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J.D. Long-GarcíaAugust 05, 2021
Pope Francis greets Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., during a meeting with U.S. bishops from the New England States at the Vatican Nov. 7, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis greets Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., during a meeting with U.S. bishops from the New England States at the Vatican Nov. 7, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Catholic Church has to do catechesis differently. That is why Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catechism, proposed establishing a new Institute for the Catechism during the bishops’ virtual meeting in June.

Through the institute, the subcommittee will work with publishers to update catechesis materials. Additionally, each year the institute will organize an in-person training conference and retreat for catechetical leaders.

The new approach, which draws inspiration from Pope Francis’ apostolic letter “Antiquum Ministerium” and the new Directory for Catechesis, will rely on an evangelizing catechesis that begins with an encounter with God, Bishop Caggiano told America. The proposed institute aims to help the church to bring catechesis to digital spaces, reach a more diverse church and reconnect with the disaffiliated.

A new institute headed by Bishop Caggiano aims to help the church to bring catechesis to digital spaces, reach a more diverse church and reconnect with the disaffiliated. 

Bishop Caggiano recently granted America a phone interview to discuss the proposal. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do we need a new catechetical institute?

The subcommittee was created over 27 years ago by the bishops in response to a perceived need. The resources that would be made for catechesis needed some assistance to become much more in conformity with the catechism that had just been published [in 1992]—the universal catechism.

The concern was authenticity in the presentation of the faith, so that young people in catechesis have an opportunity to learn the faith. It was also an opportunity to engage publishers. At the beginning it was met with some bit of suspicion. But I’m very happy to say that I think the relationship between the publishers—and there are many—and the subcommittee has really become very positive, very collaborative.

Seems like a lot has changed.

A number of things. In the old days, if I can call them those, most of the resources that were used were printed texts that you bought and you used and passed on [to another person]. That’s not the case anymore. The electronic and digital platform has exploded, particularly with Covid. And we do not have the ability in the structure we have now to review digital and electronic-based materials. So if our goal is to be of service in the creation of these texts, we’re not capable of doing it within the current structure.

Some would say the church in the United States has also become a lot more diverse.

There is a tremendous vibrancy in the church and growth—particularly in young ages—among Hispanic and Latino families. And again, the original mandate had us only reviewing English-language texts. Twenty-seven or 28 years ago, the idea of serving our Catholics who are not principally English-speaking was seen as simply a matter of translation. We have finally come to the universal realization that that is not the [appropriate] response. It is really a question of inculturation of texts, and not just taking an English text and translating it into Spanish. [We have] to intuit the cultures, which are different in the Spanish world, so you can actually help pass on the faith in a formative way.

So the landscape has dramatically changed.

Catechesis invites people to an encounter with the Lord, not just explains what the encounter means.

Are the growing numbers of ex-Catholics and nonreligious people also a concern for the institute?

Disaffiliation is growing. And therefore we have to address the question of how catechesis is done in a way that evangelizes as well. Catechesis invites people to an encounter with the Lord, not just explains what the encounter means. If you haven’t had the encounter, that reduces the study of faith to being like algebra. You learn it, you soon forget it. And life goes on.

The other two pieces, which were a surprise to all of us, are the new Directory for Catechesis—which gives a profound vision for catechesis that is charismatic—and the new [document from the pope instituting the ministry of catechist], “Antiquum Ministerium,” which is literally only a few months old.

So all of this has converged for us to say we need a whole new approach. And the institute is really going to be the incubator and will grow over time to address all of those issues in a coordinated, comprehensive way.

In the past, you have often referred to evangelizing catechesis. I hear you alluding to that again here. This seems to be a central aspect of what this institute is about.

Yes, absolutely. The Holy Father in the new Directory for Catechesis speaks of kerygmatic catechesis. We use a slightly different term, but it’s the same notion. We speak of “evangelizing catechesis.” In effect, catechesis is a privileged moment in a larger process that presumes encounter with the Lord, provokes the desire to know about the Lord, and then to be a witness and go out into the world and act as you believe.

To reduce catechesis simply to an intellectual function is to impoverish it.

To reduce catechesis simply to an intellectual function is to impoverish it. There are three human transcendentals: truth, beauty and goodness. Catechesis has to incorporate all three for it to be totally effective in breaking open the encounter so that it allows an integrated life and real discipleship.

