St. Crispin’s Day for Catechists

Tomorrow is St. Crispin’s day – yes, that St. Crispin’s day. The one forever enshrined in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

It’s not on the universal calendar as far as the Church is concerned, but it’s definitely on the universal calendar of those with any kind of literary bent. The St. Crispin’s day speech in Shakespeare’s play has got to be one of the most stirring orations of all time – even those of us with little familiarity with Shakespeare get it.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It makes you want to get up and do something heroic, something noble and courageous, doesn’t it? And it’s exactly the kind of spirit any father would want to instill in his children – something King Henry anticipates a bit earlier in the speech.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;

I have a son named Crispin, so I’ve done my best to fulfill that prediction, and consequently the speech became an October fixture in our home. For years, on this day, I’d get out the Henry V soundtrack CD (the one from Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant film adaptation) and put on the music from the St. Crispin’s Day scene, act IV, scene 3. Then, I’d dust off our Riverside Shakespeare, and I’d attempt to synch a recitation of the speech with the music. But it was always for naught. I don’t think I ever got through one of Crispin’s feast day recitations without breaking down into a blubbering heap.

Why? What is so moving about this speech? It’s the sheer audacity of it, I think. No success was guaranteed – in fact, things looked pretty desperate for the English in that fight. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and yet the King rallied his troops despite the odds – for their own glory and the glory of the realm. The battle was the thing; success or failure was not in question. Loyalty and dedication to high ideals – to the crown, to the king – were the prize, and the outcome of the fight itself was left up to God.

Still, it’s a fictional speech about a very real, very fierce battle – a far cry from the saint himself, the patron of cobblers, both him and his brother, Crispinian. They were third century Romans and Christian converts. Their enthusiasm for the Gospel led them to abandon their Romans roots and travel to the Soissons region of Gaul (modern day France) to preach and evangelize and teach everyone about the Lord.

The brothers witnessed by word in the daytime, and by night through their deeds, especially by supporting themselves (and others) through their shoemaking trade. This all took place prior to the legalization of Christianity, and the brothers’ bold testimony ensured that the authorities would catch up to them at some point. Eventually the Emperor’s men did track them down, and the missionary brothers suffered humiliation, torture, and death by the sword.

Irrespective of Shakespeare and the soliloquy, this is why we thought Crispin was a worthy namesake for our son, and an outstanding role model for any boy.

And any catechist as well – for that’s what Crispin was essentially, a simple catechist. He was just like the ordinary men and women – like you, in other words – that show up week after week at your parish to teach CCD. Nevertheless, even though it may not be very visible or spectacular, the labor of such catechists – moms and dads, teens and college students, laborers, professionals, and homemakers alike – is no small thing. Pope John Paul II makes this clear in his Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae:

The Church has always considered catechesis one of her primary tasks, for, before Christ ascended to His Father after His resurrection, He gave the apostles a final command – to make disciples of all nations and to teach them to observe all that He had commanded.

The Pope goes on to enumerate three implications of that divine command which very much apply to the ministry of catechesis today:

  1. Christ “entrusted” to the apostles and those who would follow in their footsteps the “mission and power to proclaim” what they themselves had experienced. Clearly, this is what lay at the heart of St. Crispin’s missionary enterprise – he had truly encountered the Savior and was compelled to let others know about it – and it’s at the heart of our own catechetical impulse.
  2. That same mission and power from Christ to proclaim also equipped the Lord’s messengers to “explain with authority” all that he had taught, lived, and embodied. Witnessing to an experience of Jesus is an essential start, but it must be followed by a systematic exposition of how Christ’s life is to be understood and what his teaching implies.
  3. Finally, the Pope tells us, “He gave them the spirit to fulfill this mission” – a critical boon for apostles and today’s catechists alike. When a catechist volunteers to teach a group of fifth-graders, for example, she’ll read and make lesson plans and prepare activities, but when she shows up that first Sunday to teach, it’s bound to be daunting – terrifying even. Sure, it’s not the rack or the sword, but there’s a real martyrdom involved nonetheless – a white martyrdom of humility and vulnerability for someone out of her depth. The Holy Father assures her – and all of us: You are not alone.

This last point is especially important when you consider that, like the apostles, most catechists are religious “amateurs” – not clerics, priests, or nuns, and not trained theologians. This is another catechetical connection with St. Crispin, for he and his brother were tradesmen after all – and foreigners at that – yet their energy and passion for the Gospel clearly had some divine oomph behind it. Here’s how my old Butler’s Lives of the Saints summarizes the ministry of those cobbler saints:

The infidels listened to their instructions, and were astonished at the example of their lives, especially of their charity, disinterestedness, heavenly piety, and contempt of glory and all earthly things; and the effect was the conversion of many to the Christian faith.

Make no mistake: Catechists ought to be steeped in Scripture and the teaching of the Church. Also, they should be given the best preparation possible for how to teach, and be well trained with regards to pedagogy and classroom management. But that is not nearly enough. “Above all,” Pope Paul VI writes in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.”

The Pope continues:

Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one.

That’s the secret to catechesis: The hardest part is accomplished by simply showing up. Those fifth-graders I mentioned above? The one the new volunteer catechist is about to teach? They’ll remember precious little about what she teaches that day – or any day thereafter, to be honest. I’ll guarantee you, though, at some level in their hearts and souls, they’ll remember this: That a lady who didn’t know them, and who didn’t have to give up her Sunday mornings, still showed up every week. Why was she like that? Who inspired her? Why did she live in that way?

For an answer, let’s return once more to Henry V, but to act IV, scene 1 a more subtle scene than the St. Crispin’s day speech, but one equally, if not more, inspiring.

It’s the night before the battle, and the King goes incognito among his troops to gauge their mood and readiness. He approaches Pistol, an old drinking buddy, and gently tests his loyalty.

What are you?

As good a gentleman as the emperor.

Then you are a better than the king.

The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully.

Pistol, a peasant, goes to battle the next day, and is anticipating his likely death. He’s not doing it for gold or silver; nor glory or honor or privilege. Instead, he declares to the stranger his love of the king – a king who’s dirty shoe he’d kiss out of devotion; a shoe he’d be otherwise unworthy to even untie, or even repair, were he a cobbler.

Unworthy, yes, but beloved. Such are the witnesses he sends to make disciples of the world.

image: Saint Crispin statue from Los Angeles County Museum of Art/ Wikimedia Commons 

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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