Monday, April 16, 2007

"Why Did God Make You?"

For more than a few readers, this should bring back some memories....

For close to a century, the definitive text of religious instruction in the United States (and much of the rest of the Anglophone world) was the revered Baltimore Catechism, legislated by the US bishops at the Third Plenary Council of 1884. Its Q&A format ingrained its way into the minds of generations of Catholic schoolkids, most of whom could probably, despite the passage of decades, still reel off answer after answer.

Though the Baltimore text fell into disuse after the Council and the subsequent publication of updated catechetical materials, its effectiveness is clearly visible in the set-up of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prepared under the watchful eye of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI. The Compendium -- which has been a publishing hit since its 2005 release -- was recently joined on the shelves by the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, the first catechetical text issued by the US bishops since the Baltimore Catechism.

As the nation's Catholic educators gathered last week in the Premier See, the US' foundational document of learning the faith was duly celebrated:
As a practical guide to theology, the Baltimore Catechism ruled English-speaking Catholic religious education until the mid-1960s, when its question-and-answer approach to sacred belief was undermined by other teaching methods.

But the little book never disappeared completely from the minds and emotions of those who memorized its content.

"There was a real reverence that accompanied it," said Sister Bernice Feilinger, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism and later taught it at St. Michael Parochial School in East Baltimore. "We were proud we knew the catechism's answers. You will still hear people today recite its sentences."

Abromaitis, the Loyola English professor, said that she had kept her own prized copy of a 1950s Baltimore Catechism preserved by wrapping it in aluminum foil. She had the text from her days at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Roland Avenue.

"It doesn't get any more terse than this," she said yesterday from her Anneslie home, recalling a celebrated sentence within the catechism that poses the question, "Why did God make you?"

Baltimore is the oldest U.S. archdiocese. And American bishops at the third Plenary Council, which met in Baltimore in 1884, called for the creation of what became known as the Baltimore Catechism. The book, despite its name, was not actually printed in Baltimore.

The textbook, with its familiar question-and-answer format, was first published the next year. It was used through the early to mid-1960s, when other materials began to replace it, said officials with William H. Sadlier Inc., sponsors of yesterday's event and a longtime publisher of the book.

While the book disappeared largely by the 1970s, it still finds favor with home-schoolers and Catholics who favor its traditional teachings.

"The book is often reprinted by parents who are disturbed by the liberal bent of the catechizing of their children and are upset by the nontraditional approach that flighty religious educators have taken since the 1960s," said the Rev. Michael Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester.

Wuerl said the catechism "is a symbol of the great connectedness of the church in the United States."

"It's part of the passing of faith. ... It reminds us that we are part of a much bigger reality."

Keeler said the catechism was used throughout the English-speaking world.

He recalled studying the catechism from elementary school through high school "with the patience of the sisters who taught us many, many years ago" in Pennsylvania.

Though children memorized the catechism in earlier grades, "later on it was a question of understanding," he said.
I was on the phone the other day with friend whose education coincided with the sea change in catechesis and, as a result, got to experience the old and the new of the religious education coin.

When the subject of the Baltimore came up, he had this memorable quote to offer: "Look, it wasn't perfect, it had its flaws, but it fulfilled its purpose.... And it was surely more useful than making dioramas."

Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun