If we’re honest, it will take years before Irish Catholics can look upon this year’s World Meeting of Families and papal visit and say whether or not they were successful.
It’s the nature of these kind of things that their true value doesn’t become clear overnight. Few would have thought in 1979, for instance, that the vast crowds who gathered for St John Paul II’s visit would fall away from the Church in their droves over the following generation, and equally it’s entirely possible that a new and vibrant Church could be reborn from the far smaller crowds who joined in this year’s historic visit.
One aspect of WMOF2018 that has real potential to bear spectacular fruit was the launch by Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of the YouCat for Kids, with free copies of the book being given to those attending as gifts from Pope Francis.
Aimed in the first instance at younger children, aged eight to 12, the YouCat for Kids is also targeted at parents as the first educators in their children’s Faith, with the Pope expressly addressing parents in his forward to the book.
“Dear children, dear parents,” he begins, describing a question an eight-year-old boy had once asked him, and then observing that even just flipping through the pages of YouCat for Kids he has come across questions children constantly ask their parents and catechists.
“That is why I consider this catechism as useful as the big Catechism, in which you can find answers to the most important questions of life: Where does this world come from? Why do I exist? How and why shall we live here? What happens after death?
“YouCat for Kids is a catechism very different from the one I used to have. YouCat for Kids is suitable for children and parents to spend time together and, in doing so, discover God’s love more and more,” he says, urging parents to take time to go through the “little catechism” carefully and steadily to help their children discover the love of Jesus and grow in strength and courage.
At the book’s launch, Cardinal Schönborn and its authors outlined its origins, starting with the original 1985 synodal call for a catechism of Vatican II and the 1992 publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which the cardinal had worked on as editorial secretary.
The 1992 Catechism was always intended as a kind of master-catechism to which simpler and locally-composed catechisms could refer, with the 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church being an example of such, designed in a classic question-and-answer format, and 2011’s YouCat or ‘youth catechism’ likewise drawing on it.
Speaking at the launch of YouCat for Kids, Cardinal Schönborn explained that the original YouCat had been strongly supported by the then Pope Benedict, who felt it was too important to get bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire.
“Pope Benedict encouraged it, but said it shouldn’t be a book published by the Holy See, like the Catechism of the Catholic Church – it’s better if a bishops’ conference assumes the responsibility for the YouCat,” he said, continuing: “And then he gave us practical advice. He said: listen, the German bishops’ conference is too complicated; they have too much money and too many commissions; that will not will not work, so do it in Austria. We are a small bishops’ conference, we are fairly unorganised…so the Austrian bishops’ conference assumed the ecclesial authority of the YouCat, with the approval of the Holy See.”
In 2012, a year after the YouCat was published, parents and theologians in Austria began discussing a new version of the book, one that might be suitable for children and their parents engaged in sacramental preparation. Over the following years the text was worked on by people across Austria, with input for clergy, parents, schools, and those engaged in youth and catechetics ministry, until this May when it received the approval of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation.
The question-and-answer format of the new book, set to be translated into 72 different languages, makes sense, the cardinal says, given how children can and do pose serious and challenging theological questions to their parents and others helping rear them in the Faith.
“Children have questions,” he said. “A mother told me about her little son, whose friend, a boy, had died, and who asked his mother ‘Does Tim (or whatever) remain a child in Heaven? Or will he be a grown-up person?’ What would be a parent’s answer to such a question? It’s a highly theological question. Children are great theologians!”
Later he told The Irish Catholic that long before becoming Pope, Pope Benedict – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – had addressed the question of a loss of catechetics in modern Catholic culture, with the new catechetical projects endeavouring to renew this.
“That’s a dramatic loss in the Church,” he said. “The whole movement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the offspring of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has created within the Catholic Church a renewal of catechesis which is very encouraging because it is not just continuing the classical catechism but nevertheless maintains the keys of this tradition, that is the question-and-answer format, and that is to believe that Faith has to be expressed, has to be formulated.”
Describing the question-and answer format as “a very, very helpful methodology” for the expression and formation of the Faith, he says: “I think we are in the midst of a real revival of catechesis, and the YouCat project is a very important tool for this renewal.”
A key part of this, he adds, is the notion of learning through teaching – that in trying to explain the Faith to their children, parents will deepen their own understanding of what they share.
“Many parents of today have not had a good catechetical training so they feel lost when the children come with their questions. These questions of the children are very often highly theological questions – high brand theological questions – and the YouCat for Kids is an encouragement for parents not to escape these questions, not to push them aside, not to silence them, but to take them as an opportunity to have a dialogue with their own children and to deepen together the questions which perhaps the children have renewed in their own lives in the lives of the parents.
“Very often the questions of the children are a kind of catechesis for the parents,” he observes.
In any case, the authors of the book clearly intended the book to be an interactive family experience, with them insisting in the preface to the YouCat for Kids that Faith formation cannot be delegated to books, and Faith in its essence is something transferred from person to person. “We are convinced that the main hub for religious education is not the classroom nor the church. Maybe it is a corner in the children’s room, a beach chair by the sea, a bench in the garden or at the foot of the bed in the evening,” they write.
