Confraternity of Christian Doctrine

Bishop Anthony's CCD Reflection Day Address


CCD Reflection Day News Story
Catholic Diocese of Parramatta catechists at the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Reflection Day at Glenmore Park on Friday 22 July 2011.
Photo: Dawn Willis

The Bishop of Parramatta, Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP addressed a Confraternity Christian Doctrine Reflection Day held in Glenmore Park on Friday 22 July, on the topics of St Mary Magdalene (Patron for Catechists) and Catechists and the New Evangelization.

Below is the text from Bishop Anthony's talks.

St Mary Magdalene – a Patron for Catechists

Father, your Son first entrusted to Mary Magdalene the joyful news of his resurrection. By her prayers and example may we proclaim Christ as our living Lord and one day see him in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever an ever.

We don’t know for sure it’s her. In the story she is just called ‘the Woman caught in adultery’ (Jn 8:1-10). But tradition suggests this might be the first time Jesus and Mary Magdalene met. She’s collapses, trembling, on her knees, exposed, ashamed, terrified. The religious authorities want to stone her and they want Jesus to condone it. If he doesn’t he’ll be showing contempt for the institution of marriage and for the Mosaic law; if he does he’ll lose his reputation for mercy and be showing contempt for the Roman law. Either way he loses.

She’s just a pawn in this game. But Jesus won’t have anyone treated as a mere pawn. So he throws it back on the accusers. “Let whomever of you is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one they walk away, until in St Augustine’s words: “only two were left, Misery and Mercy,” the sinner and the Sinless One. “Neither do I condemn you,” He says. No, I absolve you from your sins. “Go now and sin no more.”

So it is that Mary Magdalene was given back her dignity. She was no longer merely an adulteress, no longer merely bait in someone’s trap. He lifts her up from the ground, lifts her to her feet, and gives her back her future. New possibilities are opened to her. Christ is for her as He is for us: redeemer, absolver, the face of the divine pity, the promise of a better future. The task of CCD catechists, who in a society like ours are first and foremost evangelists, is to bring the young into contact with that all-loving God who has a future planned for them.

Whenever Mary Mag joined Jesus her instinctive posture seems to have been to get down on her knees. The next story traditionally associated with her is the dinner at Bethany in Lazarus’ house (Lk 10:38-42). We’re told she “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to his teaching”. It annoyed her sister Martha who wanted help with the serving. That was, after all, women’s work and certainly hosts’ work. Let Laz and the men sit around talking. But of course Jesus has already told Mary that whatever others do, He won’t be the one to scold her. Tonight she becomes the patron saint of contemplatives. The one who sits at Christ’s feet and contemplates. The listener, the thinker.

So all Christians, but especially SRE catechists, must in the midst of our busy world, stop and listen to Christ, often and attentively. Stop and think about what its all for, what that last class or that next one is telling me, what Christ want to communicate to them through me. It my early life as a law-student and lawyer I was taught the aphorism: Nemo dat non quod habet – You can’t give what you haven’t got. If we are to have anything worthwhile to pass on to our kids we need first to put ourselves at the Lord’s feet and listen. Once more, we must be Mary Magdalenes.

The Magdalene has had quite a run in recent pop culture. Dan Brown declared in the Da Vinci Code that she is dressed as a man at the Last Supper, was Jesus’ lover and went on to bear him a child and so on. Imaginative, profitable, but nonsense. The real Mary Magdalene is so much more interesting that the one we meet in the novels.

The next time we see her in those most reliable of all sources, the Gospels, is again with her family, but this time in more terrible circumstances (Jn ch 11). Again, we’re told, she’s in a collapsed state. Lazarus has died. Christ didn’t get back in time to reach out with his healing touch. All is lost. All is misery again.
Martha argues with Him again. You should have been here. I know he’ll rise again one day. We all will. Pressed by Him she confesses: Yes, Lord, I believe, that you are the Resurrection and the life; that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God; that you are that God coming into the world. But my brother died too soon.

