Pope Francis, Catechist in Action

Thoughts on the Holy Father’s recent address about "one of the most beautiful educational adventures"

“If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so another can be carried out.”

— St. Vincent de Paul, (d. 1660), Letter #2546.

“Even if at times it (catechetical teaching) can be difficult, if it is so much work, if it presses upon us and we do not see the results we wish, still to educate in the faith is beautiful! The faith is perhaps the most beautiful heritage that we can give because it makes you grow. To help children, boys and girls, young men, women, and adults to know and to love the Lord ever more is one of the most beautiful educational adventures, for it comprises the Church!”

— Pope Francis, Address to International Catechetical Congress, September 27, 2013.


“Old Jesuits,” Pope Francis explained to the Catechetical Congress in the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican, this past Friday, always divide their talks “into three parts.” In fact, practically everything I have read of Pope Francis divides into three parts, like Caesar’s Gaul. This discourse to the catechists is no exception. In his recent interview with the Jesuit editor, the Pope also recalled the famous Jesuit advice to learn to “contemplate in action.” Though he does not neglect times of prayer and solitude, as we see in this discourse, still Pope Francis seems, like St. Vincent de Paul, to be a man eager for action, for getting things moving.

In his exhortation to the catechists, Pope Francis continues his almost relentless attack on those who think that an office or a status is sufficient. Just to have the name or diploma of being a catechist (or a professor, or a vicar, or a bishop) is not enough. “To be a catechist is a vocation.” What really counts is our personal “testimony,” not our titles. This witness is what people watch for. Francis cites Benedict XVI: “The Church does not increase by proselytism but by attraction,” by the attraction of those lives that live the faith. “To be a catechist means to give testimony to the faith.” Francis also cites Francis of Assisi who told his brothers: “Preach, always preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, also with words.” That is, our best “preaching” is not with words but with the witness of our lives. People see the Gospel first in the way we live. That is where they “read” the Gospel.

Obviously, Francis puts a great responsibility on every one who has the faith—the responsibility of passing it on. To be a catechist requires love, always one that is “stronger.” This love comes from Christ. It is a “gift.” We do not concoct it by ourselves. If we think we can, we depart from the love that Christ gives to us. “What does it mean to be a catechist?” the Pope asks. What does it mean for you, “even for me?”

First of all, to go forth from Christ means to be “familiar” with Him. At the Last Supper, Christ loved the apostles with a greater love. He tells them to “remain” in this love. Only if we remain in Christ can we bear fruit. We need to remain present before the Lord. Thus, the first thing for a disciple is to remain with Christ, to learn from Him. It is not enough to have a certificate attesting that we are qualified to teach the catechism. It is not the title, but our attitude that counts.

We need to stand in the “presence” of the Lord. We go before the Tabernacle. What do we say? “I think. I meditate. I feel. I speak.” This may be all very good, but do we ever just let the Lord look at us? “The Lord watches us. This is a manner of prayer.” How do we do this? It is simple. “Look at the Tabernacle and the Lord will watch us.” We note here that the Pope obviously is referring to Churches in which we can get to the Tabernacle, be there in quietness. This ease of being in a Church is no longer so easy. “Be certain that the Lord looks for us. This is more certain than any certificate.”

The Pope tells of an incident in Rome when a young man came up to him and asked: “Please Father, it is very nice to know you, but I do not believe in anything. I do not have the gift of faith.” What struck the Pope about this explanation was the young man’s awareness that he did not have the “gift” of faith. Faith is not something we conjure up by ourselves. What is one, even the Pope, to say to a young man who knows that he does not have the “gift” of faith? We forget about the two way street we live in. It is not just that we look for God, but that God looks for us, still at His own pace, as it were. So the Pope tells the young man: “Do not be discouraged. The Lord wishes you well. Let yourself gaze on Him. Nothing more.” By any reading, this is a remarkable response. This advice too is what the Pope gives to all of us.

Francis recognizes that things are not so easy. How can we sit round and have the Lord look for us? Many are married and have children. It is difficult to have long “calm” moments. But we do not have to do everything in “the same way.” In the Church, we find a variety of vocations and a variety of forms of spirituality. Vincent de Paul, as I noted in the beginning, said much the same thing. We do not need to do everything “in the same way.” The important thing is to find some way of “standing” before the Lord. This can be done in “any state of life.” So Francis does not forget the classical teaching that behind our activities, we must have contemplation, silence. This seemingly activist Pope recalls the lessons of Benedict of Nursia. “Do I have any moments in which I remain in the presence of the Lord, in silence, in love, in tenderness?” If these are not in our hearts, “how is it possible that we, poor sinners, can re-enflame in our hearts the love of others?”