Can you point to specific things that will change with this new approach?

Up to this point, we’ve been emphasizing the resources given to people to learn the faith. While we’re not going to abandon that at all, we also want to focus attention on those who are the agents of formation. So I draw the analogy: if I were 12 years old, and given the keys to a car, the car would be useless to me. I don’t know how to drive.

So the agents of formation are parents, what we call catechists. And then in some way, shape or form, it’s everyone. But the two principal groups would be your natural family and your ecclesial family—your parents and your catechist and clergy.

So we want to be able to form them so that they can effectively use the catechetical resources. So that’s a shift in emphasis. And with the [issuing] of the “Ministry of Catechist,” it’s just ideal. Talk about a moment of grace. The Holy Father is saying this is what we have to discern for the church. Well, I mean, everything just falls into place.

In terms of inculturated Hispanic catechesis, we hear a lot that our immigrant brothers and sisters aren’t as well catechized. But is the idea that it has to be done in a way that resonates with our culture?

Well, you see, I would dispute that, though. I would not add my voice to those that say [immigrants] are very poorly catechized. You look at the three transcendentals as pathways to the encounter with God…even my parents, who were themselves immigrants from Italy, there was a religious intuition that you don’t learn out of a textbook. You learn it from family and community. Which is a powerful way to encounter Christ.

Now, it could very well be that there’s a need left in the transcendental of truth to give language to that. Yes, absolutely. And can we do better? Absolutely. In part, we need to provide resources and materials that fit the cultural experience, so that they speak to people’s hearts.

I think the Hispanic and Latino community has a lot to teach [the broader church].

But the fact is that many have already had that intuition [of faith] that comes through family and comes through community. One could almost argue that [Latino immigrants] are ahead of the game. Because if you don’t have that encounter, if you don’t have that intuition—I’m going call it an intuition of love to the person of the Lord in and through the church—then just intellectually studying the faith can convert some people, but the vast majority are just going to see it as an academic subject.

So I think there is a real contribution to be made, when we talk about inculturation, that it’s not a one way street. It’s a two way street. It has to be walked by everybody in the church to mutually learn from one another, because I think the Hispanic and Latino community has a lot to teach [the broader church].

It may go without saying, but a lot of Latinos do not speak Spanish, or at least they prefer English. So, in recognizing that, it seems like catechesis needs to push beyond translations?

That’s my situation. My parents were immigrants, but I was born in the United States. I did not grow up speaking Italian. And yet, what I just described to you happened to me—that religious intuition. Before I went to school, my mother didn’t teach me the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption. She taught me a love of Our Lady. Then when I went to school—I went to Catholic school—I learned. I had to relearn again and again and again.

I think for young people, and this may sound very strange for me to say, some of what has happened in the last 40 years is that we have so overemphasized the intellectual component of faith that we have lost the effectiveness of the paths of beauty. And I’m of the clear opinion that if you want to engage young adults, engage them in either the path of beauty or the path of goodness, and then they will naturally hunger for the path of truth. You won’t have to try to motivate them to learn the faith. They will want to learn it. But there has to be an encounter with the heart or with the hands, at least at the same time, to precede the encounter with the mind.

Sometimes today in the church we see works of charity and justice almost in a tension with evangelizing efforts. But if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that they work in harmony with each other.

Without a doubt. It’s interesting—not that I want to sound as if I’m critical of what is going on, but it may come out to sound that way—when it comes to our outreach to teenagers, in a large part of the church we have taken the path of goodness and reduced it to service and service projects.

The classic transcendental of goodness is a virtue. It’s both a natural and supernatural virtue. And acts of service and goodness—whether they are the individual acts, which one could say are acts of charity, or the acts of systemic change, which are the acts of justice, have to flow not simply [out of a desire] to feel good [or] to make a difference, which is where some people may start. It should flow out of the life you have chosen, [one] that embodies in yourself the very goals you want to achieve by doing the good. Then people begin to mold themselves with grace to be true recipients of the Word. 

If you want to engage young adults, engage them in either the path of beauty or the path of goodness, and then they will naturally hunger for the path of truth.

And the path of beauty is also through prayer. You’re disclosing yourself to the truth in the spiritual life of prayer.

It’s got to be much more a question of a life stance than individual acts. And this institute is going to be looking at that, because we’re not just going to look at the intellectual. We’re also going to look at the affective. What are the desired outcomes in behavior that will measure whether or not a person is truly being formed?

