Answer: God made the world.
Question: Why did God make you? Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.
Question: What is a Sacrament? Answer: A Sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.
If you’re a Catholic over a certain age, let’s say about 50, you probably remember these questions and answers. Yep, they come from the venerable Baltimore Catechism, the collection of simple questions and answers that served as the singular religious education textbook for Catholics in this country for many generations.
The Baltimore Catechism was recently honored during the annual meeting of the National Catholic Education Association held, fittingly enough, in Baltimore! Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the prelates taking part in the ceremony said of the Catechism, “The strength of it is that it stayed with you . . . The weakness of it was that sometimes you didn’t always understand what you memorized.”
While acknowledging both the strengths and weaknesses of the Baltimore Catechism identified by Cardinal McCarrick, I think that on balance it was an extremely valuable catechetical tool and I am convinced that the effectiveness of religious education programs has suffered since its disappearance. The Baltimore Catechism helped us to learn the basic elements of our faith – it gave us a solid foundation on which to build our Catholic lives. And that’s an important starting point in any field of endeavor.
You want to be an accomplished musician? You need to learn basic music notation and practice the scales over and over again. You want to be a master chess player? You need to learn how the pieces move and understand fundamental strategies. You want to be a great golfer? You’ve got to learn the intricacies of a good swing and practice the routine until it’s as natural as breathing. And, you want to be a good, well-informed Catholic? You need to learn the basics of the Faith – doctrines, commandments, sacraments and prayers – and then practice them throughout your life. The Baltimore Catechism helped us to do that!
Sadly, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Baltimore Catechism was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by, well, almost nothing. The catechetical programs in our parishes and schools, nationwide, became an exercise of fun and games, heavy on style but lacking in substance.
I remember visiting one of our Catholic high schools in Ohio and discussing with the students the importance of their faith and the relevance of their religion classes. One bold and articulate young guy challenged me and said something like, “Bishop, in this school we’re learning computer skills, advanced calculus and honors chemistry, but when we go to religion class we’re singing songs, drawing pictures and making collages. I know that there’s more to my faith than that! I want to learn about my faith so I can live it and explain it to others.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
As a result of the deficient catechetical programs of the last thirty years, we’ve raised at least one generation of Catholics, maybe more, who don’t know or understand the Catholic Faith. And because they don’t know or understand the faith, they fail to appreciate its importance in their lives. We’ve produced a whole flock of well-meaning humanists for whom the truths of the faith and reality of the Church are either incomprehensible or irrelevant, or both. The Baltimore Catechism wasn’t perfect to be sure, but I’ll put my generation of Catholics, raised on the Catechism, up against subsequent generations of Catholics, nurtured on “modern catechetical methods” in the knowledge and practice of the faith any day!
By the way, this critique of the historic changes in catechetical methods shouldn’t be construed for even a moment as a negative reflection on the dedicated catechists in our schools or religious education programs. Those who have taught the faith over the years and continue to do so today have done exactly what the Church has asked them to do with the tools we’ve given them. Our catechists have served with generosity and love. They are true heroes of our Church and deserve our support and affirmation.
Nonetheless, it is important that we redouble our efforts to hand on the basic knowledge of our faith to children and young people. It is my hope and expectation that every youngster in the Diocese of Providence can name the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments and recite the basic prayers of our faith. Catechists, teachers – it would be a good test to give your students.
And parents, you have a responsibility too. Even if you’ve dutifully enrolled your children in a Catholic school or religious education program, you’re not dispensed from being the first teachers, the best of teachers, in the ways of faith. If your kid doesn’t know the sacraments, the commandments and their prayers, whose fault is it?
But this isn’t about finding fault. It’s about renewing our commitment to teach our children and young people our Catholic Faith so that they can come to “know God, love Him and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him forever in Heaven.”
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)