It would be difficult to overstate the dilapidated condition of modern catechesis. The simple fact is that we have adopted less than edifying teaching techniques from modern educational pedagogy not suited to convey the majesty and mystery of our Catholic Faith. Several generations of Catholics have been exposed to less than adequate teaching and as a result, faithful souls who have been in the Church for a long time are as in need of solid catechesis as souls coming to the faith for the first time. Even as we consider what teaching is for beginners, we must keep in mind that after confirmation, all liturgical celebrations are catechetical and all catechesis is mystagogical. This truth ought to inform our teaching even of those who have not been confirmed and our approach ought not to change, only deepen as souls spiritually mature by further use of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterial teaching at our disposal.
Once we are welcomed into full communion with Holy Mother Church, our mystagogical life begins. We now fully understand and embrace the magisterial teaching of the Church. The time has come to put our faith into fruitful practice. Beyond the liturgy, there are many things we can do and many things we must do to prepare both beginners, catechumens and communicants alike. First and foremast are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. After that, we can embark upon a program of spiritual reading and meditate on the lives of the saints. Another thing we ought to do is to delve into the mysteries of the sacraments by participating in both learning and teaching about the faith before we embark of Christ’s great commission to “go out and teach all nations.” Edifying our catechetical programs must follow, not precede the above recommendations. However, once we are prepared to teach, one of the most effective tools for such an endeavor is the catechetical narratio.
The narratio is an important catechetical tool expounded upon by St. Augustine to a deacon from Carthage named Deogratia who questioned the Church Doctor on the best way to instruct beginners. St. Augustine memorialized his response to the deacon and it can be found in De Catechizandis Rudebus. This small tome holds great gifts for the authentic development of catechesis in which the narratio is put forward as the best way to teach beginners about our shared Faith. The catechetical narratio is a broad and all-encompassing technique intended to tell the Catholic Story. To paraphrase the great Church Doctor, the narratio includes the most important elements of the faith coherently conveyed which gives us our Christian identity and foundation in the faith. The narratio is complete if it imparts to the learner the truths of the faith from the beginning until the present Church. The recounting must be comprehensive and include all extraordinary occasions and miraculous turns of event. The overarching end of the narratio is not to complicate the message with particulars, but to initiate the framework for future amassed details to be woven into the tapestry of the already present narrative. St. Augustine explains that “we should not allow the introduction of these other dimensions of meaning to make us lose track of the exposition and cause our heart and our tongue to rush off into the intricacies of an over complicated discussion.” In fact our focus ought to be on what Saint Augustine called the “golden thread which holds together the precious stones in an ornament but does not spoil the ornament’s lines by making itself too obvious.” This “golden thread” is the causes and reasons of the plain truth meant to be conveyed by the narratio.
In 1997, the Congregation for the Clergy published the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) to reaffirm solid catechetical practices from tradition and this document reasserts the importance of the narratio for many reasons. We learn from the GDC that “Catechesis, for its part, transmits the words and deeds of Revelation; it is obliged to proclaim and narrate them and, at the same time, to make clear the profound mysteries they contain.” It is wisely reasserted that in “the patristic period properly, catechumenal formation was realized through biblical catechesis, based on recounting the history of salvation.” The catechetical narratio is the marvelous storytelling that conveys all the typological prefigurements from Creation throughout the Old Testament which are fulfilled by the Advent of Christ and takes us to the present Church.
The catechetical narratio is vital because it supplies the content to our memories which then constitutes our Catholic identity. The narratio conveys why salvation history unfolds as it does and imparts the meanings of the mystery through the power inherent in the narrative. Christ Himself instructed us with parables; stories to convey exponentially greater truths than the sum of their parts. The narratio allows the Catholic faithful to develop a comprehensive worldview grounded in the Logos. The narratio introduces the prefigurements and types that will become the recognizable signs of the sacraments. All this is to edify the memory which is the foundational key and beginning of spiritual mastery. We hear these stories to populate our minds with memories and to organize a coherent structure by way of history. The elements in history become the types pointing to the signs of the sacraments by analogy, they instruct by allegory and point to our final ends by the anagogic sense. Liturgical practice following the catechetical narratio leads us by providence through to the meanings of the mysteries and eventually into full participation with the sacramental graces flowing from the Holy Spirit through the sacraments into the Body of Christ.
A brief summary example of a few points included in a narratio concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist would begin at the beginning. The shadow of the Eucharist is the species of bread and wine perceptible to the five senses. The image of the Eucharist is the Christ really and actually present after the consecration. The reality is that this is our Lord and Savior inviting us to participate in His divinity. When we start at the beginning we learn from Genesis that the Logos was there before time began and through Him all things were made. The types of the ever present Christ are found throughout the Old Testament. He is prefigured in the fruit of the tree of life, by the offering of Abel, by the presentation of bread and wine from the priest of the God most high Melchizedek, in the Show Bread from the Temple, by the feedings received by Elijah and Elisha, by the Passover meal before the exodus, by the manna in the desert and even by Christ’s birth in the city of bread, Bethlehem.
After his birth, there were also types of the living bread when Christ fed the multitudes before the Sermon on the Mount. As John recounts the sermon, he mentions bread no less than 19 times. In John 6:22 Jesus begins His “bread from heaven” discourse where He explains to them that the manna in the desert was from God and that He Himself is the bread of Heaven. Christ clearly reveals the truth of this statement at the Last Supper when He institutes the Eucharist on the eve of His passion. He died and is risen. In Luke 24:30 the disciples don’t recognize the resurrected Christ until he breaks the bread. Christ ascends into Heaven and His real presence remains with us until the end of time in every Holy Mass. We look forward to the life of the world to come and feasting eternally on the living bread at the wedding feast of the Lamb. It is the golden thread of the truth of the real presence of Christ from before the beginning until after the end that keeps the narratio of the Eucharist coherent
Dr. Peter Kreeft is fond of saying “there are two things that never get boring, the great stories and other people.” The story of Salvation History is far and away the most engaging way to instruct beginners and the seasoned faithful alike. The story conveyed by the catechetical narratio is the ultimate story and it elucidates the lives of the most interesting people in history, not to mention the life of God incarnate, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who Himself uses stories to convey many of His most important teachings.
As we consider what has been taking place in most catechetical programs around the country, we might discover a distinct lack of the catechetical narratio and an increase in the kind of pedantic techniques found in modern notions of education. We ought to let St. Augustine convince us to return to the tried, true, faithful and highly engaging techniques elucidated in De Catechizandiz Redebus. If we do, then we ourselves may be edified in the good work of conveying the greatest story ever told. There is hardly a better way to expose faithful souls to the Christian mysteries that flow forth from the Catholic Faith than the catechetical narratio. In the end it is a powerful means to edify up the Body of Christ as it clarifies the hope of salvation in an ever darkening world. By the guidance of the GDC and on the advice of St. Augustine, let us begin again to share the catechetical narratio at home and in our parishes.