By Ann Schneible
ROME, MAY 9, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The role of the family unit is paramount to catechizing children about their faith and in the forming of a prayer life that will last a lifetime.
This was one of the key points articulated this week at the European Congress for Catechesis, a four-day event that ends Thursday in Rome. The objective of the congress is to study effective means of catechizing young people ages 7-16. The congress is organized by the “Catechesis, School and University” Commission, and promoted by the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE).
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, London, and president of the CCEE Commission for Catechesis, Schools and Universities, spoke with ZENIT about the various themes being discussed at this week’s congress.
ZENIT: The focus of this conference is the catechesis of children from the ages of 7 to 16. With parents being the primary educators of children, what is the role of the Church in catechizing children in the Faith?
Archbishop Nichols: There are some very useful materials which have been put forward. [Monday], for example, we had the result of a survey that has been done in many countries in Europe, and that showed that the experience of young people indicates, for example, the places in which they learn about their faith, or are initiated into their faith, are quite varied. But they include the home; they include the peer groups and the activities that they do, the schools, and the parish. There’s an interplay between these.
But what was very interesting was the strong emphasis on the family, and the strong emphasis on the family as a place of very flexible relationships. Clearly, the role of parents and grandparents is very important in introducing youngsters to the practice of prayer, to the rootings of going to church, and to the implications of that in their lives.
There were very interesting bits of evidence. For example, a number of youngsters said when they started going to catechesis for the sacrament of reconciliation, then their parents decided to get married. So there’s an ebb and a flow between the different members and the generations in the family.
We’ve been looking at those things, and alongside those is a great emphasis, as you would expect, on the importance of witnesses, that the attractiveness of faith is seen more in the actions that people share than necessarily immediately in the words that they say to each other. And I think what this is shown is that, the more we understand that, the more we can focus on the potential in every person, in every Catholic, to be a witness to others in the initiation of faith.
The third thing I would like to say is that we had a very interesting presentation from an Austrian bishop [the other night], Bishop Schwartz, and he looked at different passages in St. John’s Gospel, and in the Acts of the Apostles, in which he spelled out the different steps in the journey of initiation. And it goes often from a care for the goodness of the human situation, right through to them becoming participants in apostolic activity. And along that journey, there is witness, there are words, there are then incorporations step by step into the life and language of the community of the Church, then there are the formal steps of initiation, and then there’s interactive participation.
Just to see the different steps helps us to know, at any particular time, what we’re doing in a particular circumstance. There’s a rich reservoir of thought being put forward in the congress, and I think by the end of it, it will help to focus on some quite specific themes.
ZENT: Amid attempts in England to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners, how can the challenge of catechizing both children and their families be met?
Archbishop Nichols: The debate about the nature of marriage, and flowing from that the legal definition of marriage, is obviously not confined to England. What it’s showing, I think is that the links between sexual activity, marriage, and children – which the Church’s understanding of all three holds together, and holds together in the family based on marriage – that understanding is in the mind of many people splintering. So it’s now possible, for example, to think of the of children’s generation without sexual intercourse. It’s possible to think of sexual intercourse entirely separated from either marriage or children. It’s possible to think of marriage without any relationship to children, or even to sexual intercourse. The consultation document that the British government published on the legal definition of marriage did not have one single reference to children, and it is this, I think that is very much at the heart of the unease that surrounds the government proposals in many people’s minds up and down England and Wales, that we are based on a bringing together of those three things: of the meaning of sex, on the role of marriage, and on the place of children where they prosper best. And that’s really what we are trying to address.
ZENIT: Especially in the education of children, how can the Church catechize in the faith in a way that is not simply memorization of facts, but rather communicates the vibrancy of the faith?
Archbishop Nichols: The balance that makes up the journey of faith reflects some of the balance of society as a whole. So for example, when I was at school, we learned mathematical tables, and it was the quickest way of doing arithmetic, making calculations. But today people use their mobile phones to do a calculation. If we were learning history, we would remember some key things, but people carry memory, now, in their pocket.
The role of memory has changed, but I still think it is very important in the things of faith, because the things of faith are things of our instinct. We need to have a basic repertoire in our memory bank of what faith means, and how it is expressed. The practice, for example, of families praying together – which is not lost, which still takes place – is the first thing that fills the memory bank of faith. So when we are in difficulty, Catholics will almost instinctively say their basic prayers. And often they will do that in the form of the rosary. And that’s the first, as it were, deposit of faith within the memory of the child, and it lasts a lifetime. Whenever I am with people who are dying, and maybe they’ve lost most levels of consciousness, you know perfectly well that the last level of consciousness that goes is their consciousness of basic prayers. We say the basic prayers with the dying because they’re still there. Or those who are suffering from dementia: the basic prayers are still there. So that work is very, very important, of laying those foundations.
Pope Benedict spoke recently of the “alphabet” of faith, so that we can, as it were, find the axioms and the sayings and have those committed to memory as well. And the good programs in our Catholic schools are this; they identify what is to be learned by heart so that it becomes part of the heart. And that has always been the case. There are wonderful examples: for example, there are 15th century baptisteries in England, and in the side around the baptismal font are carved the words: “The Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Creed: that is enough.” That is from the 14th/15th century, and we still live fruitfully by that same pattern, and we mustn’t lose it at this time.
ZENIT: What is the relevance of this congress as the Church begins to prepare for the Year of Faith?
Archbishop Nichols: I think this congress comes at a very opportune time. There is the Year of Faith, but just before the Year of Faith there is the synod on evangelization. [Yesterday morning, we received] a report from the general secretary of this particular synod, and he’s [told] us a bit about the scope of the lineamenta, and some of the initial responses to it.
Then we come to the Year of Faith. And the Year of Faith, especially in England and Wales, is going to be used as a time in which, step-by-step, we explore more deeply the content of faith. We will use the catechism, we will use the YouCat, we are developing a catechism for England and Wales, and it will be a year that looks very much at the content and the understanding of faith. Some dioceses will root back to the four main documents of the Second Vatican Council, and in that sense we will use the year to open up again for people a whole lot of different levels in the content of what we believe, and how the different articles of faith all join up into an organic whole, which is the meaning of the word “article”. They are “articulated” so that they make a symphonic whole, and it’s that wholeness of faith we want to refresh.