Now Mary, the Gospel tells us, went to Jesus and “fell at his feet” weeping. There she is again, miserable and on her knees. It must have brought back memories for them both. “Jesus wept,” wept with her. Because he loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha. Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. So Jesus raised him from death. “Unbind him and let him go free,” he commanded.

As catechists we want to bring our young people to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Resurrection and the Life, God come and coming to our world. And we want them to learn like Mary Mag to kneel and pray before him, for the needs of that world and the cares of their own hearts. To bring their own little griefs and complexities now to Him and get into good habits of that so that when greater griefs and greater complexities come their way, they will know where to turn.

In the very next chapter of St John’s Gospel Mary is back again (Jn 12:1-8). They are at table again, because Jesus clearly liked to party. Martha is doing the serving again, only this time she’s not complaining. Guess where Mary is? Yep, on the ground again before Jesus. This time she takes “a pound” of costly anointment – she didn’t know she was supposed to measure it in metric grams – and anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her own hair. The house is filled with the smell of the nard. It s a very liturgical act. It is the Church giving her all in worship. She is on her knees worshipping the One who did, who could do, such things for her brother and sister and self.

Judas didn’t like it. He was against such pomp and ceremony in the liturgy. He thought all money should be spent on him or on the causes he approved of, mostly political ones. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says for the umpteenth time.

CCD teachers draw young people to Christ in worship. They teach them to kneel like Mary Mag. To pray. To contemplate. To adore Him.

There are those today who think kneeling is demeaning, the posture of sinners and supplicants, and that as children of God we should stand upright. But lovers sometimes kneel, as does a man proposing marriage to his beloved. The dignified sometimes kneel, as do the high and mighty when made knights of the realm. And the fact is that we are also sinners and supplicants, even if we are redeemed. Above all, in all humility we recognize that we are creatures before the Creator. We want our young people to relate to God, not just as their mate, a fair-go Aussie God, but as the source of their being, the Provident God who holds them in existence every moment of their lives, the God with hands and feet and voice who came amongst us so that He could draw us to Himself, to His eternal dining table in heaven.  Like Mary Magdalene they must learn to genuflect in their hearts especially, before their Divine Creator and Lover.

Only two more vignettes of Mary Mag. She’s with Jesus now to the end. She was probably in the kitchen with her sister getting the Passover Meal ready for the Last Supper. She stayed with His mother at the foot of the cross as he hung there dying (Jn 19:25; cf. Mk 15:40). She accompanied His body to the tomb and helped bury Him (Mt 27:61). We’re not told she was kneeling before the cross, but I think we can guess that she was!

Faithful she is to the end, even through the hard times. SRE teachers may occasionally have some hard times. I remember one of my catechists in my previous parish saying she often wondered why she was putting herself through this. The kids could be unruly. Some of them were clueless and even less interested that they were knowledgeable. But then every so often the lights turned on, on the face of some child. Or one said or wrote something that astonished her. She knew it was Christ speaking to that child through her in that class; but she knew it was also Christ speaking to her through that child. Even from the cross and from the tomb he speaks his healing, revealing, life-giving word.

There are various accounts of the first appearances of Christ after his Resurrection. But what all four Gospels agree upon was that it was Mary Mag who saw Him first: Mk 16:1,9; Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:1-11; Jn 20:1-18.

Some of you might know one of the famous frescoes painted by Fra Angelico, a Dominican saint, at San Marco, the Dominican Priory in Florence. It is of the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene is kneeling down with her arms out-stretched to the Risen Christ whom she has just recognized. He is carrying a gardener’s hoe which tells us of her first impression that He might be the gardener. Now she knows who it is, that this really is the Resurrection and the Life, and she falls on her knees. But He is not just as formula for her. She loves Him. She reaches out to Him. Fra Angelico has Him skilfully evading her grasp as he dances away to the Ascension from Galilee and to return to His Father. But first He prepares her and the other disciples for His departure with His appearances.

