October 11th, 2012 – Opening of the Year of Faith
In this Year, then, the Catechism of the Catholic Church will serve as a tool providing real support for the faith, especially for those concerned with the formation of Christians, so crucial in our cultural context. (Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei 12)
The Year of Faith, called by Pope Benedict, extends from 11 October 2012 to 24 November 2013. Beginning on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and also on the twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Year of Faith will conclude with the Feast of Christ the King 2013.
During this Year, the Holy Father desires a renewed study of our faith, especially through a return to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, this Catechism is over five hundred pages long (and nearly three thousand paragraphs) – How, then, might one approach such a large and theologically daunting book?
What this article is not
Last January, I wrote a little article on “A better way of reading the Summa of St. Thomas” [here]. In that article I did not give a day-by-day set of readings, or any sort of detailed list. However, I attempted to give something of a method for reading – such that an individual could adapt the general approach to the specifics of his life.
It is my intention to do the same here, for the Catechism.
Therefore, I will not be giving a plan of daily readings. This is not an article on how to read the Catechism in a year. Rather, I want to give a method (one which I, personally, find helpful) for reading the Catechism.
The structure of the Catechism
The Catechism is written in four parts:
1) The Profession of Faith
2) The Celebration of the Christian Mystery
3) Life in Christ
4) Christian Prayer
These parts are further sub-divided, such that the Catechism can be outlined as follows:
1) Christian Doctrine
a) Revelation itself
b) The Apostles’ Creed
2) The Liturgy and Sacraments
a) The Liturgy
b) The Seven Sacraments
3) Christian Morality
a) General morals
i. Happiness and the human person
ii. Conscience, virtue, and vice
b) The Ten Commandments
4) Christian Prayer
a) The tradition and nature of Christian prayer
b) The “Our Father”
How to read a portion of the Catechism
The Catechism is divided more by paragraph numbers than by page numbers. In other words, when the Catechism is referenced, the paragraph number is to be cited rather than the page number. There are 2865 paragraph divisions, and most are rather short (only two or three sentences).
As one glances through the Catechism, he will notice that there are some paragraphs in a smaller print than the rest. “The use of small print in certain passages indicates observations of an historical or apologetic nature, or supplementary doctrinal explanations.” (CCC 20) Additionally, a number of quotations from Church Fathers and other doctrinal sources are provided in a small print.
It will not be necessary for the average reader to spend as much time on these small print portions of the Catechism – while they should be read, one need not be troubled if he is unable to understand the full meaning of these paragraphs.
However, at the end of each section or thematic unit, “a series of brief texts sum up the essentials of that unit’s teaching in condensed formulae. These IN BRIEF summaries may suggest to local catechists brief summary formulae that could be memorized.” (CCC 22) In other words, one ought to read the “in brief” summary section with great care – it would be beneficial to commit at least the basic doctrine of these paragraphs to memory.
Finally, it is good to note that, on the outside margin of each page, there are cross-references to other paragraphs in the Catechism. Indeed, since the Catechism is an organic whole (like the Faith itself), we should expect that the various portions of the Catechism would shed light one upon the other (just as the mysteries of our Faith serve to illuminate one another).
Two methods of reading the Catechism
There are two primary ways that people attempt to read the Catechism. The one (which is by far the most common) is to simply use the Catechism as a reference book which is read occasionally as a means to finding the answer to a particular question.
This is a “curious” or “casual” approach to the Catechism, and it is certainly better than nothing. However, it can lead to problems.
Consider, for example, if someone has a question about “charisms”. Making use of the “curious” method, he would look to index and discover that paragraph 799 is the primary reference for charisms. Now, if he simply goes and reads CCC 799 to 801, he may fail to notice that charisms are not dealt with in the fourth part (on prayer) and, hence, are not considered in relation to “spirituality”, but rather are considered within the context of the Church. Further, he could easily fail to recognize that the Church sees charisms entirely within the context of the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying the Church, rather than as a means of the sanctification of the individual who receives that charism.
On the other hand, there is a method which tends to the opposite extreme: A man decides to read the Catechism straight through from cover to cover. This method is good, and there is certainly much to say for it (for example, it is clearly the most natural way to read the Catechism); however, most people will become discouraged quickly. Very few people who try to read the Catechism straight through from start to finish ever succeed.
I, therefore, propose a sort-of mean between these two methods.
Another (perhaps better) way of reading the Catechism
There may be another way of reading the Catechism. Though it seems counter-intuitive, it may be possible to begin by reading the Catechism from the back – that is, to start with the section on prayer. (I must credit J. Hanson from Catholic Phoenix [here])
I would recommend reading each section of paragraphs together, and then going back and looking up the paragraphs cross-referenced in the margins. These cross-referenced paragraphs could then be read in their most immediate context (without reading the whole section around them).
Let me illustrate with an example: Take the first portion of paragraphs from the fourth part, on Christian prayer. This is CCC 2558 to 2565. After reading all these paragraphs together, one may then go back and look up the cross-referenced paragraphs: CCC 2613, 2763, 2699, 1696, 260, 792.
Now, since some of these paragraphs are only a little bit ahead of where we are (namely, CCC 2613, 2763, 2699), I might not go forward to read them. However, if one were to refer back to CCC 1696, he would see that this paragraph is from the introductory portion of the third part of the Catechism, Life in Christ. It would be good, then, to read not only CCC 1696, but also the surrounding paragraphs: CCC 1691 to 1698.
After this, the reader would move on to the next cross-reference from the original paragraphs on prayer, namely CCC 260. Adopting the same method, he would read CCC 257 to 260, which consider “The Divine Works and the Trinitarian Missions”.
In this way, a single selection of paragraphs from the fourth part of the Catechism will quickly introduce the reader to the whole Catechism and will keep the mind attentive through the presentation of numerous mysteries in harmony.
A plan for reading the Catechism
After reading the prologue to the Catechism (CCC 1 to 25), I would recommend continuing with the opening portion of the first part (CCC 26 to 49) which deals with man’s desire and capacity for a relationship with God.
Then, one may go to the back of the Catechism and read the fourth part, on Christian Prayer (CCC 2558 to 2865). Reading through the fourth part, looking up the cross-references, one will have become familiar with a great deal of the Catechism.
After gaining an understanding of the foundations of the life of prayer, one could then return to part two, on the Liturgy and the Sacraments – since it is through prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, that man comes into that most precious contact with God.
From the second part, I would recommend reading the first part, which is an exposition of Christian doctrine. Finally, one may then read the third part, on morality. All the while, reading (and re-reading) the cross-referenced paragraphs.
Finally, I would not recommend that one be too concerned about finishing the whole Catechism within the Year of Faith. If a man begins reading (and develops an intellectual method for appreciating) the Catechism during the Year, it is very likely that he will succeed in continuing his study for many years into the future. In any case, the Catechism is certainly not a book to be rushed through – many individuals have a tendency to read great books far too quickly!