Cathechism

THE APOSTLE OF CATECHISM

1. "The apostle of the catechism," as Pius IX described Scalabrini, was "the bishop who wrote most about catechesis in the last quarter of the 19th century in Italy" (U. Gianetto) and "had received the supernatural intuition to restore to Christian education its religious primacy and, in the area of religious education, to celebrate the primacy of catechesis, giving the catechism not only a conceptual and instructive value but also a fundamental formational role, tying together and underpinning religion as something known with life as something lived" (S. Riva).

2. The magnificent accolade of Pius IX was given him for his merits in the field of catechetical science, and here we would recall especially The Little Catechism for Nursery Schools produced in 1875 when he was still parish priest of St. Bartholomew’s in Como, The Catholic Catechism in 1877, and The Catholic Catechist, a monthly catechetical review which was the first in Italy and the second in the world, making Piacenza "the city of the catechism" (Leo XIII), where Scalabrini held the first National Catechetical Congress in 1889.

3. However, the title "apostle of the catechism" refers above all to Scalabrini’s merit as reorganizer of the School of Catechism in his diocese of Piacenza. He drew inspiration mainly from the pastoral approach of St. Charles Borromeo. He set up an organic, efficient, grass-roots structure, "constantly animated and vivified by the zeal and charity of people... from whom the breath of life should incessantly go out" (Rules for the School of Christian Doctrine, 1876). He thus managed to restore and revitalize in every parish the school of "The Little Catechism" (Class I), "First Communion" (Class II) , "The Big Catechism" or "The Catechism of Perseverance" (Class III), and "Adult Catechism" (Class IV). The novelty of Scalabrini’s pastoral approach to catechism - even in comparison with that of his model St. Charles Borromeo - lay above all in the following elements:

  1. Scalabrini understood that society, both civil and family, had changed in his day, moving from the previous Christian civilization to a lay civilization (we should recall the Italian law on the abolition of religious teaching in schools, and the various proposals to introduce a law on divorce), so that Christian education, which had previously been given by the family and school, now had to be given by the Church.
  2. Then, since society was no longer Christian but lay in character, the contents of catechism had to be changed; in other words, the aim should not only be defense against heresy (as in St. Charles’ approach), but also and above all justification of the faith in the face of lay reason. It is a catechism in which "faith seeks understanding," namely, its reasonableness.
  3. Schools of catechism not only instruct but also educate. To use St. Paul’s brilliant expression, they "form Jesus Christ in the souls of children" (Pastoral Letter of 1876). It is a modern school that harks back to the ancient catechesis with, as its "model, the baptismal catechumenate - which is a specific formation - through which the adult convert is led to the confession of faith" (Italian Bishops’ Synod, 19-77). In this sense lay teachers rise to the role and mission of mystagogues. This is perhaps the most contemporary aspect of Scalabrini’s approach to catechesis.
  4. This approach led to all his activity in forming male and female teachers to constitute a kind of lay congregation, which could dispose not only of theology teachers and suitable methods, but also spiritual directors and monthly spiritual retreats. Scalabrini was in fact convinced that "choosing a few people (the directors, teachers and assistants for the Society of Christian Doctrine) is something, but it is forming them with patient care that fulfills and in a way perfects the holy institution" (Pastoral Letter of 1876) This means making them authentic apostles, "so that they can resemble the first Christians" (ibid.).

5. We will now give extracts from Scalabrini’s second pastoral letter on Christian Doctrine (1877) and from The Catholic Catechism, a theoretical and practical essay, which, someone said, is a veritable lost drachma of catechetical literature.

Catechesis in ancient times

Scalabrini saw the catechism less as a book than as a learning of Christ, a kind of catechumenate, in which the school of catechism was seen as a family that educated souls to God. As we said, this is the summit of the contemporary relevance of Scalabrini’s thought, which was also rediscovered by the 1977 Synod of Italian Bishops. We should also note the contemporary nature of the term used: catechesis.

The catechesis of the primitive Church with its teachings, exhortations, tests, secret assemblies, and the vigilance of catechists - who watched to see not only whether the catechumen learned the teaching but also whether he mended his habits - was a real source of Christian life, for through catechism the Christian life matured and flourished. Catechesis was not seen as a mere school of religion but as a family in which souls were brought to maturity for God, for the Church, and for Heaven; a shrine, a sacred sanctuary, where people learned to love the faith; a sheepfold where the lambs of the divine Shepherd gathered so they could receive nourishment suited to the weakness of their age. In this school the spirit of the listeners became attuned to Christian thoughts. Here the mind was trained to understand and judge things no longer according to the standards of pagan wisdom but according to the standards of the faith of the Gospel. With great love and generosity, catechists worked hard to form in those souls, still young in the faith, the spirit of Jesus Christ, nay, Jesus Christ himself: "Until Christ be formed in you." (Gal 4:19).

Education with Catechism

Scalabrini distinguishes "instruction" from "education," with the former being addressed to the intellectual sphere, and the latter mainly to the moral sphere. Inasmuch as catechism "forms Christ within souls," it is not only instruction, but primarily education; indeed, it is the first means of education, because it educates the religious and moral man, who comes first in a harmonious and well-ordered education of the human faculties.

