The following is an excerpt from “Called to Teach and Learn.” Called to Teach and Learn: A Catechetical Guide for the Episcopal Church (1994, Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society).
Jesus, in Matthew’s account of God’s good news (Matthew 28:18-20), presents the Church with its great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
As the baptized, we are to make every effort to invite all people to follow Jesus, and to imitate his way of life by apprenticing their lives to his. We do that by incorporating them into the life of the community of faith, where, with the faithful, they might participate in life under God’s rule, and practice obedience to God’s will.
In these verses, the Church is given an evangelical and a catechetical task, a mandate to preach and teach. The Church is called to engage in an evangelizing catechesis, which not only communicates and nurtures the life of faith, but unceasingly confronts and continually converts those within and without the community of faith to gospel loyalty, convictions, and commitments.
With its roots in baptism, catechesis is an aspect of the prophetic mission of the Church to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church is bidden by God and history to renew its commitment to, and trust in, its catechetical ministry as a foundational element in the fulfillment of that mission.
Catechesis comes from the Greek root of a verb, meaning “to come to sound in the ear,” or, “to echo.” The literal translation implies that Christian catechesis is to cause to sound in the ear of the learner the Word of God – the biblical story and, ultimately the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this may lead to an understanding of catechesis as echoing words in terms of memorized Bible verses or words from a catechism. While it is important to remember that catechesis is concerned with making the biblical story our story, emphasis on echoing the Word also reminds us that Jesus is the Word and that catechesis is the process by which we “reproduce” Jesus, or “make Christians.” In English, catechesis is “Christening,” the process for forming “Christ-like persons.
Catechesis implies teaching as Jesus taught. Jesus sought disciples and invited them to follow him. He wanted them to identify with him, be present to him and observe his way of life, and then to participate in and practice that way, to imitate it. Catechesis, therefore, is best exemplified within the apprenticeship tradition.
Jesus went about preaching and teaching the coming of God’s reign, a condition in which people lived their lives under God’s rule and showed it in their relationships to God and each other. That preaching and teaching had authority because Jesus not only talked about it as a way of life, he lived it. The same was true in the early Church; the lives of the faithful attracted others to the gospel. Catechesis was the nurturing-converting process by which persons participated in and practiced this way of life, to prepare for baptism. At their baptism, they renounced their past way of life and its influences, turned in a new direction, to adhere to the influence of Jesus and his way of living and then made a covenant to live that life every more fully.
As time went on, adult converts became fewer, and increasingly children were baptized. Soon, however, the Church realized that there is a difference between be made “a Christian” by baptism and being “Christian,” that is, living a Christ-like life of faith. Catechesis then began to include the ways we shape persons to be Christian after their baptism. Today, it includes all the means by which we prepare new Christians for baptism, and aid all the baptized to live into their baptism and become who they already are – Christians – but in ever deeper and fuller ways.
The aim of all this is to fashion Christ-like persons and communities who live in fellowship with Christ and in community with each other. This enables each to live Jesus’ way of life, for others to see, be attracted to, and learn to model.
From the beginning, those who followed Christ were troubled by being called Christians, or Christ-like persons. However, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, told his flock, before he was martyred, “Accept the name, not as something of which you are worthy, but as something to which you aspire. Soon they will put me to death because they say I am a Christian. I pray that I may be found Christian in fact and not in name only.”
With this in mind, catechesis is best understood as three intentional interrelated, life-long processes: formation, education, and instruction/training.