Quiz time! What, according to St. John Paul II, is the most important kind of Catholic catechesis? Is it catechesis for children, adults, or non-Catholics? The answer is found in the late pope’s apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae §43: “The catechesis of adults… is the principal form of catechesis, because it is addressed to persons who have the greatest responsibilities and the capacity to live the Christian message in its fully developed form.”
Don’t feel bad if you got it wrong. I only learned it when interviewing Father Hezekias Carnazzo, an Eastern Rite priest and founder of the Institute of Catholic Culture (ICC). I would have thought the answer was children—if you “teach your children well,” to quote the sappy Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, it will have a powerful spiritual ripple effect for generations to come. Yet, Father Hezekias reminded me, if the adults are well-catechized, they will understand their vocation to dutifully instruct their own children in the truths of the Catholic faith, rather than expecting volunteers at their local parish to do it for them. In other words, adult Catholic formation is two for the price of one.
Father Hezekias, who describes the personal impact of his own father’s faith in Tyler Rowley’s new book Because of Our Fathers, spends a lot of time thinking and talking about adult religious formation. The ICC, which he founded in 2009, is a nonprofit catechetical powerhouse that provides a remarkable diversity of courses and lectures in Catholic theology, Scripture, history, philosophy, liturgy, literature, and politics, among other subjects. Offered free-of-charge, these courses are available online for anyone interested in what the website terms “100% Orthodox Catholic Faith Formation.” The results of this ministry are remarkable and exciting.
The ICC currently has about 42,000 members in 117 countries. Membership is predominantly in the United States, but there are also sizable ICC communities in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and even Hong Kong and Trinidad & Tobago. Semester and year-long courses are available at no charge, as are lectures from many well-known Catholic writers and speakers. This includes, among others, Peter Kreeft, Tony Esolen, Marcus Grodi, Tim Staples, Father Robert Spitzer, Joseph Pearce, Mike Aquilina, Chad Pecknold, and Father Paul Scalia. Certificate track studies, with assigned readings, quizzes, and a final, are also available. Some dioceses accept these for catechetical certification.
Though the organization originally began in the Diocese of Arlington in Northern Virginia, in the past three years it has turned into a national organization with international outreach. The ICC recently rolled out a brand new app available on both iOS and Android. All education events are live, which is the intention. “I can’t bring Monsignor Pope to Texas, but I can bring a Texan to Monsignor Pope,” explains Father Hezekias. “We are doing the messy part of education by having the teacher live so students can be disciples and struggle with what they are learning. This is really unique about the institute, people are truly being formed.”
The heart of the ICC’s mission is educating laypersons in the pews, including parents and grandparents. “Laity don’t need a degree, many don’t even want a degree,” says Father Hezekias. Rather, the goal is to make a good education in Aquinas and Scripture available to everyone. “A huge part of our mission is that we never charge anyone. This is because Jesus never charged. The vast majority of Catholics are not going to pay anything for what they need to receive,” argues Father Hezekias. “The part of the body that is not healthy is not being fed, and the only way to reach them is to not charge for what Jesus gave for free.” This is brilliant in its simplicity.
Rather than undermine the ICC, covid-19 actually pushed the organization in the direction it was already headed, as it offers an increasing variety of live streaming content. Father Hezekias aims to make this catechesis personable not only by giving students the opportunity to talk with their teachers, but by providing a diversity of content. This includes cooking programs, singing, and lessons in how to incorporate the liturgical calendar into one’s immediate family and community.
“There is a total wasteland of Catholicism in parts of the United States,” asserts Father Hezekias. “We want everyone in the country to have the same opportunities available in the Arlington Diocese. Not just be at the mercy of the health of their local parish.”
Right now the ICC is focused on international growth, manifested in such developments as the release of their content on Android, which is predominant in Asia. The organization is also expanding its course offerings so that members can have the same courses as those available at a strong Catholic college. “I want people to take their TVs, defenestrate them and replace them with good Catholic formation, which means they have to have a product that is more engaging than CNN and Fox News.” This upcoming January, the ICC will be offering a year-long philosophy course taught by Dr. John Cuddeback from Christendom College and a course on the art of catechesis by Jared Staudt from the Augustine Institute.
Certainly a significant number of ICC participants are catechists. It also offers a program called the Magdala Apostolate that teaches women religious and novices. Yet at its heart, the ICC is aimed at everyday Catholics hungry to learn more about their Catholic faith, and how to put that faith into practice in their families and communities. “We’re a family, and we let people join the family—when someone learns the faith, it changes their life, spreading through families and friends,” says Father Hezekias. The family certainly seems to be growing, driven not by paid advertising—of which the ICC does very little—but by word of mouth. “We are totally funded by the average layperson who donates.”
When Paul VI and John Paul II used and popularized the term “new evangelization,” one imagines they had in mind initiatives like that of the ICC. Sensing the evangelical zeal from Father Hezekias during the interview for this article, I’ve certainly been won over. “If parents are well catechized then the children will be well catechized. If we did this our churches would be completely changed overnight,” he declares. Indeed, imagine a global Church in which parishes in Salt Lake City, Sydney and Seoul all have a ministry participating in ICC courses for lay members’ edification. Imagine, in turn, members of those ministries starting their own version of the ICC in other languages. The results truly would be revolutionary.
Editor’s note: You can learn more about the Institute of Catholic Culture (ICC) at their website, instituteofcatholicculture.org (update 8 December 2020).