Educating morally and religiously means ennobling man’s sentiments, illuminating his intelligence, adding the light of faith to that of reason, directing his will, purifying his heart, forming his conscience, consolidating his character, and raising up the present life to eternal life - all things that can be obtained only with catechetical teaching that starts in good time and continues until perfection.

Instruction - even that of the intellect alone, as well as the alphabet, which is its first step - is a good thing that should be spread as much and more than others, for example salubriousness of places and hygiene of the human body. It is a development of human nature, indeed one of the noblest forms of development, and those who counter it are guilty of lese humanity. However, just as all things have their measure and their goal, such instruction must not only be suited to the various types of people, but must also be in harmony with all the perfections of which each person is capable, Perfecting man’s faculties harmoniously is called education, and education embraces body and spirit, heart, affections, imagination and will, together with intellect. Now, while we do not believe virtue and vice to be physical products, like sugar and sulfuric acid - and, worse still, spontaneous effects - they nonetheless are effects of people’s moral education and not just of intellectual education. In practice they can be found separately, and we do in fact find noble, righteous and kind hearts together with low mental culture, just as a cultured, learned man can be a harmful citizen, destined to swell the prison population. The factors involved in this moral education include family, social context, the teacher, the child’s habits, but above all a rightly inspired religious sentiment.

So, religion, yes: religion is the first means of education.

The need for Catechism School

Since school and family do not provide a Christian education today, the Church has to strive to fill the gap, and it institutes schools of Christian doctrine for this purpose, as an initiation to the Christian life.

in the crisis of the educational function of the family, we should note how the thought of "education" recurs again.

The reference to the thought of the English bishops clearly reflects an awareness that a change has taken place in civilization: it is no longer a question of warning Catholics against heresies, but against atheism (at that time socialism was also seen in this light) and the unbelief that affects not only "educated people" but also "the working classes." This will entail the need for a change in the content of the catechism.

A pastor of souls concerned over the instruction of Christian youth cannot count on the school or family, but must strive with all his own forces to set up true schools of catechism.

Schools today seek to educate without faith and without a thought for the life to come, eliminating the idea of God and Divine Providence, sowing rationalism and naturalism far and wide, and paving the way for the triumph of socialism. Perverted ideas of revolution have to a large extent brought about the downfall of the modern family, which thus does not take care of the religious instruction of its children or educate them with a view to the Christian life. It does not form their conscience, heart and Christian sentiment; nor awaken the salvific seeds of faith within them; nor develop the great thought of God as present, the fear of offending him, and the desire to please only him, serve him, love him and be loved by him; nor point out good and evil from the moral viewpoint; nor raise them up to ideas of the spiritual life. In other words, it does not form the first precious religious habits in its children’s minds, consciences and behavior .... The Christian life of the family of old has vanished, and, apart from a few glorious exceptions, the family is no longer capable of providing a Christian education for its children, who breathe the poisoned wind of unbelief that destroys even the first seeds of virtue, instead of breathing the air of faith beneath their parents, roof.

"The present times," said the bishops of England in a joint letter to their dioceses [in September 18731, "are more dangerous than past times. The atmosphere of the 19th century is permeated with hostility to God, the Church, the doctrine of revelation and also the truths of the natural order. The unprecedented activity of the press means that something that was confined to a few educated persons a century ago has now been spread throughout the working classes of every country, particularly England. So we should be arming not only adults against the spirit of error that is assailing us from every side today, but first and foremost young people, through the instruction of the catechism."

This shows the very great need for supreme efforts to restore vigor to faith and to save the new generations. Catechism schools are the most powerful and fruitful means of bringing about this religious restoration.

"Very special prize for the mission of catechists": 
1877 Pastoral Letter

Apart from reiterating that the catechism is not only instruction but Christian education, Scalabrini makes two other noteworthy points. The first is that of seeing the catechist as a true missionary, and the second is a very acute insight, in that, "seven years before St. John Bosco, he spoke the maxim that constitutes one of the fundamental strands of his famous letter from Rome" (Gianetto): "Your little pupils should know that you love them."

It is also clear that Scalabrini is motivated by the same reasons that led St. Charles Borromeo to found the Christian Doctrine School, in other words, the souls "that Jesus bought back with his divine blood."

And how could Jesus Christ not look on you with eyes of special favor when you strive with such concern to bring tender children to know and love him? When you take such pains to lead to his bosom these innocent creatures whom he redeemed with his divine blood and whom he loves as the apple of his eye? Lastly, we know that every act of charity performed for our neighbor in God’s name will one day have its reward. Is there any action more marked by mercy than that of instructing the ignorant in the things of the soul and teaching them the way to eternal salvation? You may often envy those who disregard the voice of flesh and blood, crossing the ocean billows to far-off lands in order to spread the faith to peoples who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. But what good are such wishes? Teach children the catechism and you will do something as worthy as the work of converting idolaters, and your name will be written in the book of life beside those of the most heroes.

