Evangelization, Catechesis, Mercy, and Accompaniment: A Path to Reform and Renewal – Matt Halbach

Libby MahowaldBlog, Catechetical Leader, Featured

It’s 2020. The effects of abuse and its cover-up continue to be felt as the church learns to live as a wounded body. The “spiritual but not religious” group, also known as the “Nones,” continues to grow and remain as elusive as ever. The many “-isms” representing ideologies contrary to church teaching (such as consumerism, relativism, and agnosticism, among others) continue to be espoused by an increasingly secularized Western culture. And “-isms” within the church, like clericalism and careerism, continue to produce the wicked fruit of trauma and division, disillusionment and disappointment. The church, which exists to evangelize, is in a critical state. 

Where does catechesis enter into this bleak picture? What does catechesis have to do with evangelization or church reform and renewal? The answer is: it has everything to do with it! In this article I will outline the interrelationships among evangelization, mercy, and accompaniment to offer a more holistic vision of disciple making (Mt 28:19–20) and usher in much-needed reform and renewal. 

Evangelization and catechesis go hand in hand

Although the “General Directory for Catechesis” admits that distinguishing between evangelization and catechesis, in practice, is difficult (no. 62), understanding their complementarity is vital for effective ministry. Why? Because, as it has been proved many times, one is rendered less effective without the other. Let’s take our cue from the Bible, which likes to draw on nature imagery and processes to convey truth about God and ourselves. We know that plants need water and sunlight to grow. Having just one ingredient won’t do. Likewise, people need a combination of evangelization and catechesis for conversion to begin and to deepen. So, what does this combination look like?

Catechists often perceive their role as following that of the evangelist, who is identified as someone or some group who proclaims the gospel message through word and deed, intent upon sparking initial faith in others. Catechesis follows evangelization. In this sequence, the job of catechesis is to fan the flame of initial faith through a deeper introduction and ritual initiation into the mysteries of the faith. 

This is a linear view of things—and who doesn’t like order and predictability?—but it is not often true to life. In reality, conversion is a messy process, and evangelization and catechesis are not so clear cut. This is because they are, in fact, interdependent. 

Important efforts have been made to describe the relationship between evangelization and catechesis. The “General Catechetical Directory” (1971) described both as ministries of the word (no. 17). In his 1975 exhortation, “On Evangelization in the Modern World,” Pope Paul VI identified catechesis as an “element” of evangelization (no. 17). In his 1979 exhortation, “On Catechesis in Our Time,” Pope John Paul II described catechesis as a “special moment” in evangelization, and he noted that the two are integrated and complementary (no. 18). Almost two decades later, the “General Directory for Catechesis” (1997) suggests that a “kerygmatic” or evangelizing catechesis be adopted (no. 62) to meet contemporary needs and challenges and help bring about church renewal. 

We have used nature to make a point about conversion. Let’s see if it can tell us anything about the relationship between evangelization and catechesis. We know that evangelization and catechesis are integrated and that they somehow complement each other. In nature, we see a special kind of mutuality in creatures who live in symbiosis. Most symbiotic creatures mutually benefit each other (though some relationships are more parasitic); the one depends on the other for survival. They are interdependent. 

Applying the following characteristics of symbiosis, we can describe evangelization and catechesis as symbiotic because they:

  1. are related but distinct, 
  2. share a common purpose, 
  3. are mutually beneficial, and
  4. co-evolve. 

This last point is a deduction. In nature, as one creature evolves, it seems logical that the other must evolve in a harmonious way to remain in symbiosis. Applied to evangelization and catechesis, as the church continues to pray and reflect on the meaning, actions, and scope of evangelization—for example, the rise of the term new evangelization, which became the focus of the 2012 Ordinary Synod of Bishops—catechesis must also “evolve” to remain in step. There is much by way of magisterial teaching that points to the conclusion that evangelization and catechesis are, in fact, symbiotic.

So what?