Francis then says to the assembled catechists: “Think about these things.” This Pope, as his predecessors, seems bent on teaching us how to pray and, indeed, how to think about these things.


If the first step is to “stand before the Master,” the second is to imitate Christ in going out of ourselves and meeting others. This advice reflects the Dominican motto, to pass on to others what we ourselves have first contemplated in our hearts through study and silence. To do this is also “a beautiful experience—and a little paradoxical.” To be true to ourselves we have to go out of ourselves. The faith itself contains this direction. In an age in which everything is centered on our rights, our pleasures, our freedom to do whatever we want, to talk about taking the faith to others seems odd. Are we not impinging on others?

Yet, we are to receive the faith as a gift and this, not without God’s help. We are to give it to others. “God is always the center.” But He leads us to community, to others. We do what the Lord does. We go out of ourselves to encounter others. This is always the dynamism. We look to Christ, go out to others. We are conscious that we have received, not earned, the gift of faith, that gift we bring to others. As St. Paul said, “the love of Christ urges us on.” But it first must mean that this love “possesses” us.


Thus, we are “closed” beings if our love does not urge us out of ourselves. This indeed is what the modern world is, how it views itself as closed in itself with nothing allowed from the outside. This going out of ourselves brings us to the third aspect of our faith. We should have no fear of doing what we are asked by the Lord to do. These words of Scripture “fear not” were often invoked by John Paul II—“Have no fear!” Francis recalls the story of Jonah in the Old Testament to illustrate his point. Jonah was a man who was told to go to a place to which he did not want to go. So he tried to stay home and escape, but God had other plans which, in the end, brought him to the city, Nineveh, where he did not want to go. Because he made it there, contrary to his own will, the city was saved. We need to go out of our own little “scheme” of how the world ought to be and recognize that God has His own plan.

What are we being taught here? We are not to be afraid to go out from our own “circumstances to follow God, because this is what God always does.” If we go to the “periphery,” to the limits of our civilization, we will find God there before us. God is not “rigid.” We too are to be “creative.” Yet, we are to be ready to “change.” Why? To adopt the circumstances in which we can announce the Gospel. If we simply are quiet about what we believe, we are “like a statue.” The Pope tells us that he has said these things many times before. We are not to be enclosed in “our group, in our movements, in our parish, in an ambience where we remain closed.” We should have the courage to risk going out of ourselves.”

Jesus did not say: “’Go forth, arrange things.’ No, He said, ‘Go forth, I am with you. This is our beauty and our force.’” God always “firsts” (primerea) us. He is always there before all else. He is the First and the Last. The Pope tells us that in his diocese of Buenos Aries, there were children who did not even know the Sign of the Cross. When this happens, it is an “outskirt” that is calling us to teach them. “And Jesus is there to help children learn to make the Sign of the Cross.” So Pope Francis tells us to be before the Tabernacle and know how to make the Sign of the Cross. The Pope’s final words to the catechists are eloquent: “Remain with Christ, strive always to be one with Christ, imitate Him in His movements of love, in His going out to meet man, in having the courage to go out into new streets to announce the Gospels.”

I have spent some time on this short exhortation of Pope Francis. We know from a new book, Bergoglio’s List, that this man, this Pope, was a genuine hero during the absolutism in Argentina. He says many startling things. But at bottom, he wants everyone to know what the faith teaches. And if a young man does not have the “gift of faith,” he is not turned away, but told to “look at the Lord. Nothing more.” Some things evidently are only in God’s hands. We are to let Christ gaze on us, to go out to others, and to have no fear.

The Pope, if we read him carefully, is not ignorant of the many obstacles that are out there in the world that make most efforts to do what he urges almost impossible to achieve. Still he is not deterred. Like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis seems to have bigger fish in mind than teaching the Sign of the Cross. But we begin there. There is a certain restlessness about Francis that does not see Islam, the liberal secularists, the Chinese, the Hindus, or much else as an insurmountable obstacle. He says of himself that he is sometimes “naïve,” yet when we see how extraordinary it is that modern popes remain in the center of world attention, we wonder. Pope Bergoglio is initially more concerned with rousing the faithful to see and live in what they are given in faith. He sees much stagnation in Christian souls that he challenges.

Sometimes one is almost exhausted in imagining the feverish activity that the Pope sees as necessary. Yet, the Lord is “first.” While Francis seems almost overly communal at times, in this exhortation he is careful to begin with each one of us before God, not telling God what we think. We are, as it were, waiting for instructions and inspiration. Needless to say, though he is aware of them, this approach bypasses all the evidently “central” issues of politics and economics to re-establish what is really “first.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).