However, it is not enough to teach them these truths in material terms. You must make them appreciate them and translate them into practice. You must educate their character, their conscience, their heart. You must, to use St. Paul’s words, form Jesus Christ in them, bringing them up, so far as you can, in innocence, piety, the light and grace of the gospel virtues, and fear and love of God. You must train their thoughts, desires and affections. In other words, you must dispose them for the future life through the sanctification of the present life. Nor should you think that these things are beyond your strength. Each of you can succeed in this without much preparation and with the greatest of ease. Do you know how? By setting a good example. Oh, of course your lessons are effective, even eloquent. For Jesus Christ’s innermost heart and for love of yourselves, I beg you to set an example in all things and all places, but especially before children. Young people live to a great extent out of imitation, and they will grow more or less religious according to how religious you are. So let them learn from you to make the sign of the cross with reverence, to join their innocent hands in prayer, to dispose themselves to adore the Lord. Let the names they hear most often on your lips be the very holy names of Jesus and Mary, and never pronounce them in their presence without signs of the tenderest devotion. Let them see you practicing all the acts of Christian piety with reverence, respectful with ministers of God, regular in Church attendance, religious and devout. Your example will give strength, light and effectiveness to your words, and in this way these words will penetrate those virgin hearts and certainly produce very abundant fruit. So set a good example, we repeat. Set a good example. Above all, be full of gravity in your comportment, but also gentle and kindly. Your little pupils should know that you love them and that if you wear yourselves out, you are doing so solely for their good. Then they will also willingly receive your admonishments and happily listen to you. Be sure of this: children need tenderness more than anything, but the tenderness of piety. So beware the sharp, severe attitude, the imperious tone of voice that is so offputting for them. Dearly beloved children, we wish you the heart of a St. Paul, who made himself all things to all people ....

Punishment: "Catholic Catechism"- chapter XXI

Chapter XIX gives "rules for teaching the catechism with fruit, " the eighth and last of which is as follows: "The teacher should use every means available in order to make our august religion dear and lovable to young people." Hence the approach of the chapter dealing with punishment: "Punishment is necessary, but we must observe with a wise educator that joy and trust should be the ordinary disposition of young people." I think the "wise educator" is St. Francis de Sales, from whom Scalabrini drew all the confident breadth of his teaching approach.

It is significant that when listing "the gifts necessary to catechism teachers" (Chapter XVIII), all taken from St. Charles, when he gets to "(E) GENTLENESS," Scalabrini refers us not to St. Charles, but to St. Francis de Sales.

In this passage we seem to be hearing the reading of the breviary for the feast of St. John Bosco. Catechism school does not confine itself to teaching young people the truths of the faith, but educates them in the faith; it not only teaches Christianity to young people but educates them in Christianity. We must not only instruct, but also educate, cultivating and developing not only the mind, but also the heart (Catholic Catechism, 71).

In these days of skepticism and errors, ordinary instruction is not enough. We have to lay stable foundations in the hearts of young people, forming an enlightened and deep faith within them, and giving them a solidly Christian education (ibid., 141).

Catechism is a great work of Christian regeneration, the work of the kingdom of heaven and the salvation of souls, and will always be the subject of the most lively concern for true pastors and great men of the Catholic Church (ibid., 31).

Just as medicine for bodily sicknesses is taken only when absolutely necessary, so punishment should be used only when there is absolute need. It should he used very sparingly, and only after every gentle, loving approach has been tried. In such a case, punishment will make an impression on the young person’s mind and will seem a very serious and almost unbearable thing, so that he will do everything he can in order not to deserve it again. The best students will very seldom see their teachers being led to any great severity, but those few punishments will remain in their memories for a long time - and with the memory, their perseverance in the good. However, a hard look or some short phrase can often be enough - "I thought you were better than that" and other similar admonitions.

You should criticize and punish, but calmly, and never in the first flush of anger. If a teacher does punish in that first flush, the pupil will think that he is acting out of ill-humor, not for a good reason and for the child’s good, and so the superior loses and his authority gains nothing. And if the child is punished in the very first moment, his mind will not be free enough to realize the importance of the criticism. An angry man’s mind is dimmed and his spirit in tumult, and he is not master of himself, so that an angry admonishment will always worsen rather than improve young people.

Physical punishment must never be used. Let the teacher criticize, make them kneel, report disobedient and inattentive pupils to the director, and if this is not enough, to the parish priest, so that the parents can be advised. And if the child is causing scandal, he should even be expelled from the class, but he must never be struck. We must respect the extreme sensitivity of families, and such punishment must be left to the father’s authority. Teachers should remember that indulgence with children is always better than excessive severity, that they should not expect too much, that there is a soberness of perfection that is very difficult to attain, but without which all rules, even the wisest, are of little value, and, lastly, that the child’s nature, which is worse on the surface than in the depths of the heart, must be directed and assisted, never forced, concentrating firmly on the ultimate purpose, but always acting with gentleness.

© 2021 by SCALABRINIAN MISSIONARIES ASIA-AUSTRALIA

Communication Office Asia-Australia. 

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