One of the meanings of the word "to catechize" is "to instruct by asking questions, receiving answers, offering explanations and corrections, especially in regard to religious faith. "From this Greek word there comes the word "catechism", a word so familiar to many of us and the dictionary defines "catechism" as ‘a manual or guide, especially for moral or religious instruction’. In the Patristic Era, the time of the early Fathers of the Church, catechisms were traditionally pre-baptismal and adult in orientation. By the time the Council of Trent adjourned in 1563, the homilies and instructions of men like St. Augustine, St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine had been gathered together and formed a basis of the catechism issued by the Council of Trent. This manual for parish priests, running to more than 400 pages was known as the Catecismus Romanus with a four fold mission of faith and the Creed, the Sacraments, the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) and the law of God, and prayer and its necessity. During the next two centuries the Catechism of Trent was translated into various languages and, when a new catechism was published it followed the four fold structure of the catechism of Trent.
In 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, a committee was established to prepare what would become known as the Baltimore Catechism. Although intended for priests and bishops as a guide in teaching and preaching, it soon became the main teaching tool in the parishes for children in the United States. Until new publications based on the theology of Vatican II began to appear in the late 60s and early 70s, most of the lessons taught to and learned by children were based on texts drawn from the Baltimore catechism. As our Religious Education leaders prepare during these summer days for next year’s religion programs, we will see what role the parish plays in the religious education of our children.
Fr John R. Mulvehill