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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Speaking Notes - Diocese of Clonfert Gathering of Priests - 30 October 2014

The Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults

Speaking Notes: Bishop Brendan Leahy for Diocese of Clonfert Gathering of Priests, October 30th 2014


Today the focus on your seminar is on the Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults. I know that merely mentioning the word ‘catechism’ often elicits uncomfortable memories in some people of the questions and answers of the Penny Catechism. It was a form of rote learning that was not always appreciated! Some will say that the complex doctrinal statements generally made no sense to them. Others will say that even if they didn’t understand it stood to them in later years. It has been said that a Catholic school was characterised more by rote learning and repetition than by discussion and dialogue. Some might remember the 1951 version of the Catechism issued by the Irish bishops that had 443 questions and answers. In Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood, Frank McCourt recalls religious instruction in his day:

The master… tells us we have to know the catechism backwards, forwards and sideways. We have to know the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues, Divine and Moral, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Deadly Sins. We have to know by heart all the prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Confiteor, the Apostles' Creed, the Act of Contrition, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary… He tells us we're hopeless, the worst class he ever had for First Communion but as sure as God made little apples he'll make Catholics of us, he'll beat the idler out of us and the Sanctifying Grace into us. Brendan Quigley raises his hand… Sir, he says, what's Sanctifying Grace?  The master rolls his eyes to heaven. He's going to kill Quigley. Instead he barks at him, Never mind what's Sanctifying Grace, Quigley. That's none of your business. You're here to learn the catechism and do what you're told. You're not here to be asking questions. There are too many people wandering the world asking questions and that's what has us in the state we're in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions I won't be responsible for what happens. (1997, pp. 129-130).

The whole issue of the various types of Catechisms are interesting. The first printed version of a catechism was Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (sometimes called a “minor catechism” as it was a small book) published in 1529. This catechism in a question and answer form had a big impact and set the compass, as it were, for our way of thinking about catechisms. However, the Council of Trent, when it produced its catechism, went about it a different way. It produced a “major catechism” (often called the Roman Catechism) that was not meant for use in households but rather as a reference point for parish priests, helping them to prepare their homilies. It’s not in a question and answer form and was intended as “a compendium of the Catholic doctrine”.

While the Roman Catechism was a compendium, drawing upon this source pastors and teachers opted for the question and answer type of catechism, especially for children of different ages. We can think of authors such as Canisius, Bellarmine, Challoner and Butler.

The Second Vatican Council, as we know, was a major event. Pope Paul VI, recently beatified, used to say that Vatican II is the big catechism of modern times. Afterwards we had the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. It was intended to act as a reference point for more local catechisms. And that is what we now have with the publication of the Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults.

It is important to say straightaway that the Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults is not the Penny Catechism! As the Introduction puts it, “The Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults tries to meet you where you are. It uses an adult methodology for personal learning, learning that reaches to our spirit, our individuality, our history, our particular situations and private aspirations. It tries to engage with our everyday life and personal existence.”

So often Catechism is something primarily linked to primary school as if it all finishes there. And yet adult catechism is meant to be the main form of catechesis! Quoting the General Directory on Catechesis published by the Vatican, the Irish Directory, Share the Good News reminds us that “Catechesis for adults, since it deals with persons who are capable of an adherence that is fully responsible, must be considered the chief form of catechesis” (n.69).

We all know there is a great need for adults to have a more articulate sense of their faith. I would like at this point to quote Blessed John Henry Newman, so much linked with Ireland not least because of his attempt to establish a university here. He was utterly convinced of the need to have an informed faith also for adults.  He wrote that he wanted “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious”, but rather people “who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their Creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it”.[1]

The publication of The Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults marks an important moment in the implementation of the National Directory for Catechetics in Ireland, Share the Good News. We are the first English-speaking country after the United States to have such a Catechism. Indeed, we took the basic text from the United States version and then integrated various aspects of Irish culture and life into it.

There are four main sections in the Catechism:

  • The Creed: The Faith Professed.
  • Sacraments: The Faith Celebrated.
  • Christian Morality: The Faith Lived.
  • Prayer: The Faith Prayed.

It should be mentioned that in 2005, the Pope approved a Compendium to accompany the Catechism, providing in concise form all the essential elements of the Church’s faith.  In 2011, YOUCAT, short for Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church was released. Aimed at school-goers and young adults, it includes imagery, commentaries, questions and answers and is cross-referenced to the main Catechism to assist deeper study. 

Veritas has produced many video-clips that you can find on their website. They are very useful. Let’s watch now the Video introduction to the Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults

Handing on our Faith – a Two-Fold Dynamic

At this point, I would like to offer a brief reflection on the nature of faith and doctrine that might help our approach to the Catechism. In a way the Catechism can be viewed as an instrument for plunging into the Catholic “Tradition” in order then, with your own experience and that of the Church and world around you, be able to put on the mind of Christ in a way that’ll then help you see, judge and act.

Since Vatican II, we’ve a much more dynamic sense of Revelation and Tradition. The event of Jesus Christ that occurred two thousand years ago was God’s own self-communication to us in terms of an invitation, an offer to relationship with him. Our response in faith, lets that self-communication happen on earth. It lets the Christ event become real and social and historical in and through my/our life. Revelation and Faith are important. It’s not enough to have God communicating. God makes himself “dependent” on our response. God does not save us without us!

