Oddvar Moi

Some aspects of the new
'General Directory for Catechesis'.

An essay presented for a course in Pastoral theology at Allen Hall Seminary, London.

February 1998 - Oddvar Moi


The new General Directory for Catechesis is a very important document, full of information and would have been more than enough background material for this essay. But in preparing to write the essay I gave in to the 'temptation' of reading a lot of extra background material (see bibliography), therefore I have gathered an enormous amount of information that I find hard to put into these few pages.

It is obvious that I have to leave out most of the information, and I have in fact tried to boil down what I have to say to three things. 1) A description of today's understanding of the term catechesis; how and why the understanding of the term has changed over the last 35 years and how it today is intimately connected with evangelization. 2) How the emphasis has moved from instruction of children to the importance of catechesis of adults, and how adult catechesis is understood. 3) How catechesis differs from Religious Education in Catholic schools.

The first of these three points is absolutely necessary to understand catechesis in the Church today, no. 2 and 3 I have chosen because of personal interest and experience.


In this very short sketch of the development of catechesis I limit myself to the time after the Second Vatican Council. But in these few years there has been a dramatic change in the understanding of catechesis.

Looking through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I find very few references to catechesis. The clearest one is in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops: "Bishops should be especially concerned about catechetical instruction. Its function is to develop in men a living, explicit and active faith, enlightened by doctrine. It should be very carefully imparted, not only to children and adolescents but also to young people and even to adults." [1] Another document mentions the necessity of suitable catechesis, called instruction, before receiving the Eucharist, [2] and the same document later identifies parents, parish priests and teachers as people who will give this instruction.

The Council's Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, is also not speaking about catechesis as we do today, but uses terms like "the education of youth and indeed a certain continuing education of adults" [3] and says that "the sacred Synod hereby promulgates some fundamental principles concerning Christian education, especially in regard to schools". [4]

Still, the Council was the beginning of a quite dramatic change. "With the council's richer understanding of revelation (in Dei Verbum), the catechist's responsibility broadened", it was no longer "simply involved with a deductive passing on of the deposit of faith". [5] And an even more important event was the decision to "reestablish or to modernize the adult catechumenate", [6] and to compile "a directory for the catechetical instruction of the Christian people in which the fundamental principles of this instruction and its organization will be dealt with". [7]

The reintroduction of the ancient baptismal catechumenate and the more visible need for (what was later to be called) new evangelization [8] in 'Christian' countries, immediately makes the relationship between evangelization and catechesis obvious, and this link is clearly seen as early as in the first General Catechetical Directory of 1971, and in the new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults published in early 1972.

But the understanding of catechesis changed a lot even after this, or matured is maybe a better word. In the Preface and Introduction to the present General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) the latest development is described in this way: "The reflections of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of October 1974 on the theme of Evangelization in the Contemporary World constitute a decisive milestone for catechesis." And the following Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi enunciates "a particularly important principle, namely, that of catechesis as a work of evangelization in the context of the mission of the church". [9]

The next Synod of Bishops in 1977 had Catechesis as its main theme and the following Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae "fully locates catechesis within the context of evangelization". [10] The Directory goes on to mention the following Synods of 1980 and 1987 as important for the understanding of catechesis, with their focus on the mission of the family and on the vocation of the laity. Finally the Catechism of the Catholic Church is mentioned, published in 1992, but proposed by the Synod of Bishops of 1985. [11] The Preface of the Directory concludes its little historical sketch this way: "The publication of the Catechism together with the aforementioned interventions of the Magisterium necessitated a revision of the General Catechetical Directory so as to adapt this valuable theologico-pastoral instrument to new situations and needs". [12]

To find out more about the relationship between evangelization and catechesis we turn to Part I, which is called Catechesis in the Church's Mission of Evangelization. The introduction to this part first restates that the understanding of catechesis has changed after the Council and identifies the main sources for this change: "The term catechesis has undergone a semantic evolution during the twenty centuries of the Church's history. In the Directory the concept of catechesis takes its inspiration from the postconciliar documents, principally from Evangelii Nuntiandi, Catechesi Tradendae and Redemptoris Missio". [13]

The first chapter of Part I first talks about evangelization and states that "the Church 'exists in order to evangelize', that is 'the carrying fort of the Good News to every sector of the human race'". [14] The second chapter of Part I then goes on to talking specifically about Catechesis in the process of evangelization.

