Much water has gone under the bridge in 50 years. Every edition of The Priest, in Last Things, the feature on the last page of each issue, includes a look at articles published in the corresponding month but 50 years ago.
Practically everything done in Catholic pastoral work, and indeed some matters more dogmatic, were under discussion. in, or around, the Second Vatican Council.
For instance, one prominent European theologian suggested that the Church re-think its position on immersion as a way of baptizing — on the grounds that it would be more in keeping with the Apostolic Era. That argument won the day eventually, to the extent that immersion is an option today. (Actually, the idea was not that revolutionary. The Eastern Church baptizes regularly by immersion, even infants.)
This theologian’s other proposal created more controversy, arguing that baptizing infants should be stopped, and only persons fully in command of their reasoning, and fully aware of what baptism is, should be admitted to this sacrament.
As things turned out, this recommendation went nowhere. The Council of Trent had required the baptism of infants, not simply on liturgical or disciplinary grounds, but as a consequence of the doctrine of Original Sin and redemption in Christ, and this interpretation won the day.
Trent supported its declaration, in part, by citing events revealed specifically in the Acts of the Apostles and in Pauline Epistles. For example, when Paul baptized Lydia, he baptized “all the members of her household” (Acts 10:16). Nothing said only adults were eligible. In Acts 16:33, Paul and Silas baptized the jailer and the jailer’s “household,” again presumably not only adults. In 1 Corinthians 1:16, Paul writes of having baptized Stephanas and the “household” of Stephanas, once more apparently everyone in the family, age irrespective.
Further reading of Acts and the epistles easily presents a picture of newly converted Christians, Lydia, the jailer, and so on, yearning that all near and dear to them also experience the grace of redemption in Christ, and avidly they listened to Paul and his confreres better to know the Lord.
Just as obviously, the apostolic figures satisfied the wishes of these early believers.
The situation can be applied to today.
The Code of Canon Law states: “Parents above others are obliged to form their children by word and example in faith and in the practice of Christian life; sponsors and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equal obligation” (Canon 774.2).
No doubt about it, in the mind of the Church, parents have the primary responsibility of educating their own children in the faith.
The Code also says: “It is a proper and grave duty especially of pastors to take care of the catechesis of the Christian people so that the living faith of the faithful becomes manifest and active through doctrinal instruction and the experience of Christian life” (Canon 773).
Then the canon broadens its understanding of responsibility for the religious instruction of youth in its statement that everyone in the Church community — everyone — shares in the duty of educating others, especially the young, in the reality of Christ.
Every September is special for parishes great and small across this country regarding training that enables an understanding of the Lord and of the Christian way of life.
Church-organized and -provided formal education, from the university level down to kindergarten, is ancient. It has pertained even when a local Church community has been driven underground because of persecution or has had few resources.
Here is an example. Half a millennium ago, European explorers set sail for the unknown, chiefly for financial purposes, but the great Catholic powers of Europe — France, Portugal and Spain — sent intrepid priests along with explorers, as chaplains, of course, but also as missionaries.
Missionaries carved a foothold in Japan, in Nagasaki. Then the political fortunes reversed, and the missionaries either were martyred, or they were exiled.
Centuries later, other missionaries arrived. They were startled to find that Christianity had survived, albeit underground. Generations had come and gone, but families had kept the faith. Fathers baptized their children. They revered the popes, although likely no one knew the names of the opes serving after the first missionaries left the scene. They loved Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus. They dreamed, one day, actually of participating in the Mass and of receiving Jesus in holy Communion.
Those Japanese Catholic parents centuries past loved the Lord so much that they were willing to run the risk, and the risk was ominous in its consequences, to share with their children the Jesus of their faith and hope.
In the final analysis, then, regarding parish religious education, after all the budgets have been drafted, the teachers assigned and the resources selected, the ultimate driving force is the will to share the Lord with the young who are learning about life and how to live life.
The Code of Canon Law, and Catholic tradition from the first, place parents in the forefront of this undertaking, but dramatical responsibility is given to pastors.
Pastors aid the process, of course, by seeing that the best possible programs are made available, and every pastor knows what this means, providing means, engaging competent personnel, overseeing instruction for orthodoxy and efficiency, and so on.
It means more, and in most respects much more. It means inspiring parents, the students themselves and indeed entire parish communities, bringing all to that yearning that prompted the persons named in Acts and the Pauline writings to approach Paul, asking for more knowledge about Christ and for inclusion into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
Current statistics in this country about options in Catholic religious instruction are not universally encouraging to say the least. Despite the wishes, and the earnest efforts, of so many, Catholic schools are not increasing.
Programs in religious education other than those offered in Catholic schools also have problems to face.
The declining number of Catholics who attend Mass regularly, or identify themselves with the institutional Church meaningfully, mightily affects any parish’s effort to attract young people to Catholic religious education.
Above everything, I earnestly submit, is faith, and, with deference to any and all educational techniques and resources in catechetics, the best teacher is example.
Bluntly, and in my inadequacies I shiver as I write this, in our common priestly apostolate of inspiring the parents, students, and parishioners whom we encounter, our best teaching device is our own personal commitment and holiness.
Recently, I celebrated the Mass at a funeral. For some reason, the Paschal candle seemed to catch my eye again and again.
My memory did not end with the singing of the Exsultet, however. Maybe more than anything, I remember the congregation. The church still was dark, the only lights being the Easter candle — and the small candles held by the worshippers.
Each face gleamed with the light of the bearer’s little candle, each lighted from the one great Easter candle, the “light of Christ,” the face of the man whom I knew still was grieving at the loss of his wife of 51 years, the woman coping with treatments for serious cancer, the bright-eyed college student dreaming of a wonderful future, the recovering addict. There was faith.
Faith is a product of grace. It is divine. The Lord Jesus, however, was human as well as divine. He redeemed us humans. He freed us humans from our human tendencies to sin. He saved us humans from death. He fills our human hearts with joy, unselfish love and unabated hope.
Our priestly service is to humans, who see us and hear us and, frankly, judge us. God grant us all the privilege of inspiring the people the Good Shepherd has given us to lead and to nourish.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.