Exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part II
During the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that growing in our faith is a spiritual journey; if we’re not moving forward, we may get off track and even lose our way. We must take time to nurture and strengthen our spiritual lives if we are to mature and deepen our understanding of our faith. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis of faith; belief in God and adherence to Christian principles of living is no longer something that we can take for granted. It is therefore especially important that the joy and enthusiasm that we experience in our encounter with Christ be something that is evident for everyone to see.1 But what can we do to nurture our faith? One of the ways is to read and study the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Structure of the Catechism
For many Catholics, the Catechism is an unexplored territory of faith, and a bit of a roadmap may help get you started on the journey. If you open a copy of the Catechism (to read the online version, click on Catechism of the Catholic Church), you will see that it is divided into four main parts: the Profession of Faith (the Creed), the Celebration of the Christian Mystery (the sacraments), Life in Christ (the life of faith, including the Ten Commandments), and Christian Prayer (including the Lord’s Prayer). Though divided up in this way, the parts are all interconnected, for we celebrate our faith through participating in the sacraments; and at the same time, faith is the basis of our prayer and helps guide and sustain us as we seek to discover what it means to live our lives as Christians.2 Let’s take a closer look at each of the parts.
Part I: The Profession of Faith
Every week at Mass, right after the homily, we stand together as a congregation and repeat the words of the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.3 Credo is a Latin word that means, “I believe,” and each week we begin our profession of faith with these words.
The Apostles’ Creed dates back to the earliest days of the Church and was originally formulated for the use of candidates of Baptism. If you are familiar with the Creed, you may have already noticed that it is divided into three sections, each of which reflects a part of the Holy Trinity: the first part speaks of God and His wonderful work of Creation; the second part speaks of Jesus, who redeemed us from our sins; and the third part speaks of the Holy Spirit, who works in our hearts to help us draw closer to God.4
Each statement in the Creed is further broken down into 12 separate “articles” of faith, which represent the fullness of faith as expressed by the 12 Apostles. Together, these articles faithfully summarize the tradition of faith that has been handed on to us by the early Church. As you speak these words each week, have you ever stopped and wondered exactly what they mean? The Catechism explains and discusses each article in detail to help us come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of our Catholic faith.
Part II: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery
Having established and explained the fundamental beliefs of our Catholic faith, the second part of the Catechism goes on to explore how God’s Salvation is made present in our lives through the Liturgy of the Church, especially in the seven sacraments.
The sacraments are divided into three types. The Sacraments of Christian Initiation, which lay the foundation of our Christian lives, include the Sacrament of Baptism, the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.5 It is through Baptism that we become Christians and members of the Church, while Confirmation strengthens us and gives us the graces that we need to live Christian lives and to share the Gospel with others. All along the way, we are sustained and nourished by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Bread and the Wine that become the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ every time we celebrate Mass.
It is inevitable that during our lives, we will experience physical suffering. It is also inevitable that no matter how hard we try, at some point in time, we will fail God and others. The Sacraments of Healing, through which both our souls and physical bodies are healed, include the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick.
Finally, the last two sacraments, the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the Sacrament of Matrimony, are called Sacraments at the Service of Communion because they are directed towards the salvation of others. It is true that they may contribute to our own personal salvation indirectly, but this comes about through the service that we offer to others.6 It may be easy for us to understand that the mission of a priest is to serve his congregation, but we may wonder why marriage is included in this category. Perhaps the most important mission that a married man or woman has in life is to mirror the love that Christ has for His Church through their love for one another and to lovingly educate their children in the truths of the faith. Each day brings new opportunities to love and serve one another, to help each other along the path of our journey to our eternal destiny. The Catechism explains and discusses each of the seven sacraments in detail and answers questions such as, “Who can receive this sacrament?” and “How is this sacrament celebrated?”
Part III: Life in Christ
Like Christ, each one of us is invited to live in a way that is pleasing to God in order to be united to Him, so that we can reach the destination for which we were created. But what does that mean? “Life in Christ” discusses how Christians are called to live out their faith in the world today. Topics such as freedom and responsibility, morality, conscience, and virtue challenge us to go deeper in our understanding of our dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God.
This part of the Catechism includes a detailed discussion of each of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus summarized in two essential statements: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37-40). Issues such as the nature and responsibilities of the family, the duties of citizens, social justice, and some of the more controversial teachings of the Church on matters such as respect for human life (including abortion and euthanasia), pornography, homosexuality, and the occult are all discussed in this part of the Catechism.
Part IV: Christian Prayer
What is prayer? In its most simple form, prayer is nothing more than a conversation with God. But we may not be familiar with some of the different types of Christian prayer, which include blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, praise and thanksgiving, and expressions of prayer such as vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer. The Catechism closes with an in-depth discussion of the most perfect prayer of all, the one taught to us by Jesus Himself, the Lord’s Prayer.
Some Practical Guidelines
Before embarking on a study of the Catechism, a few practical pointers may help you navigate its contents more easily. As you look through the pages of the Catechism, you will see that each short paragraph (article) is numbered in bold. These numbers help to organize and pinpoint the location of material, as you will notice if you check out the citations listed in the footnotes below.7 There are also italicized numbers in the margins that provide cross-references to other articles in the Catechism that may help explain some of the concepts. Passages from historical and other sources, such as the writings of the Saints and other Church documents and authors, appear in small print to help identify them; these writings help to expand and enrich the concepts discussed in the doctrinal text. Along with the index of citations, there is a detailed index, a list of abbreviations, and an extensive glossary in the back that explains the meaning of words that may not be familiar to you. It may sound complicated, but it’s really not. Our Church fathers wanted to be very thorough in preparing this version of the Catechism to give us all the information we need to deepen our understanding of the faith.
As with many spiritual books, it is not necessary to read the Catechism from cover to cover, although we can certainly do that if we wish. Itcan also simply be used as an essential point of reference and a resource on topics that are of interest to us. Just like reading the Bible, parts of the Catechism may be hard to understand at first, but with prayer and study and an openness to learn, God will use it to reveal many truths to us.8 By deepening our understanding of our faith, we will always be prepared to give the reason for our hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15), Jesus Christ, and to share the joy and beauty of following Him with others wherever we are, whether in the family, in the workplace, or in public life.9
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta fidei (October 11, 2011), 2; available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_ben-xvi_motu-proprio_20111011_porta-fidei_en.html; Internet; accessed 13 November 2012.
2 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum (October 11, 1992), 2; available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_19921011_fidei-depositum_en.html; Internet; accessed 23 November 2012.
3 In Canada, it is common to recite either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed on Sundays. The Nicene Creed is more explicit and detailed and dates from the first two ecumenical councils – Nicaea (325 A.D.) and Constantinople (381 A.D.); it is common to all of the great Churches of both the East and West (CCC, 195).
4 Cf. CCC, 190.
5 Ibid., 1212.
6 Cf.Ibid., 1534.
7 The abbreviation, CCC, refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the word “ibid” means that the source is the same as in the proceeding citation.
8 There are a number of other catechisms that have been based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church – for example, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and Youcat, the official catechism of the 2011 World Youth Day – that may also be of help to you.
9 Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Porta fidei, 13.