Catechesis as Corporate Spiritual Discipline

Catechesis requires as much from the catechumen (the learner) as from the catechist (the teacher). We must have eager learners as well as wise teachers. Moreover, we need to see this partnership as a symbiotic relationship, the catechist dependent on and yoked to the catechumen as much as the catechumen drawing upon the catechist.

J. I. Packer writes perceptively of seeing this a kind of relationship as part of a "corporate spiritual discipline":

"catechizing is a spiritual discipline for both catechist and catechumen — not only a personal discipline for each of them, but also a partnership discipline, one that can only be properly practiced when both parties are properly committed to what is happening" ("Restoring Catechesis," in Richard Lints, ed., Renewing the Evangelical Mission, 122).

He notes that recent work in spirituality has seen a lot of attention on personal spiritual disciplines (Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline), but "partnership disciplines," he says, such as "the corporate disciplines of married life ... or of congregational membership and worship, or of this present discipline of catechesis — need more focusing in today’s terms than they have yet received."

"What needs to be said here is that the discipline of learning the faith is needed to complement the discipline of teaching it, whether one-on-one or in a group, and the parties need to be committed to each other in the shared task of spiritual advance together."

That seems exactly right: leaders and learners partnering together in a mutual discipline of spiritual practice. It's not a one-way street. Learners need to know how to learn as much as teachers need to know how to teach. Augustine will have some very profound things to say about this relationship in On Instructing Beginners (De Catechizandis Rudibus), a point to which I'll return soon.

There's two points from Packer's insight here that are helpful:

1. It reminds us that catechesis is not first an educative discipline as much as a spiritual one. It is an ecclesial discipline—connected as it is to conversion or confirmation. It is, as I like to call it, a "converting education." It is a particular kind of teaching/learning that results in a changed way of life. It's a kind of learning that is inherently related to a set of religious rites, outside of which it makes less and less sense. This is one of the main things that sets it apart from other forms of learning, whether in or out of the church.

2. It reminds us of one of the particular challenges of renewing this kind of catechesis, given how immersed we are in an entertainment culture. As soon as we walk into a room, where we sit in chairs like an audience and an authoritative figure stands and is talking, we are automatically set up to go into entertainment mode. We expect to be passive on-lookers to the real performers before us teaching. In Packer's understanding, however, catechumens are engaging in a spiritual discipline along with their catechists. Much is required of both for it to work well.