Reorienting religious education

This column is adapted from a May 19 address that Archbishop Aquila delivered to catechists at the Leadership Appreciation Breakfast.

Consider the wake of a great ship, which begins in a point at the bow, but continues to broaden more and more, until it is lost in the horizon and touches the two opposite shores of the sea, the famous French poet Charles Péguy once wrote. Christ is the bow of the ship and when we meet him our lives are forever changed, like the sea is by the ship.

On Pentecost, I issued the pastoral letter Saints Among Us ( ), which began the five-year process of restoring Confirmation within the Archdiocese of Denver to its original place in Christian initiation. When children receive the graces of Confirmation and the gifts of the Holy Spirit sooner, then their encounter with Christ at a deeper level begins sooner. To use Péguy’s analogy, the wake of God’s grace will begin to wash across their lives and into their families and the world sooner.

This process also gives us a chance to recall the purpose of all Christian formation, to create authentic disciples of Jesus Christ, and to reorient every family, catechetical effort and evangelization endeavor toward that goal.

Families come first in this realignment because they are the place where love is first given and received, the human space where Christ is first encountered. The success of any catechetical or evangelization effort is fueled by the grace of God and built on the foundation of the family.

“In our time, as in times past,” Pope Benedict XVI told a 2011 gathering of the Pontifical Council for the Family, “the eclipse of God, the spread of ideologies contrary to the family and the degradation of sexual ethics are connected. And just as the eclipse of God and the crisis of the family are linked, so the new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family.”

When our families experience and live the joy of Christ’s forgiveness, the outpouring of his grace and love, then we have already begun to evangelize the world, which is made up of millions of families.

The devil understands this, and therefore is dedicated to undermining and dismantling the family in any way he can.

The Church’s history of evangelization also provides us with a valuable insight into who is being called to re-evangelize our increasingly godless society. In a retreat that he gave for the pope and Roman Curia during Advent 2011, papal preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa offered this helpful synopsis.

“Parallel to the appearance of a new world to evangelize, we have also witnessed a new class of evangelizers emerging each time: bishops during the first three centuries (especially in the third), monks during the second wave, and friars in the third. Even today we are witnessing the emergence of a new category of protagonists of evangelization: the laity. This obviously does not mean replacing one category with another, but rather adding a new component of the people of God to the other…” (Navigating the New Evangelization, p. 43).

Father Cantalamessa is talking about you. Yes, he is talking about well-known evangelists, but he is also talking about parents, grandparents, relatives and catechists. You are the people being called to carry the Gospel into the modern world, working side-by-side with your fellow parishioners, priests, consecrated religious, and me.

To help you in forming true disciples, I would like to share the model that Jesus used with his followers. Christ’s model for discipleship can be summarized in three words: Win, Build, Send. It looks like this.

Jesus first met the Apostles while they were engaged in their everyday activities – fishing, collecting taxes, or following John the Baptist. He won them over with his words and welcomed them into his company.

Over the next months and years, Jesus spent time building up the Apostles: teaching them, opening the Scriptures to them, healing people and casting out demons, and calling them to a deeper faith.

After he rose from the dead, Jesus gave the twelve Apostles an even more specific mission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he told them, “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” (Mt. 28:19). He sent them out to live, preach and make present the Kingdom of God.

As we go about the process of restoring Confirmation to its original place, I ask that every person use this occasion to reorient themselves toward becoming and forming authentic disciples of Christ. During Pentecost, may you encounter Christ more deeply, and may the effects of that meeting echo like the wake of a great ship to the shores of the world!


COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.