Catechesis follows evangelization from the very first proclamation. It is distinct from the proclamation, since it "promotes and matures initial conversion, educates the convert in the faith and incorporates him into the Christian community". [15] But at the same time it is "not always easy to define the boundaries of these activities". [16] Catechesis follows the new convert on his way, first through initiatory, then through continuing catechesis. What distinguish catechesis from other ways of presenting the word of God, is that it by being comprehensive and systematic deepens the mystery of Christ. [17]

With this understanding of catechesis a lot of things change. "Given that the missio ad gentes is the paradigm of all the Church's missionary activity, the baptismal catechumenate, which is joined to it, is the model of its catechizing activity". [18]

This understanding of catechesis also implies that one can use words to describe it that are normally associated with evangelization; words like conversion. "In proclaiming the Good News of Revelation to the world, evangelization invites men and women to conversion and faith". [19] Powerful and even emotional words are used to describe the relationship with Christ: "The definite aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ". [20] "Faith involves a change of life, a 'metanoia', that is a profound transformation of mind and heart; it causes the believer to live that conversion". [21]


Before I reflect more one this on the background of my own pastoral experience, I should describe briefly what this experience is. First I had quite a lot of experience as a student in high school and university (1972-82); being catechized, but very soon evangelizing and catechizing myself. After graduation I worked for two years (1984-86) at an International Christian Study center in Sweden and Switzerland (L'Abri, founded by an American, Francis Schaeffer), working with young adults and focusing quite a lot on the intellectual aspects of the Christian faith. Then I was an army chaplain for three years (1982-83, and 1986-88), where I in addition to liturgical celebrations, had a lot of counseling and also taught Christian ethics. After this I was a pastor in a Lutheran church for six years (1988-94), and did normal parish work with all age groups.

After leaving the Lutheran church to become a Catholic in 1994, I worked nearly three years in a Catholic School teaching RE and languages and also worked for two years preparing 14-16 year-olds for confirmation. The last year before coming to Allen Hall I was also member of a diocesan committee preparing catechetical guidelines for catechesis among children and adolescents. Finally, during this year in London I take part in an RCIA program at English Martyrs, Streatham.


My first reaction to this new understanding of catechesis is that it has not reached the Catholic Church in Norway yet (and I am not sure that the process has come very far in other countries either). One important reason for this in Norway is that the RCIA program has not been introduced there yet and then of course the whole dynamic of the adult catechumenate doesn't work. Converts are received into the church in the 'old way', they have sessions with a priest or a deacon, they are not very much introduced to the Christian community during this learning process and the sessions with the priest are more informative than evangelizing in the spirit of Catechesi Tradendae.

One obvious and positive effect of the RCIA as I have seen it here in London, is the involvement of the lay members of the parish in the formation process of the new converts, and the integration of the new people into the Christian community; through regular contact with sponsors and other faithful, and through the different rites of the RCIA program. In addition to this, the learning process in an RCIA group is (at its best) more personal, challenging and closer to everyday life, and not as theoretical, abstract and impersonal as it probably often used to be in the past.

The disadvantages seem to be the possibility of pushing the parish priest to the periphery of the process, at least if he doesn't regularly take part in the meetings, so that the personal contact between the priest and the converts suffers. The quality of the instruction might also not be the best if lay people share their views in a group setting, rather than professional priests or catechists giving a more comprehensive and structured presentation. The best solution would probably be if one could mix the 'individual teaching' and the 'group sharing' approach in a even more fruitful way.

Another 'problem' with the introduction of the new, more dynamic and Christocentric, [22] understanding of catechesis, is that it is too 'evangelical' sounding for Catholics in Norway (and maybe also in England). Expressions like 'invitation to conversion and faith' and 'intimacy with Jesus Christ', quoted earlier, would feel very difficult to use for a Catholic in Norway. Until the seventies the Catholic church in Norway was very small and consisted of descendants from earlier European immigrants and Norwegian converts, the latter group often from the intellectual and cultural elite. These converts had often reacted to the pietism and spirituality of some low church, evangelical Christians in Norway and very consciously spoke about their own faith in very different terms. Sometimes Catholics don't even want to use the word Christian about themselves; nor words like salvation or conversion.

Over the last twenty years the Catholic Church has changed completely and today about two thirds of the Catholics are new immigrants to Norway, mostly from far away countries. They have their own piety and their own religious language; traditions that will enrich the Church in Norway, but it will take time before this affects the attitude and vocabulary of Norwegian Catholics. The use of a rich, biblical language to describe the faith introduced by the Magisterium will have to reach even Norway, but it will take time and a conscious effort to make this happen. I will certainly do my best to help (but a convert should be careful not to sound too pious!), because the abstract and noncommittal language often used is impoverishing for a living faith in Christ our Savior.

