What is the Catechism?
When I was in college and would tell people I was majoring in catechetics, most people reacted by saying "So you're going to be a Priest?" With that in mind, before we talk about the Catechism of the Catholic Church and how to use it, I think it's a good idea to start with the big word right there in the title that might trip us up.
The word catechesis comes from the Greek word κατηχισμός from kata meaning "down" and echein meaning "to sound" or "to echo" – literally meaning "to sound/echo down".
Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote a Church document on catechesis titled "On Catechesis in Our Time". In it he defines catechesis as:
"...the whole of the efforts within the Church to make disciples, to help people to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so that believing they might have life in His name, and to educate and instruct them in this life and thus build up the Body of Christ.
(On Catechesis in Our Time, Paragraph 1)
So catechesis is the "echoing down" of the Deposit of Faith done by the Church to every generation throughout history. It is the Church's way of handing on to God's people the Deposit of Faith given to Her by Jesus Christ Himself. A catechism is a systematic summary of fundamental contents of the faith, written with the purpose of echoing down this faith to the faithful.
Catechesis: education in the faith of children, young people, and adults, especially the teaching of Christian doctrine with the goal of initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life (cf. CCC 5)
Catechism: a systematic and organic presentation of the fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's Tradition (cf. CCC 11)
Catechist: a person who does catechesis
Catechetics: the study of catechesis
Catapocalypse: the feline destruction of life as we know it; spay and neuter your cats
This doesn't mean catechesis is only for kids. In the encyclical "On Catechesis in Our Time", Blessed John Paul II goes on to say:
"...the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity."
So if you are listening, reading, or seeing something or someone that brings you to a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith and therefore a greater intimacy with Jesus Christ, then you are being catechized. You don't "grow out of" catechesis just like you don't "grow out of" falling deeper in love with your wife.
What is the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first edition promulgated in 1992, is the first systematic presentation of the whole Catholic faith since the Council of Trent in 1566. Some readers will be familiar with past catechisms such as the Roman Catechism from Trent or the Baltimore Catechism. Catechisms have been produced by the Church both universally and locally by Bishops throughout history.
What makes this catechism so important is that it is the first catechism in over 570 years to be written and guided by promptings of the Pope with the purpose of being used universally throughout the world by the Church.
There is no longer a question about whether or not the Church has "changed its beliefs" since the Council of Trent in order to make the faith more modern, as some heretics within the church have been known to say to support teachings contrary to the Catholic faith.
Thanks to Blessed Pope John Paul II, we can now definitively point to the Catechism as a sure rule and guide in our time of everything the Catholic Church teaches and believes.
Blessed Pope John Paul II first asked in 1985 for a Catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding faith and morals to be written by the Church. The first edition was published in French and then translated into other languages such as English. After the Latin official text was finished, the translations were revised by the Latin standard, and so we have the second edition, translated into most languages.
How to Use the Catechism
Contents – The Four Pillars
The Catechism is an "organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety". This means that all of the faith relates back to Christ and is interconnected as a unified whole. We can see this in thoughtful structure of the catechism based around four traditional "pillars":
Profession of Faith
(Creed or Profession of Faith ) Par. #'s 26-1065
The Celebration of the Christian Mystery
(Sacraments or Celebration of Faith) Par. #'s 1066-1690
Life in Christ
(Morality or Life of Faith) Par. #'s 1691-2557
(Prayer of the Believer) Par. #'s 2558-2865
All four sections are centered and unified in Jesus Christ and our faith in Him. This is called "christocentricity". Throughout Church history the Creed, Sacraments, Ten Commandments, and Our Father have been taught as the four pillars of the faith. Likewise the catechism uses these pillars for its structure and outline of each section.
They could be summed up as the profession of faith, celebration of faith, life of faith, and prayer of the believer – Creed, Sacraments, Morality, and Prayer. (CCC 13)
Reference (Paragraph) Numbers
Best Use: For navigating the Catechism, referencing to other sections of the Catechism, and for recognizing what pillar of the catechism you are in.
These are the bold numbers next to the chunks of text. This is the meat of the Catechism. Short hand references to paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are often written CCC 5 or CCC #5 (like in this article, for example) meaning Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph number 5.
When people reference to the Catechism they don't use page numbers, because different translations or publications could have differing page numbers. Therefore any references to a section of the Catechism is done using the paragraph number. The table of contents, however, lists page numbers, not reference numbers. (Confusing, I know.)
[NOTE: The Catechism is broken down into the four parts, which are divided into sections, which are divided into chapters, which are divided into articles, which are subdivided into roman numerals and/or paragraphs. Don't let that overwhelm you, this is just to be sure that you aren't confused. When people say "Catechism paragraph 25" they generally mean reference (bold) number 25. ]
Best Use: Finding how a particular topic is discussed in other pillars of the Catechism and following a theme throughout the Catechism.
These numbers appear in the margins and tell you what other sections of the Catechism are related to the idea in the sentence or paragraph you are reading, often bringing you to other pillars of the Catechism. For example, when reading paragraphs 1330 on the Eucharist, the cross references will bring you to 1341, 614, and 2643.
Best Use: To sum up and review a lengthy section you have read. Also good for memorization.
At the end of each major article in the Catechism is the "In Brief" section, which summarizes the entire article's topic in a few short paragraphs.
Best Use: Finding information on a specific topic or question in mind.
This is an alphabetical index of general subjects and where the subjects are referenced throughout the entire catechism. Each subject or term has subheadings to get more specific about what exactly you are trying to find.
For instance, say you want to read what the Church teaches about Jesus' presence in the Eucharist. Turn to the index, find the bold word "Eucharist", and under it you will find "presence of Christ in the Eucharist" and further subheadings of different topics concerning the presence of Christ in the Eucharist with the paragraph numbers following.
Best Use: Finding a quick definition of a term and the important Catechism passage on that term.
Here you will find short definitions of important terms with references to key paragraph numbers. For example, if you wanted to know what adoration is, a good place to start is looking it up here. You will find a short definition in the glossary which summarizes the articles found in the catechism. It will then give the main paragraph numbers for this term in parenthesis.
Index of Citations
Best Use: Finding how a particular Bible passage or verse is referenced throughout the Catechism – how the Church interprets the verse.
This is an amazing and powerful feature of the Catechism. You can look up Documents of the Church, Liturgical Rites, important authors from the tradition of the Church, and even the Bible to see how these sources are used throughout the Catechism.
One of the coolest ways to use this index is to look up how a certain passage in the Bible is cited in the catechism. For example, today's Gospel Reading was from Matthew 11:25-27. I can turn to the index of citations and find that Matthew 11:25 is referenced in the catechism paragraphs 153, 544, and 2785. If there is an asterisk, this means the passage was paraphrased in the paragraph.
This is a great way to read the Catechism while reading through the Bible to see how the Church applies a particular passage.
Where You Should Start
- Start at the beginning and read to the glorious end (highly recommended)
- Bring it to Adoration and pray with a few sections at a time (highly recommended)
- Look up something you are interested in or know nothing about
- Think of a question someone has asked you that you didn't know the answer to
- Look up the daily readings in the Index of Citations
Other Catechisms to Check Out
Compendium to the Catechism – The "mini-catechism" of 200 short pages in question-answer format. A good supplement, but don't wimp out and never read the full catechism. You'll miss out.
"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5
******* Who to send this article to: Your mom, recently initiated RCIA candidates, recent converts, atheists you gave a Catechism to, your young adult friends or children, high school religion teachers who need to read the catechism, people you love.
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