We often hear Catholic schools prioritized, and I get that. But I also understand that most Catholic children are not attending Catholic schools. Do you believe that we can do a better job reaching children who are not in our schools?

Faith formation of [Catholic schools students and public school students] is going to be different because [in Catholic schools] you have the luxury of time. And formation works easier when you have more time with the person you want to form. I mean, it’s just logical.

But the same thing has to happen in both experiences. Can we do better in religious education? The answer is absolutely, yes, we can. But I think it goes back to my question of the agents. If the agents of formation recognize they are agents, and are given the tools, formation and accompaniment, then for the children who are in religious education, the involvement of their parents is as important, if not more important, than for children in Catholic schools.

They [those parents] will need to have much more of a formation of influence over their children, because the children in public schools are going to be [exposed to] formational experiences that are not always consonant with the faith—many times in opposition to the faith. So they have a distinct obstacle that they have to deal with if their children attend public education, that many times is running on an agenda that is not faith-friendly. It could be very much opposed to the Christian faith.

So the answer is yes [we can do better]. But to say we have to do a better job almost sounds judgmental of those doing catechesis now, and the truth is, in my experience, there are a lot of people trying their hardest to do the best they can.

The influence of the bishops isn’t what it used to be. The church as an institution has lost some of its credibility. Do you see that as part of the reason that we need a different approach to reach people?

Oh, without a doubt. But I would give it in more global terms. Allow me a theory, and it’s only a theory. If it is the case that we live in a culture that has prioritized and absolutized subjectivity, so that I’m the standard of truth, I’m the standard of what’s moral, and I’m the standard of what I decide is going to be good, I’m only going to be comfortable with dealing with people of like minds. So you go on social media, you create a tribe, you call it a community, and basically there’s open warfare. You see it now in the church, you see it everywhere. But if that is the premise, then an institution—whether it’s the political structures, economic structures, the church, organized religion—the institution and its leaders who would have at one time been nuanced differently are no longer nuanced differently.

So I have a problem with my pastor. I leave. My mother used to say to me, “Ships, pastors, they come and go. Jesus is here.” Because my mother intuited, and her generation intuited that there was some objective here, and that even those who are in leadership, whether they are good leaders or not, cannot take away [that objective].

My mother used to say to me, “Ships, pastors, they come and go. Jesus is here.”

But now we live in a world where that is not the case, where [the institution and its leaders] are convoluted because there isn’t something truly objective to which they are held responsible. And if that is true, then your premise is absolutely something that has to be dealt with by the bishops of the country and quite frankly, the leadership of anyone who is part of an organized community or institution.

If all that is even partially true, then the only way we can heal these divisions is to answer the question, “Why a church at all?” Why do I need a church for spiritual life? What is the compelling reason to say that a community is absolutely essential—and not a community of your own making, but a community that you are received in and receives you?

That is a fundamental question this institute has to address as almost the premise for having catechesis at all. Does that sound reasonable?

Yes, well, to me it does. It does often seem like we create communities, like you say, of like minds. We network with those with whom we agree and we don’t want to be challenged.

And it’s self enforced. And then you create a remnant. You create a fortress that you have to defend, and you defend it by becoming more pure in it; therefore, you become more extreme in it.

Ephesians 4 is the key to answering this question: to live the truth in love. Paul says that, in a time when Ephesus was a disaster. The same is true in our age. O.K., love is the central component of a community for it demands more [of] one.

Therefore, the crisis in leadership needs to be resolved with heroic and holy leadership. But as that is being played out, it should not affect a person’s seeking the truth in love within a community of believers that is living the truth that is both objective and real in Jesus Christ. But right now, that’s all convoluted.

Is there something I haven’t asked that we should have talked about?

I’d just appeal for patience. We are really talking about more than just process and procedure. We’re talking about a vision that could have huge implications if it was implemented in the lives of all of our dioceses. What we are launching is a roadmap, not a plan. As more bishops now get engaged, as more people in the field get engaged[and] we listen to one another, it will become clearer what has to happen.

So if someone’s imagining we’re going to have this settled in six months, I think that would be a mistake. As we devolved into the crisis, we will evolve into the solution. So I would ask everyone to be open to it, be patient with it and to participate in it.

Material from Catholic News Service was used in the introduction of this story.

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