For over 60 years in the United States, the third Sunday in September has been designated as Catechetical Sunday. On this Sunday we take time to celebrate the work of catechesis in our parish and in the universal Church. Although aptly placed at the beginning of the school year, and often the kick-off date for religious education programs nationwide, this Sunday is so much more than just the Church’s “back to school” celebration.
The word “catechetical” comes from a Greek root meaning “to echo.” Thus, Catechetical Sunday is a call to all of the baptized to renew our commitment to echo the love and life of Jesus to the world. Catechesis is not just the job of a few volunteers, though their work is invaluable to our community; it is the job of all of us.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to walk around with The Catechism of the Catholic Church in our back pockets and read aloud to anyone who will listen (though that might be interesting). The moment of catechesis, isn’t so much a lesson plan or a book, but an encounter with a living person—Jesus, the Son of God. Our faith is a deeply personal and profoundly communal faith. We are called individually by the God who has loved us and created us, and we are all a part of his universal body on earth, called to live and work together in the (sometimes messy) business of life.
In the Gospel from Mark proclaimed on Catechetical Sunday, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” This question is so simple and it could have been answered any number of ways: You are Jesus, the carpenter, the itinerant preacher, the son of Mary and Joseph.
This question comes almost exactly in the middle of the Gospel of Mark—in chapter eight of sixteen chapters. At this point the disciples have heard Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God, preach in the synagogues, speak in parables and verbally spar with the spiritual elite of the day. They have seen him cure lepers, a paralytic man, a deaf man, a blind man and a Greek woman’s daughter. They have witnessed him cast out a multitude of demons, be claimed mentally unstable by his family and friends, calm a storm with a word, walk on water, and go off by himself to deserted places to pray.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” they could have responded, “You are Jesus, the wonder-worker” or “Jesus, the healer” or “Jesus, the one who eats with sinners.” It is Peter who answers: “You are the Christ.” And though we believe with Peter that Jesus is indeed the anointed one, we see only sentences later that even Peter didn’t get it quite right. As soon as Jesus begins to reveal himself as one who must suffer and die, Peter protests and is swiftly rebuked.
Before we can “echo” Jesus through our words and actions, we must know him, and as with any relationship in our lives, this knowing is an on-going, ever evolving process. In the document “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” Pope Benedict XVI reminds us “as an evangelizer, the Church begins by evangelizing herself.”
And so as we look towards a new catechetical year and deepen our own commitment to proclaim Christ, perhaps our first work is to evangelize ourselves. This work of discovering Jesus and naming him in our lives is one which we will never complete, because the Trinitarian God whom we profess can not boxed in by what we think we know. Every day we are given the opportunity to intentionally encounter Jesus—in scripture, in the sacraments, in each other, and from these encounters to deepen and expand our answer to the question Jesus asks of all of us, “Who do you say that I am?”