Getting to the Heart of Eucharistic Catechesis: Content and Witness Key to Teaching Youth

Catechesis have proven most effective when the right content is combined with clear witness to the reality that this content conveys.

REVERENCE SPEAKS. Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass in 1994.
REVERENCE SPEAKS. Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass in 1994. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano/Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)
Catechesis begins in the head but must also integrate the heart and soul — something that is especially true in teaching the faithful about the Eucharist.

For this reason, a call for more effective catechesis might be a good initial response to the July 23 Pew study that shows that only a third of all Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but such a response must take into account not only what needs to be taught but also how and when it should be taught.

In teaching the Eucharist to young children, high-school students or college students, recent efforts in catechesis have recognized this fact — and have proven most effective when the right content in teaching the Eucharist is matched by a clear witness to the reality that this content conveys.

Thus the faithful must not only know that when the priest utters the words of consecration at the altar the bread and wine become Christ truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, but they must also grow in devotional and liturgical witness to the reality of the Real Presence.

Put simply by some of the best teachers in Church history, learning about the Blessed Sacrament must necessarily involve a life of faith dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI  preached in a general audience, “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.”

Those words were quoted frequently throughout the papacy of Pope John Paul II, but they were elaborated upon greatly in his 1979 apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in Our Time).

“Catechesis is intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity,” John Paul II writes, “for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of human beings.”


Crisis in Catechesis

Yet, a decade later, John Paul II recognized what many who had attended Catholic schools or CCD programs in the 1970s and 1980s could attest to — and the Pew study has now confirmed: that catechesis was not up to the challenge of integrating faith taught with faith lived.

Accordingly, when John Paul II issued his call for a New Evangelization in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), he did so acknowledging that “entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel.”

In answering this challenge, nearly 20 years later, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued its “Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High-School Age,” the U.S. bishops took a major step forward in renovating catechesis for U.S. Catholics.

Serving as a mandate for content in high-school catechetical textbooks, “Framework” requires that all high-school textbooks are submitted to a process of review that ensures they reflect a core curriculum solidly grounded in the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and that they explicitly state that the “Eucharist in the Catholic Church is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ” and that “reception of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is a statement of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and of unity with all Catholics throughout the world.”

Laura Ehrhardt is marketing director for the Midwestern Theological Forum (MTF), a Catholic nonprofit publisher of liturgical and catechetical materials, including its popular Didache catechetical textbook series. According to Ehrhardt, the USCCB’s “Framework” is a great boon to the Church in the U.S.

For religion textbook publishers, she said, the document “tightens the playing field. There won’t be books approved that are watered down or lacking in appropriate theology.”

“So a focus on the truths of the Eucharist,” she said, “for example on the meaning of transubstantiation, is going to be in all the publishers’ books. It has to be.”


Lessons in Wonder

Yet efforts are also underway to provide catechesis on the Eucharist in all its richness without the use of textbooks at all — at least among the very young.

According to Maggie Radzik, a teacher at St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, the first step toward a Eucharistic faith begins even before the age of reason. Radzik is one of about 6,000 teachers who have adopted the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program to form children in the faith. Each CGS catechist establishes an “Atrium” within the classroom — a place of discovery for students, which includes models and figurines (including a miniature altar complete with paten and chalice) as a way to encourage the child to discover the Eucharist through role-playing.

CGS was developed by Catholic educators, Italians Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, in 1954 as an offshoot of the pedagogy of another Italian Catholic, Maria Montessori, who stressed wonder and play rather than academic rigor in the early education of the child.

According to Radzik, early childhood years do not need facts and figures to learn about the faith so much as an environment to foster wonder, such as the CGS atrium provides.

“When 7-year-old Tommy [having reached the age of reason] goes to open the door and finds a dragon behind it, he’s fascinated,” she said, citing G.K. Chesterton’s famous illustration of childhood wonder, “but when 3-year-old Tommy opens the door he’s just so happy to be able to open the door.”

For this reason, children in the CGS program are taught first about the Eucharist.

“We don’t begin at Genesis with these children,” she said. “They don’t need to know the Fall — they haven’t experienced the Fall yet. They’ve just been baptized and they’re living in that grace. Instead, as Cavalletti says, we go right to the heart of the matter: the Eucharist. We instruct the young child that the Good Shepherd is calling them by name and longs to be with them forever. How does he do that? By the Eucharist.”

But when parents see their children accepting belief in the Real Presence, she added, they see a truly Eucharistic faith, which inspires them in turn to learn more about their faith.

