross which opens paradise" (CCC, 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000]).

We, the faithful, are the lamb, lying at the feet of the Shepherd. We are held there, rapt, attentive, because the Shepherd is playing a melody, a melody that comes from heaven. The Catechism is described as a "melodious symphony." What can we learn from this description? A reader would probably have assumed that the Catechism would describe itself simply as a book from which we can learn about the teaching of the Catholic Church. The  Catechism's description of itself as a "symphony" is not what one expects. Let's follow this image of the symphony, then, and see what it can tell us about the beauty, the purpose, and the usefulness of the Catechism. We will find that it contains the secret for understanding both how to read and appreciate the Catechism for oneself and also how it can wonderfully assist us as catechists in handing on the deposit of faith in today's world.

This Is the Music of Heaven

Christ, who is God the Son, is playing this music to us. When we listen, we are transported into the heights of heaven. When we read the Catechism and learn about the faith of the Church, we are listening to the music of heaven.

In Fidei Depositum, Blessed John Paul II wrote of his "deep feeling of joy" at the "harmony of so many voices" that had together sung the Catechism, this choral symphony, into existence (Pope John Paul II, On the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Fidei Depositum (FD)], www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_19921011_fidei-depositum_en.html). These voices are the voices of all the bishops. They are singing in harmony the music that Christ has given to us, so that "whoever listens to you listens to me" (Lk 10:16). Every bishop in the world was involved in commenting, over a period of six years, on the text of the Catechism, as were "numerous theologians, exegetes and catechists" (FD).

The harmony of this symphony is something that is now enshrined authoritatively in the pages of the Catechism. But the symphony is also something that is performed anew every day. The Catechism uses a musical expression from St. Irenaeus in its section on the Eucharist, when it says that all our thinking is "attuned to the Eucharist" (CCC, no. 1327).Before musiciansbegin to play, they tune their instruments so that they can play the music correctly and in harmony with one another.We face a similar need when it comes to catechizing; we must "attune" ourselves to the faith that is presented in the Catechism and to the lead "players" in the teaching Church, the Magisterium.

The Catechism is addressed, writes Blessed John Paul II, not only to bishops but also to all the People of God, since all have been called to join their voices to those of the bishops so that the instruments uniting in this great harmony are multiplied. This is why carefully studying the Catechism and its contents and learning how to use the Catechism in one's teaching are so important, so that all cacophony is avoided and the pure notes of harmony rise to attract others to hear the beauty of the message of Jesus Christ. The very word "catechesis" suggests this. It comes from the Greek term meaning "echo," and catechists catch and echo the melody of Christ the Teacher and that of the Magisterium.

The Faith Is Beautiful

To describe the Catechism as a symphony also reminds us that the faith is something beautiful. It is beautiful because it introduces us to the Christ, who is eternal beauty made flesh, appearing among us. "Beauty ever ancient, ever new," sang St. Augustine in his Confessions when he had discovered the true God and turned over his life to him. The "ever ancient, ever new" beauty of the infinite God became incarnate in God the Son.

Catechists must speak the truth of the Gospel, in season and out of season. This is not easy in a relativistic culture that no longer believes in any objective truth. In this difficult situation, the Catechism is advising us to remember the "way of beauty," the via pulchritudinis, as an avenue to the truth. We can allow the truth to "shine forth" (FD). We can strive calmly to show how beautiful the truths of the faith are as they appear not only in words and ideas, however true, but also in lives of truth and integrity, in prayer—which is defined as "the love of beauty (philokalia)" (CCC, no. 2727)—and in the sacredness of the liturgy.

The Catechism proposes three specific aids to assist us in showing the beauty of the faith. The first is the use of works of art that can offer a visual synthesis of the faith in a deeply attractive way. Four artworks were included in the Catechism for this reason, and fourteen were placed in the smaller Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The second way is the inclusion of the words and examples of saints attached to the different doctrines of the Church. This points us to where we can illustrate the beauty of the faith witnessed in lives of self-giving love of God and our neighbor. Third, emphasis is placed on using the cross-references in the Catechism that connect doctrines to the other parts of the Catechism, the other movements of the symphony (see CCC, no. 18). By following these cross-references, we will be allowing the Catechism to teach us the ways in which the music of heaven resounds in liturgy, life, and the expressions and formulas of prayer.

The Faith Has a Structure

Symphonies are carefully structured, and so the description of the Catechism as a symphony helps us to see that the faith also has a definite and clear structure. In the classical form, symphonies are normally written in four movements. A powerful introductory movement usually presents the listener with the main themes and melodies and sets the key of the whole. A slower movement typically follows, and then a third movement whose style and rhythm are based on some form of dance. The final movement of a symphony provides a satisfying conclusion to the whole, resolving any tensions in the work and enabling the listener to experience a sense of completion.