Why does any of this matter? Catechists are eager to find out how to do something better—to learn best practices. So, to address the important question (“so what?”) and to keep this article from becoming a book, I offer the following, brief suggestions:

  1. Look at the objectives of evangelization in the “General Directory for Catechesis” (no. 48). In particular, note that fostering charity, witness, and community is essential for effective evangelization. Thinking in symbiotic terms, ask yourself: What am I (or other catechists) doing within the ministry of catechesis to foster charity, witness of faith, and community life? If catechesis in your parish does not include these things, it is time to rethink your approach.
  2. Don’t take anything for granted! Catechists can no longer presume that a child (or adult) has experienced a conversion. By keeping this in mind, you are more likely to emphasize the importance of encountering Christ. This will make you more inclined to stress the kerygma (or gospel message) in all that you do and say. In addition, you are more likely to emphasize the role of prayer and how to pray. Prayer is the lifeline of the disciple.
  3. Look for signs of conversion. The metrics for effective catechesis are the same for effective evangelization. You want to see and hear evidence of Christian living—prayer, devotion, service, and understanding of the essentials of the faith. Most of all, you want learners to become teachers and witnesses.

A final thought on reconnecting evangelization and catechesis: Jesus sent his disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel message (Mk 6:7, Lk 10:1). It is possible Jesus did this for reasons of travel safety or to cover more ground in less time. It is more likely, however, that he sent them off together because the companionship between his disciples would serve as a powerful witness to what life is like in the kingdom of God. The Gospel of John makes it very clear that it is by the love we show one another that all will come to know God (Jn 13:35). Isn’t that what evangelization and catechesis aim to do?

Catechists should begin to think creatively and intentionally about employing evangelization and catechesis, as a pair, in their efforts to share the good news. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other. To bring evangelization and catechesis together requires a special kind of character and a special kind of context

Mercy is the character of evangelization and catechesis 

It is no surprise that Pope Francis called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy shortly after the conclusion of the synod on evangelization. Mercy is the character of evangelization and catechesis. It is an elastic word that stretches to encompass the essence, purpose, and contours of evangelization and catechesis. 

Mercy is more than an emotion. It is something we come into contact with. It is tangible. It engages our senses. Mercy is the “face” of evangelization and catechesis, because through them we encounter Christ who shows us the merciful face of the Father (“Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee Year of Mercy,” no. 1).

Where Christ is, there is mercy also. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was focused on sharing the Father’s mercy with others (Lk 4:16–21). His teachings, his miracles, his entire witness of life exemplified this one, all-important goal. One of the most heartfelt scenes in scripture is when Jesus—teaching in the Temple and fully aware of the suffering he is about to endure—exasperated and with full throat cries out that he has come to save the world and not to judge it (Jn 12:47). One can imagine the sorrow, frustration, and passion behind these words that, primarily, were directed to his disciples who repeatedly failed to understand his full mission and identity. Jesus’s exclamation resounds in our ears and hearts today, giving us great courage and hope. It calls us back to the Father’s mercy as the reason for the church’s existence; and, therefore, the reason we evangelize and catechize. 

Accompaniment is the context of evangelization and catechesis 

The context of evangelization and catechesis, as the disciples going out two by two suggests, is faithful companionship and its transforming effect. Pope Francis has done much to intrigue us with his introduction to the “art of accompaniment” (“Joy of the Gospel,” no. 169). To help us understand how to accompany others, he has included a number of actions and attitudes that are essential.

But before we begin unpacking those, let me say what accompaniment is not. It is not just about making friendships with others and affirming them as they are and where they are in life. It is about conversion.

Accompaniment has struggled to become an important and effective framework for evangelization and catechesis because it has been viewed (and often presented) as sidestepping our universal call to holiness—a kind of ministerial hustle. Numerous presentations on the subject are short-sighted. They offer creative ways to encounter people where they are and thereby ignite (or reignite) the flame of faith, but they leave out the most critical feature of accompaniment: the path to conversion. 

There is no such thing as a subtle or comfortable conversion. Let’s not confuse comfort with peace. We can be at peace in the midst of difficulties and challenges, but difficulties and challenges are never comfortable. Conversion can be peaceful, but it should be challenging. Citizenship in the kingdom of God, as Jesus’s parables point out, requires us to turn our worldview upside down. Our ideas of the good are challenged by God’s infinite wisdom and the proposal of what is best. So people often struggle with stories like the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11–32) and the lavish mercy the father shows upon his younger son’s return. Where’s the justice? Where’s the punishment? These are good questions, but they are for another article. 

