Catechesis and the Kerygma

From the time of the Middle Ages (500AD-1500AD), the common form of catechesis was the homily preached by the clergy at Mass.

Oct 06, 2023

This is the second part of my article entitled Catechesis and the Kerygma. In the first instalment, I examined the relationship between kerygma and catechesis from the time of the Apostles to the fifth century, when kerygma had a powerful and essential link with the ministry of catechesis. I concluded by stating that in the sixth century, this relationship had weakened. In this article, I will examine the situation from the Middle Ages to the present time.

The disappearance of the kerygmatic element in catechesis
From the time of the Middle Ages (500AD-1500AD), the common form of catechesis was the homily preached by the clergy at Mass. The truths of the faith were explained with examples from daily life, the lives of the saints and writings of the Church Fathers. Examples were also taken from the Bible, especially stories of biblical figures. Parents were expected to share the contents of the homily with their children at home.

After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, catechisms became the main form for catechesis. Catholic theologians produced catechisms in response to those written by Martin Luther for the Reformists. In most catechisms, although references were made to the Bible, the methodology largely used was doctrinal-apologetical. It was to ensure that children and youth were taught the truths of faith in a way that they would remember them for good. This type of approach, often devoid of the kerygmatic-biblical element, was prevalent in the Church until the 20th century.

Re-discovering the link between kerygma and catechesis
Sometime in the 19th century, there were efforts, by a number of theologians, liturgical and catechetical experts, to re-discover the kerygmatic-biblical element in the Church. Nevertheless, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that kerygmatic renewal really found its way into the field of catechesis. The key breakthrough came with the publication of The Good News and Our Preaching of the Faith by Fr Josef Jungmann, SJ in 1936. According to Jungmann, catechesis is not meant to be “a form of theology”. Instead, it should be about the proclamation of the Gospel with Jesus Christ at its centre. The purpose of catechesis must focus on the Good News of salvation by which God challenges sinful humanity to a new life in Christ.

The years 1936–1960 are considered the high point of the kerygmatic renewal in catechesis. The renewal found support from the biblical, liturgical, and pastoral movements. The biblical movement helped link catechesis to the Holy Scriptures while the liturgical movement linked the liturgy and the mysteries of the Sacraments. The pastoral movement pointed out that the understanding and implementation of catechesis must be closely connected to the mission of the Church. In this way, the kerygmatic movement restored concepts that had faded in catechesis, such as, the centrality of Christ, the Word of God, kerygma, revelation, history of salvation, and others.

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), there were tensions in the catechetical movement. Concerns arose among experts on the increasing stress on catechesis of the biblical aspect at the expense of the doctrinal. The Bible, for example, began to replace the catechism as the main tool for catechesis. Bible stories and activities became the norm while the teaching of the doctrines of the Church was given less importance. Therefore, there were calls for a balance between the biblical and doctrinal elements in catechesis. In the following years, as the Bible and the catechism gradually found their rightful places in catechesis, the impact of the kerygmatic element, however, was diminished. This led to calls for the importance of the kerygma to be re-emphasised.

Entering more deeply into the kerygma
In recent years, this call has been taken up by Pope Francis. In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), the Pope states:
“In catechesis too, we have discovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal” (EG, 164).

The Pope, however, stresses that we have to avoid seeing the kerygma as only a preliminary stage to catechesis:
“The first proclamation is called “first”, not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment” (EG, 164).

Here, the Pope is saying that kerygma and catechesis are not just two separate stages in the evangelising mission of the Church, with one following the other. Instead, the kerygma must be like a golden thread that runs through all catechetical activity:

“We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma which is reflected in, and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats” (EG, 165).

The call of Pope Francis is taken by in the Directory for Catechesis (DC) published in 2020. The directory helps catechists become aware that the role of the kerygma is to help them become true missionary disciples. In this regard, the catechist has always to be ready, as commanded by Jesus (Mat. 28: 19-20), to “go” with haste not only to convey the message of Christ, but more importantly, to share “the life that comes from God and communicating the joy of having encountered the Lord (DC, 68).” Therefore, catechists have to constantly keep in mind the words of Pope Francis:

“On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (EG, 164).

Below is a simple infographic which I prepared to help readers capture the essence of my article (the drawings in the infographic are my own).

(Dr Steven Selvaraju, STD, STL, holds a Doctorate in Theology with Specialisation in Catechetics and Youth Ministry from Pontifical Salesian University, Rome. He serves as Director of the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre, Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.)

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