Surfing the Catechism on its silver anniversary

The silver anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good reminder that its contents remain more valuable than the book’s weight in gold (which, at about 3 pounds, would be worth around $52,000).

Truth be told — and the Catechism is all about truth (all about the Way, the Truth and the Life) — it’s more valuable than all the gold on earth.

On June 25, 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the text of this new, lengthy book. Then on Oct. 11 of that same year, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he promulgated it with his apostolic constitution, Fidei Depositum (“The Deposit of Faith”).

Five years later, on the solemnity of the Assumption on Aug. 15, 1997, the pope promulgated his apostolic letter Laetamur Magnopere, which begins: “It is a cause for joy that the Latin Typical Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is being published. It is approved and promulgated by me in this apostolic letter and thus becomes the definitive text of the aforementioned Catechism.”

That was a second edition, one “revised in accordance with the official Latin text.”

In other words, 20 years ago this August it got into the hands of the folks in the pews in the United States — ordinary “praying stiffs” like you and me who have never promulgated anything in our lives. Who aren’t theologians, Scripture scholars or Church historians. Who don’t have canon law degrees. Who just want to know, as much as they’re able to understand, what’s what when it comes to God and his Church and want to know it from a reliable source.

New document, new direction

It had been a while since even a national (let alone universal) catechism was depended on in the United States. The previous source was the Baltimore Catechism, whose publication history stretched from the 1880s up through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). After Vatican II its use got spotty and completely disappeared in most schools, parishes and dioceses. And in a lot of homes.

Truth hadn’t changed. Times had. The Baltimore Catechism used a nuts-and-bolts approach of questions and answers that worked well for many generations. But it just didn’t have the depth or breadth of answers that Catholics now wanted — what they needed for their own welfare, for raising their children in the Faith and for explaining the teachings of the Church to others.

Then, too, in what sometimes seemed like an anything-goes catechetical approach in the decades immediately after Vatican II, there was more than a little confusion. What did the Church really teach about this or about that?

Now, what the Catechism of the Catholic Church offered was another (but unsaid) question — one that was more personal. What do you really want to know about this or about that?

What do you want to know about the profession of Faith you publicly say every Sunday at Mass (“I believe in God ...”)?

What do you want to know about the Mass and the sacraments?

What do you want to know about the life of Christ?

And what do you want to know about Christian prayer?

What more do you want to know about each of those four main parts, those pillars, of the Catechism?

Start surfing

But a three-pound, 900-page book can seem more than a little intimidating. Not just its content but its apparent time commitment. (The same can be said for the online version on the Vatican’s website.)

Fortunately, there’s more good news about this resource that focuses on the Good News.

The Catechism's 'Little Brother'
To put it in terms the younger generation would understand, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is like a series of 598 text messages. A question and then an answer. (A “compendium” is a concise compilation.)

The language and writing style are highly readable for all of us ordinary “praying stiffs” in the pews. And it’s not necessary to begin with page 1 and plod your way through to page 900-plus.

You can, to use a contemporary term, surf. Here are some tips on how you can digest this enormous volume of Church teaching:

1. Browse the table of contents and index to see what topic interests you, intrigues you. What would you like to know more about? The liturgical seasons? The Holy Spirit? The Our Father (and on and on)?

2. Do the same with the glossary to get clear, understandable definition of hundreds of “Catholic” words and terms (as well as where each can be found in the body of the book’s text).

3. Focus in on a particular sacrament that is playing a major role in your life right now. Baptism? Confirmation? Matrimony? Anointing of the Sick?

3. Work on how to better appreciate the Mass and the Eucharist by finding out more about the incredible gift of Our Lord’s body and blood.

4. Pick a topic for reading and prayer during Advent or Lent for time you spend at the parish’s adoration chapel.

5. Go through the Nicene Creed, line by line, to make Sunday Mass attendance even more meaningful.

6. Take better advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation by examining its theology (don’t let that word intimidate you) to give you the nudge you may need to return to confession (if it’s been a while) or to go more often.

7. Bookmark or print sections of the online Catechism that you want to read more slowly, carefully and prayerfully.

8. One way or another, take advantage of what John Paul II, now St. John Paul, had in mind for all of us a quarter of a century ago. As he wrote in Fidei Depositum:

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“A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of sacred Scripture, the living Tradition of the Church and the authentic magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers and the Church’s saints, to allow for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God.

“It should take into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has intimated to his Church. It should also help illumine with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past.

“The Catechism will thus contain the new and the old (cf. Mt 13:52), because the Faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light.”

In other words, it was written for you.



Bill Dodds writes from Washington.