Faith Meets Life

The Prophetic Spirit of Catechesisby Anne Marie MongovenPaulist. 323p $19.95 paperback original

Titles can be deceiving, but The Prophetic Spirit of Catechesis does indeed capture both the argument and spirit of this book. It is only in the Afterword that Mongoven formally explains the title, but the attentive reader will experience its meaning on every page.

The book is divided into two parts: the first, a fairly extensive review of the theology and history of catechesis; the second, a more original process of symbolic catechesis. Mongoven (a professor emerita at Santa Clara University) makes the point early on that she is particularly concerned with the present and future of the catechetical ministry in the United States. Her own extensive experience in that setting gives her discussion an acculturated pastoral focus. (In discussing The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, she points out that Pope John Paul II describes it as a catechism for the universal church rather than a universal catechism. In brief, the local church is her catechetical concern.)


As one reviews the catechetical developments of the past century, the shift in emphasis from the child to the adult and the insistence on the link between faith and life are particularly noticeable. Her careful discussion of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation draws out the implications for symbolic catechesis, in which the Christian community links the symbols of daily life with those of God’s presence. The catechist herself is a symbol of God’s self-communication to the community as they work together as graced searchers for meaning. With this role in mind, Mongoven proposes a job profile for the catechist as activator, facilitator, leader and catalyst for the community. The first part is clearly presented, giving the right amount of objective material nicely balanced by a certain prophetic urgency.

The second and more challenging part of Mongoven’s book deals with symbolic catechesis. It is here that she is at her best. She offers three reasons why this approach, rather than others, is particularly suited for our new century. First, this form of catechesis insists on faith as transfomative of life and people’s perception of the world. It presents an integrated and acculturated faith. Second, this approach unifies the diverse members of the community. From a pastoral point of view, this assertion is especially promising since parish life in many sectors of this country is no longer ethnically or socially unified, as it was in many places just 50 years ago. Finally, this approach demands a living out of the faith. In fact, it is this ecclesial warrant that suggests the four steps of the process of symbolic catechesis: reflecting on a common experience, interpreting it through a faith symbol, moving to shared acts of justice and praying together about the experience.

This process is obviously not a theoretical construct but a pastorally practical way of engaging people in the living out of their faith. Mongoven makes the point that the 19,000 parishes in the United States are different from one another, which invites people in ministry to observe more closely the pastoral signs of the times. Here is the practical test of a parish community’s ability to do a bit of cultural analysis and to judge how it correlates with the Gospel scale of values and meanings. Mongoven provides a good discussion, at this point, on ways to implement this process in the parish setting.

Her chapter Bible as a Symbol of Faith provides a concise but clear review of topics such as interpretation, fundamentalist interpretation and feminist biblical interpretation, as well as a good explanation of how the Lectionary functions and how to catechize with the Bible. Quite logically the next chapter is devoted to the various languages in which doctrine is expressed and how the lives of the saints are a concrete expression of doctrine. I found this chapter particularly important, because many catechists have difficulty finding a way to involve their candidates in the doctrinal riches of the church and their application to daily life. Mongoven’s suggestion is well taken: The catechist influences the teaching and learning that takes place by the way she speaks of and participates in the symbols of faith.

This is equally true of her final chapter on the liturgical symbols of faith. She points out that 80 percent of catechetical ministry is linked to a liturgical experience. There is a good delineation of the nature and language of liturgy, which leads to four key characteristics of liturgical catechesis. This prepares the way for a more comprehensive understanding of the classical axiom the law of worship is the law of belief.

Perhaps the best compliment I could pay to the author is simply to say that her book will renew the enthusiasm of anyone involved in any form of catechetical ministry and deepen their awareness of how much remains to be done if the pastoral reforms of Vatican II are to be accomplished. But I would not restrict the readership to catechists. Anyone who wishes to be well informed about the needs of the church in this new century will welcome this book.

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