Tradition literally means “handing on” and it refers to the dynamic process of communicating all that we are. Vatican II puts it as follows: the Church hands on “on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” It is a dynamic, growing process. Again the Council: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”

Taking this into account we can say that we are involved in double-sided dynamic transmission of the Gospel. On the one hand we have the gift that we did not create! And we can name this under four headings: the Creed (faith and morals), the Mass and sacraments, the ordained ministry and charisms. But then we respond and receive it in creative fidelity, letting it shape us in our specific culture, conditions, environment.

In other words, the faith that is given once and for all takes shape in a responsive, inculturated assimilation within particular cultures and environments and reflecting different historical eras.  And so the one Catholic Church united in faith, finds itself portrayed in different ways in different cultures. It takes various shapes and contours as the Spirit guides the Church along the way of history, opening up and helping us grow deeper.

Geographically. I was in Mexico for Good Friday some years ago. Good Friday was an event very different to Ireland. But Ireland has its own peculiarities – the Lough Derg, the way we celebrate funerals; the pattern masses; stations masses. We can think of illustrated manuscripts in monasteries. Today there are lectio divina groups with lay people.

The Catechism is a snap-shot of this dynamic. It is meant to be a window helping you see into God and what the Gospel means for your life. It should lead to greater union with God and a deeper sharing in the life of the Church understood as communion. In his encyclical letter, Lumen fidei, Pope Francis reminds us that 'it is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the "I" of the believer and the divine "Thou", between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the "We" of the Church; it always takes place within her communion' (n. 39).

The Catechism reminds us that we don’t all simply have our own ideas about God. Yes, each person’s faith is uniquely personal – I can’t have your faith; you can’t have mine. But each person is linked up with the one mind of Christ that is explained to us in the teaching of the Church and summarised in the Catechism. It provides us with an identity-kit that we then live out.

Real Questions for Today

In Ireland today many people who were brought up as Catholics have a lot of questions about faith. With the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 as its reference point, The Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults is a ‘go-to’ resource for them and for anyone looking for clear explanations and apt examples of what Catholics believe.

Each chapter begins with a short account of an Irish person or group that tried to live out their Catholic faith. It then presents the doctrine of a particular aspect of our faith, contextualising it in terms of today’s culture. The reader is provided with many quotations from popes, bishops and Christian writers, as well as prayers and scripture passages that are relevant to the topic being explained in each chapter. Important points are summarised with questions for further discussion provided. 

The challenge is to see the Catechism as a valuable resource in approaching questions people are asking today. Our belief is that the more we grasp the mysteries of our faith (Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, etc) the more we can grapple with life's challenges live with deeper meaning in life.

One of the big issues today is freedom and a rejection of any outside authority that seems to limit our autonomy. Friedrich Nietzsche, the late nineteenth-century German philosopher is generally a representative of this. Many study him. He summarised ideas before they became common currency for many.

Still, in his Human, All Too Human he wrote: ‘If those glad tidings of your Bible were written in your faces you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book: your works, your actions ought continually to render the Bible superfluous, through you a new Bible ought to be continually in course of creation.’ 

 Nietzsche’s father was a pastor. He probably got much talk, not enough life. And it’s hard not to hear the real note of disappointment rather than rejection of Christianity in his saying that ‘… in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross’ (The Twilight of the Idols). 

That’s why the third part of the ICCA, ‘Christian Morality: The Faith Lived’, is so important. It’s inviting us to do exactly what Nietzsche found was missing – living the Gospel so well that if all the Gospels in the world were destroyed, people could put them together from just watching how we lived. 

The Catechism presents Frank Duff’s life. In doing so it is a powerful underlining of all the things this part of the Catechism discusses – freedom, conscience, the beatitudes, virtues, etc. What comes across is that instead of crushing our freedom, God’s grace helps us – with our consent and cooperation – to be more free, more loving, more true, more genuinely human.


The reaction to the Catechism has already been positive. Pilot groups of people reading it have discovered it’s a rich treasure-trove that is worth spending time exploring. The text is well laid out in a way that helps readers reading it. The Catechism lends itself to umpteen possibilities for use – from parish group discussions to specific focus sessions such as with the parents of children preparing for Holy Communion and Confirmation.

The Veritas publishing company has committed itself to promoting the text. It has prepared video-clips of interviews and inputs on the Catechism. It has published a study guide. And it is prepared to help “train the trainers” in leading study of the Catechism in dioceses or pastoral areas. There’s a blog by Fr. Brendan Pucell.

A new phenomenon in recent years in Ireland has been the emergence of study groups of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with many claiming it has been a life-changing experience for them. With the publication of this Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults, we are being given an opportunity to offer people searching for Truth a new encounter with a nourishment that feeds the mind and expands the spirit to the dimensions of the Catholic vision of life, our world and our destiny.

I believe that with creativity we could use the catechism in many ways – a page photocopied for specific purposes – marriage couple, a topic to be deepened with a parish council (the “nourishing” moment as one priest I heard of calls the beginning of the parish council meetings), a baptism team preparation, a Leaving Cert. class visit on science-religion.

Let’s read together some sample pages from the Catechism. Distribution of texts and individual and group work.

See also a video-clip on the Veritas website regarding an initiative in a parish around the Catechism.




[1] Present Position of Catholics in England, Chapter 9.