In fact some Catholics seem to have a rather weak faith and several converts disappear a short time after their initiation. This might be because their faith hasn't developed further than to a felt need for something and a vague notion of a holy God. I heard that this problem also is felt here in England, even after the RCIA program has been well established. The new Directory stresses the importance of conversion and commitment for the integral process of evangelization and catechesis, and so does pope John Paul II:

This "Yes" to Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of the revelation of the Father is twofold: a trustful abandonment to God and a loving assent to all he has revealed to us. This is possible only by means of the action of the Spirit. "By faith man freely commits his entire self completely to God; making the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals, and willingly assenting to the Revelation given by him." ... Faith involves a change of life, a "metanoia", that is a profound transformation of mind and heart; it causes the believer to live that conversion. [23]

Catechesis must often concern itself not only with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also with arousing it unceasingly with the help of grace, with opening the heart, with converting, and with preparing total adherence to Jesus Christ on the part of those who are still on the threshold of faith." [24]


"Catechesis for adults, since it deals with persons who are capable of an adherence that is fully responsible, must be considered the chief form of catechesis". [25]

This very clear statement about the chief form of catechesis I see as a dramatic change from the past. Adults were mentioned in the documents of the Vatican Council, but the expression "even to adults", quoted earlier, is quite a bit weaker than the new Directory's (and the Directory of 1971's) way of saying it.

When I first heard of the new emphasis on adult catechesis, I was thrilled, because I thought the focus was mainly on strengthening the adult believer's faith, something I have worked and hoped to achieve over the last 15 years. In our time of learning and education in all kinds of ways and all through life for most people, I have lamented the poor understanding most Christians have of their own faith. This situation is very bad in nearly all churches and denominations, in my view. What kind of continuing and systematic catechesis will for example a "normal" catholic receive after confirmation at 12-16 years of age? Nearly only short homilies, I would think, and they are not geared towards teaching the faith these days, and really aren't meant to be. And how can the faith inform and change a people's life if they don't really know what the Bible and the Catechism say?

These words from the document: Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community expresses my view on this topic very well:

"Only by becoming adult in the faith is one able to fulfill his or her adult duties towards others, as is required by the vocation given to each at baptism. One must admit that in various communities, the formation of adults has been taken for granted or perhaps carried out in connection with certain events, not infrequently in an infantile way. Because certain external or traditional supports are sometimes lacking, a grave imbalance is created .." [26]

Still, after finishing the research for this paper I feel that the understanding of adult catechesis is a bit ambivalent and that it doesn't first of all refer to what the average mature Christian needs to do to better understand his faith. It probably refers mostly to the reintroduction of the ancient adult catechumenate, and secondly to the strengthening of other groups with a deficient Christian formation. The following excerpt shows how comprehensive the adult catechesis is understood in the new Directory and what major kinds of adult catechesis there are: Catechesis for "adult Christians who consistently live their faith option and sincerely want to deepen it", for those who have not been sufficiently catechized, non-baptized adults and adults who come from other Christian confessions. [27]

The understanding of catechesis certainly does include the continuous education in the faith that I had in mind, and sometimes calls this permanent catechesis. This is intended for "those Christians who have been initiated in the basic elements of the Christian faith, but who need constantly to nourish and deepen their faith throughout their lives". [28]

But in defining catechesis as an integral part of evangelization, the main emphasis seems to be in the direction of the first, basic formation period, in spite of strong statements about permanent catechesis like this one: "For catechesis to be effective, it must be permanent, and it would be quite useless if it stopped short at the threshold of maturity". [29] The Directory sums up the section about adults in this way: "Special catechesis complement, but do not replace, the ongoing, systematic, catechetical courses which every ecclesial community must provide for all adults". [30]


"The relationship between religious instruction in schools and catechesis is one of distinction and complementarity: 'there is an absolute necessity to distinguish clearly between (the two)'". [31]

As far as I know the situation in the Catholic Church in Norway until 1960, a majority of the Catholic children went to Catholic schools and got all their catechesis there. The children that didn't attend the school received alternative catechesis after school hours. There was no essential difference between the two kinds of catechesis, but the one given at school was more comprehensive and normally considered the best. In fact, this is mostly the way catechesis is done in a large parish in Oslo even today.

In my own parish in Norway all children are given the same catechesis in the parish. For about half of the children who also go to the Catholic school this catechesis is often too easy, they know it nearly all from before, while some of the other children come with virtually no knowledge about the Christian faith. I have actually been amazed to see how much a school influences the lives of the pupils, and with a school that functions well, with a good RE program, daily prayers and regular church attendance (this functions especially well in the lower grades at our school) it can make a lot of difference in the pupils' spiritual formation.