Now, it’s far from clear that all these stories traditionally associated with Mary Magdalene are actually all hers. Maybe some are the stories of other women whose names are lost to us. But there are common elements. And it is very clear she saw Him at the Resurrection. “Woman, why are you weeping?” he asks. No more of that. You’ve wept for your sins. You’ve wept for your dead brother. You’ve knelt to listen to my words, to adore me, and to pray to me for your needs and the needs of your loved ones and of the world. Now get up again I say to you. Go and tell my brethren that I have truly Risen. Go and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. And she went. Mary is called in my Dominican Order ‘Evangelista’, the woman apostle. Apostle, because she is the first person to preach the Resurrection. “Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that all that He had said to her.”

I said at the start of this talk that catechists today must be evangelists also. Our young people may very well know very little about Christ, but worse still they may not know Christ. We must bring them to know Him as their Lord, friend, redeemer, teacher, healer … You must have the passion of Mary Magdalene, to reach out to him and to tell his story to all the world. To join her in saying “I have seen the Lord” and tell them all He has said to us.

Catechists and the New Evangelization

CCD Reflection Day News Story
Photo: Dawn Willis
In a survey conducted in England last year an alarming number of people had never heard of Moses or the Magi, thought miracles were magic and that the cross was a piece of jewellery.

Many people today still identify as Christian but don’t really know much about it, have low levels of subjective faith, and live as practical atheists, that is, as if there were no god. Many others may have been baptized but no longer even claim to have a religion.

Soon there will be a census in our country. About a quarter of the people or more will probably say ‘No religion’ when it comes to the religion question, or else just leave it blank.

Now most of these people are not ‘pagans’ in the traditional sense. It’s not that they’ve never heard of Christ or Christianity. Most of them were Christened. Some even went to Catholic schools. Most have grown up in a culture that is ostensibly Christian or at least has a long Christian heritage. But now they inhabit a world marked by secularisation, consumerism, family dysfunction and values disorientation. Educational, media, political and other institutions seem to conspire against our best efforts to express and share our Faith. What, we wonder, is being passed on to our children?

Of course before we throw stones at the surrounding culture we must look at our own glass house. Aspects of our Church’s internal life can be a ‘turn off’ for some people: uninspired and uninspiring liturgies and preaching; the misbehaviour of some clergy and religious; pastors who fail to connect with youth; Catholic school teachers or SRE catechists who fail to present the Faith fully or attractively. We might dare to ask: do we sometimes serve to inoculate our young people to the Faith rather than pass it on to them? Vaccination works by giving people small doses of dead or impotent examples of that to which they build up immunity. Do we build up resistance to the Faith in our young people by feeding them on a banal, half-serious ‘Christianity lite’, unlikely to inspire them to give their life to Christ? In the process are we undermining their hunger for ‘full cream Catholicism’?

Which is why the last few popes have talked so much about the need for a new evangelization. Now, evangelization is not a word that all Catholics are comfortable with. For some it conjures up images of televangelists after your money or people door-knocking with pamphlets in hand, hoping to liberate you from the Babylonian captivity to the whorish Church of Rome. Some years ago, a survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that evangelists were regarded as “better than tax inspectors but worse than prostitutes” (“Bishops ponder how to reach out to a secular society,” The Tablet, 26 Oct 2002, p. 37).

Perhaps out of fear of seeming to be proselytizers some Catholics reduce the Gospel to watermelon, a watery kind of green-and-red ecology-and-justice moralising, without any goal of bringing about a deep conversion of heart, a new relationship with God, a coming to the fullness of Catholic faith and a change of life. The Edinburgh philosopher, John Haldane, put his finger on the pulse when he wrote that all too often “those who celebrate and explore the Catholic cultural tradition seem more concerned with ethical, social and political issues. These are certainly important, but the difficulty seems to me that these Catholic contributions are mere echoes of notions acceptable to the secular world, and familiar because of it.” (“The Waiting Game,” The Tablet, 5 Feb 2005, p. 9)

Christianity lite, that inoculating variety of spirituality that reduces our moral life to social justice, our tradition to quaint customs and old-fashioned rules, and our identity to good citizenship, offers our secular world little more than echoes. But full cream Catholicism should challenge and convert our culture and ourselves, again and again, always calling us to more and better – to the communion of saints with the Holy Trinity in this life and the next.