Comparing the Catechism's structure to that of a symphony can certainly help us explain to others how the Catechism is arranged. The Catechism is in four parts, which we can think of as paralleling the four movements of a symphony (see CCC, nos. 13-17). After an opening Prologue (CCC, nos. 1-25), which provides explanatory material for how to read and use the Catechism, the first part, "The Profession of Faith," sets out the great themes that one will find in the Catechism. In this part, the main melodies are presented to which our ears will need to become attuned so that we catch them as they appear and reappear in every movement. The most majestic and prominent melody is that of the Blessed Trinity, of which the Catechism says, "General Directory for Catechesis [GDC] [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998], no. 62). In other words, they correspond to the basic, or "initial," proclamation at the heart of the faith.

The Church has called for a "New Evangelization" to meet the situation in which many who would describe themselves as Catholics have moved away from the practice of their faith. The Catechism was written precisely to help those who transmit the faith of the Church to address this situation. It is enormously important that the Catechism shows us how we can announce the kerygma in and through our presentation of each aspect of the faith. This means that when we catechize, we can reach out to those who are already committed and need a catechesis for the deepening of their faith, and at the same time make a proclamation of the essentials of the faith so that those who need to receive the more basic message with its call to conversion also benefit from our teaching. Whatever a person's situation, and however far a person is from the full practice of the faith, he or she will be able to hear the core message of the Good News and can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make a response to this call that comes through us from the unfathomable love of God made flesh in the divine Son.

The Faith Is to Be Played so That It Is Heard

We have seen, then, that the Catechism has a structure analogous to that of a symphony. All of the paragraphs of the Catechism are like bars of music, and the music develops around certain central themes. A final point to which we, as catechists, can draw the attention of others from this description of the Catechism as a symphony is that the faith is to be "played." As a musical score sets out all the notes of the symphony, so the Catechism presents for us in its paragraphs and pages all the "essential and fundamental contents" of the faith (CCC, no. 11). The score of a symphony is not simply to be read. The score must be played so that the music is heard. And the faith, also, is to be heard by others. It is true that the musical score of a symphony can be attractive to a trained musician who, as he or she "reads" the music on the pages, can inwardly hear the music playing in the mind. But for most of us, the notes remain just so many symbols on a page until we hear them played by the orchestra. Then everything is different! The music flows and we are captivated by it. The image of the faith as a symphony reminds us that the faith is not intended by the Church to remain simply as words on the pages of the Catechism. The words need to come alive.

How does this happen? It happens first of all in our teaching. We can use the phrase "the teaching of the Church" in two ways. We can mean the objective body of truths that make up the faith of the Church; this is the Church's "teaching" where "teaching" is a noun. We can also mean the activity of teaching that takes place in and through the Church; this is the Church's "teaching" where "teaching" is a verb. The Catechism wants catechists to take the teaching of the Church understood as a noun and make it into a verb. The faith that is presented to us in the Catechism depends on the teachers of the Church, including her catechists, to "play" this faith by learning, practicing, and teaching it.

A musical score has more than just the notes of music presented on a page. Together with the notes are all sorts of instructions to the musicians indicating how a piece is to be played. The key signature is obviously crucial and affects how all the notes are to be played. Then, for example, a movement might be "allegro" or "adagio," fast or slow. Other notations indicate when the music rises to a crescendo and when it dies away again. Other marks indicate delicate playing, a slight lingering over a note, and so on. 

The Catechism has a similar range of instructions, helping the catechist to know how to play the music. We call this set of instructions for catechesis the pedagogy that is enshrined in the Catechism. We must consult this pedagogy to evaluate all the methods we use in teaching the faith (see GDC, no. 148). Many of these instructions are made explicit in the Prologue (CCC, nos. 1-25). Other "markings" on the "score" of the Catechism include:

  • Assistance in finding key points for teaching. The Catechism italicizes words and phrases to indicate particular emphasis, while subheadings in bold in a section provide one with the major teaching points in a subject.
  • Help in providing catechists with the reasons the Church has for her teaching, so that what is proclaimed can be understood in a fuller way. "Reasoning" words and phrases such as "therefore" and "because" indicate the reasons for a particular teaching of the Church.
  • Assistance in maintaining a God-centered annunciation of the faith. The Catechism has been written to give us a catechesis that has God at the center. It employs the language of the primacy of grace, helping catechists to see things with the gaze of God and to speak so that all can hear that catechists speak on behalf of Christ.

Let us conclude with words from St. Augustine's Confessions: "How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart" (CCC, no. 1157). May it be true of our catechesis, also, that as our voices echo the voice of the Shepherd, others may catch the strains, through us, of his melodious symphony of the truth. 

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 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.

Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Fidei Depositum, copyright © 1992, Librería Editrice Vaticana (LEV). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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.