The main reason given for not giving the children that attend school a separate and reduced parish catechesis, or drop it completely, is not that what the school gives is seen as lacking in any way. It is because the parish doesn't want to make a division in the age group, since all of the children live in the same area, and also that the schoolchildren are a help in catechizing the other more 'unchurched' children.

How is Religious Education at a Catholic school seen as different from catechesis in the documents I have studied for this essay? A document called: The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, published by the congregation for Catholic Education in 1988, gives the answer:

"The distinction comes from the fact that, unlike religious instruction, catechesis presupposes that the hearer is receiving the Christian message as a salvific reality. Moreover, catechesis takes place within a community living out its faith at a level of space and time not available to a school: a whole lifetime.

The aim of catechesis, or handing on the gospel message, is maturity: spiritual, liturgical, sacramental and apostolic; this happens most especially in a local Church community. The aim of the school however, is knowledge." [32]

I can see that this is true, but I can also see that if an internally well functioning Catholic school (both scholarly and humanly speaking) is properly integrated in the life of the parish, most of these things will be taken care of. Then the Christian message is 'received as a salvific reality' and 'catechesis takes place within a community living out its faith', as it always must do.

A Catholic school is an enormous asset. It helps the parents and the parish in the Christian formation of the children and the school also adds something absolutely necessary for our time; it presents "the gospel in a personal process of cultural, systematic and critical assimilation", [33] it relates to other areas of knowledge and helps the pupil to integrate the gospel message in all areas of life. [34]


With this new General Directory catechesis has been firmly established in the dynamic paradigm of a 'beginning and ongoing evangelization and conversion', very different from the earlier static repetition of dogmas. I have high hopes for catechesis understood in this way, but it will be a great challenge to bring to reality what is now mostly on paper.


All the documents in boldface I have read in full for this paper.

CHURCH DOCUMENTS (documents especially mentioned in the introduction to GDC. All Vatican II documents are from Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Study Edition, Ed.: Austin Flannery, O.P. 1992)

1963 Second Vatican Council, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium
1964 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium
1965 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution The Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes
1965 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum
1965 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Education, Gravissimum Educationis
1965 Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus
1965 Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, Apostolicam Actuositatem
1971 Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, General Catechetical Directory
1972 Congregation for Divine Worship, Introduction to Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)
1975 Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi
1979 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Homines
1979 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae
1980 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Dives in Misericordia
1986 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Dominum et Vivificandem
1990 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Missio
1990 International Council for Catechesis, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community
(In: The Catechetical Documents, Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago 1996)
1992 John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum
1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Geoffrey Chapman, London 1994)
1993 Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Guide for Catechists (In: The Catechetical Documents)
1997 Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (Catholic Truth Society)


1977 The Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School
1986 (USA) The Challenge of Adolescent Catechesis: Maturing in Faith (In: The Catechetical Documents)
1988 The Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School; Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal
1995 Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien, Harper&Collins, 1995
1997 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism (Ignatius press)


1 Christus Dominus, no 14
2 Postsynodical Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, no. 5. Flannery, p. 106
3 Gravissimum Educationis, Preface, Flannery p. 725
4 Gravissimum Educationis, Preface, Flannery p. 726
5 Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien, p. 256
6 Christus Dominus, no 14, see also Sacrosanctum Concilium, no 64
7 Christus Dominus, no 44
8 Redemptoris Misssio, no. 33
9 Both quotes from GDC, no. 4
10 GDC, no. 5
11 DGC, no. 6
12 DGC, no. 7
13 DGC, no. 35
14 DGC, no. 46. Most of this quote is taken from Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 14 and 18
15 DGC, no. 61
16 DGC, no. 62
17 DGC, no. 67
18 GDC, no. 90, cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 44
19 GDC, no. 53, cf. Ad gentes, no. 7
20 GDC, no. 80, quoted from Catechesi Tradendae, no. 5
21 GDC, no. 55, quotes from Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 10 and 23
22 Catechesi Tradendae, no. 5
23 GDC, no. 54-55, included is a quote from Dei Verbum, no. 5
24 Catechesi Tradendae, no. 19
25 GDC, no. 59. Also found in Catechesi Tradendae, no. 43 and even in GDC 1971, no. 2
26 Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community, no. 21
27 GDC, no. 172
28 GDC, no 51
29 Catechesi Tradendae, no. 43
30 GDC, no. 176
31 GDC, no. 73, quoted from The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, no. 68
32 The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, no. 68 and 69
33 GDC, no. 73, cf. The Catholic School, no. 26
34 Cf. Catechesi Tradendae, no. 69.1

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