Maybe our ideas about conversion need to be challenged and honed. How can one speak of conversion without focusing on the break one experiences from a former way of life to a new one? Conversion, in a biblical sense, is just that. It is a turning around (metanoia) and away from former choices, values, beliefs, and behaviors, and an opening of one’s mind and heart to a relationship with God and to a dependency on his grace and plan for one’s life. This receptivity, this vulnerability, is rooted in a newfound radical trust in Christ—in the conviction that he is the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot say we have faith but live in opposition to our convictions. Or as the Letter of James puts it, “faith without works is dead.” (Jas 2:26)

Accompaniment is about walking with others on a journey of faith toward a deeper relationship with Christ, which means a deeper discipleship is needed. Along the journey, companions move through different phases: encounter, sharing faith experiences, and proclaiming/teaching the faith. These phases correlate to the “moments of conversion” described in the “General Directory for Catechesis” (no. 56). 

The following actions and attitudes of accompaniment are some of the possible ways to engage others and stay engaged as conversion begins and deepens: 

Actions: go out, invite, welcome, listen, serve, heal, empower, pray (with), worship (with) 

Attitudes: humility, empathy, joy, patience, tenderness, open-mindedness 

There is no rigid ordering of these actions and attitudes, primarily because each experience of accompaniment is unique, based on one’s circumstances of life and previous faith experience, if any. Yet, there is a logic (logos) at work. It is the logic of the Holy Spirit, who is the primary evangelizer and catechizer. Conversion is God’s initiative. It is a work he allows us to share in. 

As I mentioned earlier, Francis referred to accompaniment as an art form, one that everyone in the church is called to master. To be an artist takes desire, commitment, and vulnerability. The catechist who chooses to accompany others is operating from a twofold desire: (1) the desire to share the good news with others and journey with them deeper into the mysteries of the faith, and (2) the desire to let others accompany you. This kind of desire demands both a graced commitment to others and a willingness to be vulnerable. 

Like conversion, accompaniment does not happen overnight. It is a process. Just as you cannot rush the growth of a plant, neither can you rush a person’s movement toward deeper discipleship. Accompaniment is a living process with a living curriculum. It is a cooperative exploration of the living God in our midst and his merciful plan for us. 

Imagine what catechetical ministry would be like if it were supported by evangelization and galvanized by a framework of accompaniment! While some might be excited at this prospect, others might see what could be and feel overwhelmed, confused, anxious, irritated, or all of these things. A big question may be looming here: How do I work this process of accompaniment and still fulfill the expectations placed on me as a catechist (e.g., teach a curriculum, check for understanding, coordinate rehearsals, plan ceremonies, and still do whatever administrative work I need to do)? 

Take a breath. And think about accompaniment as being quite flexible. In fact, there should be no competition between a catechist’s ministry description and the work of accompaniment. Start by imaging and praying about those whom you catechize. What’s going on in their lives? What do they need most, and how can you help them meet that need? Then, pray about the actions and attitudes you would like to foster and how they would support those you catechize. Become a model for others. And let them accompany you. (I write extensively about the process of accompaniment in my book Becoming a Parish of Mercy: A New Vision for Total Parish Evangelization.) 

Conclusion

Anytime I am asked what will bring about needed change in our church, I simply say “evangelization and catechesis.” This is not a dodge or a flip response. I am being sincere. Evangelization and catechesis are works of God that he allows us to participate in, so that he might transform our world. Transformation takes time. And it takes all of us. We must be willing to put the mercy of God first in our efforts to evangelize and catechize. And we must be willing to learn how to accompany others as they receive God’s gift of mercy and, gradually, come to acknowledge and celebrate the gift God is. 

———–

Deacon Matt Halbach, PhD, is the executive director of catechesis for William H. Sadlier Inc. He has also been a reviewer for the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catechism, and he serves on the USCCB National Advisory Council.