For Limerick’s Bishop Brendan Leahy, chair of the Irish bishops’ Council for Catechetics, who launched the YouCat for Kids with the cardinal, the book’s obvious appeal lies in its clarity.
“What I like about it is just the simplicity of it. You know, that it’s a straightforward attempt to present key elements of our Faith at a simple level,” he told The Irish Catholic, adding that while at times the English in text could be a little less stodgy, overall it has immense potential.
“It’s clear, it’s not complicated, it’s systematic, it’s orderly – it’s a good, classic question-and-answer session,” he said, adding that it could have potential even for young teenagers, despite these not being the book’s obvious target audiences.
“The previous one, the YouCat, was also wonderful, but it was something pitched at the 14-15-year-old age group. Of course a very bright 14 or 15-year-old would, I’ve no doubt, would manage it very well, but I was always slightly sceptical; I couldn’t see it being used easily in classroom settings. I felt the previous one was more – really – for young adults,” he said.
While the YouCat might have worked well for people in their late teens and early 20s, the YouCat for Kids could work well for those in their early teens.
“This one is simpler and I just feel it could be brought into use right up to Junior Cert age. Also because of the universality of what they’re talking about – it’s a simple straightforward answer to a question, even at an older age you could still get value out of it. Given it is aimed at the younger generation I do think it has a value right up to that age group,” he said.
While the book is a brightly coloured book with clear questions and answers in the kind of large print familiar from school textbooks, it’s striking that it’s also adorned with all manner of sections in smaller print: footnote sections with quotes from Popes, saints, and all manner of spiritual writers, along with short biographies of key figures and a lengthy section at the end mapping out why Christianity is historically credible. The end result is a book that really does look as though it could be valuable to people of all ages.
“It’s designed to be multigenerational, and definitely I think that’s the hope of the writers as well, that this is something that will be read by parents and children together,” Dr Leahy explained. “That’s the whole point in a way – and they have all sorts of online resources which are there to accompany all of this. I’d have a great hope that that would work as well, that people would work through it, both little children and parents learning as they go along as well, maybe.”
Certainly, while wary of talk about lost catechetical generations – even in the 1950s and 1960s “catechetics wasn’t particularly great” – Dr Leahy noted that catechesis is something that used to primarily take place at home.
“We’ve got to remember that in 1967 most children over 14 weren’t going to school. There wasn’t catechetics going on – where catechetics went on was in the family, and it was transmitted. The context was such that whatever drops they were getting in primary school were really entering in and that’s part of the issue,” he said.
“Now today we’re left with the scenario where culturally we’ve moved on, and that is a challenge of course: how to reengage people’s intellectual quest with Faith. That’s a challenge for us. Something like this can be of use, but of course we can’t be naive: the issue’s always going to be how do you get something like YouCat for Kids into the hands of people who might be searching.”
Catechesis tends to be discussed as something that depends on the interplay of home, school, and parish, the bishop observed, continuing, “but the trouble is we haven’t always provided the resources especially for the home, and this is one such resource – a good resource”.
In a sense the YouCat for Kids is the kind of resource that can empower parents.
“Parents can be intimidated or daunted slightly by the task. How are they going to teach? They have a certain confidence in other areas of life but somehow they don’t have the same confidence when it comes to transmitting religious identity,” he added.
The book goes beyond being a catechism of Church teaching but also includes sections on making sense of the Mass, how to pray and to listen for God’s presence, and even on what can be found in a church. It “would be wonderful”, Dr Leahy observed, if parents and children could visit a church together and try to make sense of it with the aid of the book.
Even for broader Irish culture and identity the YouCat for Kids could have value, according to the bishop.
“It’s true that apart from the specifically catechetical issue for us in Ireland one of the big challenges we have is how do we keep the cultural Christian identity alive which is so intrinsic to our identity,” he said.
“At a very minimum level there has to be some way of engaging the children as a way of transmitting symbols and rituals which have marked our identity, our traditions, our culture, our poetry, our writing. And people do talk about that loss of memory of Christian identity, and I think something like this even at a minimal level could be taken as contributing culturally to the catechetical endeavour, opening all kinds of things.”
The obvious challenge, he continued, would be how to promote the book, speculating that parishes, schools, and communities could all play a role in doing this.
“You have local groups, communities, movements, associations – I think they will be important because that’s more the living community context that can help make that book come alive. Simply, I suppose, putting that book into structural ways of communicating, the risk is that it would just become a book on a list somewhere. You have to make sure it goes to people who are really going to take it up and bring it alive for people,” he said.
In any case, he added, the book has an obvious value in giving us an obvious moment to consider where we are as a Church in our catechetical journey, and whether we are all doing our part.
“That’s the big question for us,” he said. “I think people know that it is not easy at the second level of schooling. The whole question of the communication of the Faith at that age group, because of what it is, teenage years are what they are.
“This may be a help, but it’s kind of a moment for us I think to begin to explore more deeply and chat together more about how do we engage with teenagers in terms of Faith.”