“When the adult is there side by side with the child and we make that simple statement that Christ is present in the Eucharist, no child questions it. Instead, they receive it,” Radzik said. “The joy they have in his presence is what adults are missing.”

This same model of integration is also central to learning about the Eucharist in high school, says Dominican Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, vicaress general of the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. Sister Anne Catherine served as an educator, including 10 years as principal of St. Cecilia Academy, a Catholic high school for girls in Nashville.

As current development director for St. Cecilia’s and Overbrook School, the congregation’s coed elementary school in Nashville, she has seen the Eucharist successfully taught through both CGS, which is part of Overbrook’s curriculum, and the Didache series, used in St. Cecilia’s curriculum.

The Dominican sisters operate about 50 schools around the country, Sister Anne Catherine noted, and in all of them the students are receiving what she and many others of her generation were missing: a solid foundation in Eucharistic catechesis enhanced by what the students receive outside the classroom, as well.

“When you’re teaching kids about the Eucharist, you’re teaching the good doctrine which is in the Didache Series and other good catechetical series,” she said, “but I think it’s also important to be modeling prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, specifically in Eucharistic adoration.”

Both formal catechesis and a cultivation of the devotional life in the Eucharist, Sister Anne Catherine said, are “essential.”

“If we want young people not only to know the truth about Christ but have a living faith that will sustain them in joy and sorrow for the remainder of their life, and get them to heaven, where they’re going to be ultimately happy,” she said, “teach them those truths — but also show them the devotional life.

“These are not just cute little devotional practices you learn when you’re in the second grade; but you are receiving the foundation of the life of faith that’s only going to continue to grow and grow until your dying day.”  The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary outreach recognized this same need to integrate catechetical teaching on the Eucharist among students on secular campuses across the United States. Like the Dominican Sisters, FOCUS also recognizes that formal catechesis must go hand in hand with witness to the Eucharist through a strong devotional and liturgical life.

Terry Bell is FOCUS team director at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), and with Father Billy Dodge, the chaplain at the Roncalli Newman Center on campus, his team seeks to teach the faith through the Eucharist to non-Catholics and to Catholics weak in their faith.

According to Bell, the Pew report doesn’t necessarily represent what he sees on campus regarding the Catholic faith, but he does find Catholics who lack a true understanding of the Eucharist.

“It varies, but the more the person was involved in their faith in their adolescent life, the more they understand that the Eucharist is Christ truly present,” he said. “It depends on how involved they were early on; and if that’s not the case, we usually do all we can in a lot of different ways to help them to get there.”

While FOCUS provides no formal catechetical program, Bell said, the missionaries approach catechesis with a central focus on the Eucharist in three ways: through building mentoring relationships, providing devotional and liturgical witness, and conducting regular Bible studies.

FOCUS’ weekly Bible study program, which Bell calls “the meat and potatoes” of their catechetical efforts, shows students the Eucharist’s solid scriptural basis and “provides students with an intellectual encounter” with Jesus. Bell said that through FOCUS’ catechizing on the Eucharist, many students had come back to the Church or come into the Church.

Derek Edwards graduated from UWL in December 2018 and is now discerning a vocation as an aspirant with the Jamaica-based Missionaries of the Poor, whom he had encountered on a FOCUS missionary trip to Haiti during his time at UWL. Edwards told the Register that he was raised in a non-practicing Lutheran household and entered the Church in high school, but, admitting that he didn’t fully understand the Eucharist even at the time, he became “a little cold” in his faith before attending college. In his freshman year at UWL, Edwards met Bell and the other FOCUS missionaries, who invited him to attend daily Mass, regular Thursday night adoration and weekly Bible studies.

In the Bible studies, Edwards discovered through discussion of the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6:51 that the truth of the Eucharist made sense. “I know many turned away in the discourse because they didn’t want to hear it,” he said. “But in reading this passage, it just made sense to me.” He added, “Why wouldn’t the Eucharist be the Body and Blood of Christ? Jesus said it himself.”

His growing understanding of the Eucharist and his frequent reception, Edwards said, led him to begin discerning a call from God with the Missionaries of the Poor.

“I noticed a radical change in receiving the Eucharist every day,” he said. “I really started having a desire to give my life more to Christ.”

“I was in tune enough to hear the voice of God say to me, ‘Have you ever considered the priesthood or religious life?’” he said, adding that, on a more basic level, he also recognized that he was being called to be “a steward of God’s love. I remember every day, little by little, growing in that love through the Eucharist.”

Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.