Evangelization means proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Its goal is bringing people to faith through a personal encounter with Him. The idea of a new evangelization comes from Pope Paul VI (in Evangelii Nuntiandi), Pope John Paul II (e.g. Christifideles Laici 44; Redemptoris Missio 3; Ecclesia in Oceania 18 & 13; Novo Millennio Ineunte 40; Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 113-114) and Pope Benedict XVI (e.g. Ubicumque et Semper). Pope Paul noted three categories of people who, as a result of the dechristianisation of our times, needed re-evangelization: those of the baptized who now live their lives effectively outside Christianity; those who have no left Christian faith or practice but who have a weak knowledge of the content of Catholic faith; and thirdly, those who want a maturer faith than that they received as children (Evangelii Nuntiandi 52).

So concerned has Pope Benedict been about the declining faith of Europe and beyond that he recently established a new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation and decreed that the 2012 Synod of Bishops be on that subject. And before he died our late-great Blessed John Paul II said that the time had come to commit the Church’s energies to a new evangelization in previously Christian communities that are falling away from the Gospel in the face of secularisation and other cultural change. The same might be said for previously Christian institutions, families and individuals. That can’t be left to the official missionaries and professionally religious. Every serious Catholic must be a witness to Jesus Christ. Catechists in today’s world are not just faith educators: they are missionaries, new evangelizers.

When Pope Benedict XVI established his new Pontifical Council he rehearsed Pope Paul’s and Pope John Paul’s call for a re-evangelisation of formerly Christian places and people. He noted that the essential Gospel message remains the same in every generation and place, as is the missionary passion to “share the inestimable gift that God has wished to give us, making us sharers in his own life”. But times have changed since the days when bishops excommunicated families for sending their children to state schools and families, parishes and schools could be relied upon to pass on the faith to the next generation. Pope Benedict puts it simply: “It’s not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse.” But no “single formula... would hold the same for all circumstances”: we must look at each culture, school, student and adopt appropriate language and methods.

The tasks of the new Council are:
  • to examine in depth the theological and pastoral meaning of the new evangelization
  • to promote and to foster the idea
  • to publicize and support new evangelization initiatives
  •  to study and to encourage the use of modern forms of communication as instruments for the new evangelization
  • to promote the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in these tasks. (Ubicumque et Semper).

Today I’d invite you to think how we might do those five things in our SRE work. What new things can and should we do to ensure that our young people not only know about God but know God, that they have a personal encounter with Christ. As Pope Benedict put it in his first encyclical: “Being Christian is not the result of ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1).

Since we obviously won’t yet have the Acta of the forthcoming Synod on the New Evangelization until late next year, let alone the Apostolic Exhortation that will follow, one starting point for our continuing reflections might be the lineamenta or working document of the Synod General Secretariat which has been published to help prepare for that Synod. These lineamenta explore the history of the idea of new evangelization, attempt to define it, and to help us discern the challenges of our contemporary situation and the appropriate responses. It proposes that for all our proper concern to be tolerant and not appear to be imposing our faith on anyone, “the Christian must never forego a sense of boldness in proclaiming the Gospel and seeking every positive way to provide avenues for dialogue, where people’s deepest expectations and their thirst for God can be discussed. This boldness allows the question of God to be placed in context through one’s sharing of personal experiences in seeking God and recounting the gratuitous nature of the personal encounter with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This will firstly require self-evaluation and purification, so as to recognize any traces of fear, weariness, confusion or a retreat into oneself resulting from cultural factors. This step must immediately be followed by renewed efforts and initiatives, relying on the grace of the Holy Spirit, at experiencing God as Father, which, in turn, can then be communicated to others in virtue of our personally encountering Christ.” [5]

