I grew up Catholic, but I didn’t really begin to take ownership of my faith until high school. When I first realized that the faith was something I really wanted to take seriously and make my own, my brain became a theological sponge – I was hungry for anything and everything Catholic. I started attending every youth group night and bible study I could. I actually started paying attention in my Catholic high school’s religion classes and enjoying them. I began getting involved in my high school’s campus ministry and volunteering with my youth group. I eventually felt a call to ministry and go to Franciscan University to study youth ministry.
I spent so much of my early faith journey just learning things about the faith rather than becoming a holier person, internalizing the Catholic worldview, and learning to think with the mind of the Church. I learned so much about Catholicism, about the Scriptures, and about Christian morality. I acted as if apologetics – the defending of the faith through intellectual argument and dialogue – was the point of all this learning I was doing. What I was actually doing was entrenching myself in an “us vs. them” mentality. I thought that the faith was all about being right and proving other people wrong. I desperately wanted to defend the faith, and in doing so in such a misguided way, I made a lot of people angry, damaged relationships, and almost certainly did more harm than good, because I was using my faith as a weapon rather than the vehicle for my own interior conversion and sanctification. After a while, I began to realize that there was so much more to the faith than just knowing things and being right all the time.
I don’t think this really hit home until I joined what Franciscan University calls a “faith household”, which is essentially a school-sponsored faith-based fraternity. I spent nearly three and a half years living with a group of men who wanted to not only learn more about their faith, but live it out in as authentic a way as possible. We met weekly in small groups for a Bible study where we spent the whole evening just discussing how Jesus was impacting our lives through the Scriptures we were praying with, where we were struggling, and seeking out each other’s prayers, advice, and accountability in the fight against sin in our own lives. I grew so much in my relationship with God in those few years of intense, intentional, discipleship-oriented community – far more than I ever did sitting in the rows of desks in a classroom or even my youth group. It was through my participation in that household where it was instilled in me possibly one of the most important spiritual truths I’ve ever learned – faith eventually must grow in circles, not rows.
What do I mean by that? I’m certainly not trying to be dismissive of traditional, classroom-style catechesis. Traditional catechesis – the handing on of the fullness of orthodox doctrines, traditions, teachings, and philosophies of the Catholic Church in order make mature disciples – is essential for a solid foundation in the faith. It’s absolutely invaluable.
However, what I am saying, is that once such a solid foundation is laid, it’s time to build upon it with lived faith experience and not simply a “head knowledge” of the faith – faith must be put into practice! The truths of the faith are meant to be learned in theory and wrestled with in real life, with a like-minded community of peers. Living the faith genuinely is hard, and demands everything of us. It’s not something we can simply only do for an hour on Sunday, or in a classroom, but rather must be a 24/7 lived reality. Our faith ought to challenge us, especially those of us who have been “doing Catholic things” for a long time.
What, then, is the goal of all catechesis? Our goal is not to know about Christ, but rather to know Christ personally; that is, to make us saints in deep personal union with Jesus, not just smarter.
This blog was written by Sam Ford, Coordinator of Middle Schol Youth Ministry here at St. Francis of Assisi. If you’re interested in writing a blog for St. Francis of Assisi, please contact Joseph at firstname.lastname@example.org.