Before being a work of Christians, therefore, “the new evangelization is a frame-of-mind”. We must be ready to evangelize increasingly secularized or secularizing cultures. “Weary and worn-out communities” that once were Christian but which have long marginalized faith must be helped to “rediscover the joy of the Christian experience, to find again ‘the love you had at first’ which was lost (Rev 2:4) and to emphasize the true meaning of freedom in the search for truth.” [6] There are additional challenges – as well as real strengths and opportunities – that come with being so multicultural a society, such a high tech consumer economy, part of a global culture. A new evangelization mindset is one that boldly embraces the challenge of bringing the Gospel to these spheres of life. Our readiness to be new evangelizers might even be regarded as a litmus test of our fidelity. Following John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris missio, the Synod Secretariat suggests, “Being Christian and ‘being Church’ means being missionary; one is or is not. Loving one’s faith implies bearing witness to it, bringing it to others and allowing others to participate in it. The lack of missionary zeal is a lack of zeal for the faith.” [10]

At issue here is not only our particular projects and strategies, therefore, but our very Christian identity and our sense of what the Catholic Church is. The Synod Secretariat follows Vatican II in suggesting that: “The Church’s task consists in realizing the Traditio Evangelii, proclaiming and transmitting the Gospel, which is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom 1:16) and which is ultimately identified with Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:24). In referring to the Gospel, we must not think of it only as a book or a set of teachings. The Gospel is much more; it is a living and efficacious Word, which accomplishes what it says. It is not so much a system of articles of faith and moral precepts, much less a political programme, but a person: Jesus Christ, the definitive Word of God, who became man.” [11] 

In a section dedicated to “The Pedagogy of the Faith” [14] the lineamenta recall the post-conciliar renewal of the catechumenate, the Synod on Catechesis, the General Directory for Catechesis that described the various ways in which faith in Jesus Christ is passed on to the young. It recognizes “the rise in number and increased dedication of catechists” and the old and new methods of traditio and redditio – receiving and passing on, again and again – the faith so that it leads people to a personal encounter with Christ. It offers some criteria for discerning their fidelity and fruitfulness. “In recent decades, a noteworthy number of Christians have naturally and freely undertaken the proclamation and transmission of the faith, an experience which has been a true gift of the Spirit to the Christian communities in our local Churches,” the document notes [15]. The document is aware that the scarcity of priests, the fatigue of families, the maintenance rather than missionary posture of many parishes, the tendency of our culture to push God and the Church to the margins, the consequent impoverishment, even emergency, in education, can mean that a great deal of the responsibility for catechizing is placed upon the shoulders of a relatively few catechists. Nonetheless it expresses great confidence in the laity as the principal evangelizers and catechists in many parts of the community.

In a later section on “The Fruits of Transmitting the Faith” [17] the lineamenta point to the goal of your work: making the Church “the community of believers”, “the community of witnesses of the Gospel”, “the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love” immersed in a world that often loses sight of the reasons to believe, to hope and to love. This community, in Pope Paul’s words, “has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.” (Evangelii nuntiandi 15)

We all know Pope Paul’s wonderful insight: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses... It is therefore primarily by her conduct and life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus - the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 41) The recent document echoes those words in a section on “Evangelizers and Educators as Witnesses”. The Church’s pastors, teachers and catechists are called to live exemplary lives that will inspire their hearers, not just instruct them. “For the Church today, this means providing support and formation for the many people who have long been engaged in the work of evangelization and education” [22] – including, of course, days like today.

Which brings my reflection to a close. There is much more for us to think about in that recent document, and it is only a foretaste of what the Synod of Bishops and in turn the Holy Father will come up with in the next few years on this topic of the New Evangelization. You catechists are amongst its primary agents. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your generosity; I commend you for your Christian witness; I promise you the reward of God’s good and faithful servants.

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