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Interview with James Pauley for 2016 Liturgy Symposium

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The following is an interview conducted with Dr. James Pauley of Franciscan University on liturgical catechesis. Dr. Pauley will speak at the Center for Liturgy’s 2016 Symposium on Liturgy and the New Evangelization at the University of Notre Dame from June 20-23, 2016.

T.O.: What do you see as the social and cultural obstacles to carrying out liturgical catechesis in the present age?

J.P.: In her recent books, MIT professor Sherry Turkle questions the impact of too much personal investment in modern communication media (texting, social media, etc.) upon our capacity for cultivating substantial and genuine friendships. Contending that the more we expect from technology the less we expect from each other, she highlights the need for solitude and time away from devices, so that we can sufficiently gather ourselves to reach out and form real connections with others.  At the risk of alienating myself from the Millennials I teach, I inquire with them not only about these effects on interpersonal relationships, but also whether our capacities for contact with God are likewise weakened. I am always renewed by how deeply discussions such as these resonate with my young adult students. Perhaps paradoxically, as we develop our capacity for solitude, the interiority required for real receptivity and self-donation in corporate liturgical prayer is strengthened. Effective liturgical catechesis hinges on the meeting with God in liturgy – and becomes all the more challenging if we are unable to truly give ourselves to this encounter.

Second, today’s consumerist mentality tests us all – and when liturgy’s value is measured by its ability to cause us to feel inspired or close to God, problems will arise. Many today cease living a sacramental life because they are bored, experience dryness or are not “feeling fed” in the sacraments. Liturgical catechesis is important to helping us become more deeply rooted in what liturgy is, a work of love wherein we offer ourselves and every aspect of life to the Father through Christ’s self-offering, in the Holy Spirit. This sacrifice of love is all the more true and beautiful when we don’t immediately recognize the “return on the investment”(forgive the consumerist phrase).  Of course, God gives himself to us in liturgy in an infinitely more marvelous fashion – and sometimes this gift may be perceived and other times it is not. Liturgical catechesis is particularly challenging at times when those we teach are indifferent to liturgy, and vitally important to strengthening their resolve for these stretches.

I see the defining concern shared by most catechists today revolving around how few parents see themselves as integral to the faith formation of their children. Whatever a catechist is able to contribute through liturgical catechesis, it is a distant second to the influence that any parent exercises. The need has never been greater for the evangelization and catechesis of adults to be the most important formative work of a parish – and for a culture to be sustained within our parishes and families that reflects this priority.

T.O. What is the role of the catechist in renewing the liturgical life of the Church? The liturgist in renewing the catechetical life?

J.P. The catechist conveys – as both a teacher and a first-hand witness – that the encounter with God in liturgy is the summit and the font of the whole Christian life. If liturgy is what the Church says it is, its radiant influence should permeate every aspect of catechesis. Drawing upon liturgical sources and orienting our teaching towards the cultivation of desire for God in liturgy are important objectives. Ultimately, liturgical catechesis is best envisioned as a mentoring process, an apprenticeship, in how to find God in liturgy and how to live in continuity with what we have encountered. Liturgical renewal today depends upon such a formation for our people.

On the other hand, liturgists play a key role in not only catechetical renewal but also the New Evangelization. I often ask catechist-participants in my workshops and classes what it would be like to prepare catecheses for people who are being progressively transformed through a rich and vibrant sacramental life. What would happen within our catechetical gatherings if those we teach could verify what we say of the sacraments in their own experience of parish life? Of course, this is lived in some parishes and the catechesis is wonderfully impacted! Those involved in planning liturgies have a tremendous opportunity to plan liturgies that are beautiful, that offer clear access to the power of the Paschal Mystery and the transformative presence of God. As this happens, the New Evangelization will gain needed momentum.

T.O. How did you become interested in liturgical catechesis?

J.P. My initial awakening—as a teenager—to the goodness of God didn’t happen on a retreat, in a youth group, at a conference, on a mission trip or in the catechetical setting. It happened as I sat in the very back of my parish church during the Holy Thursday liturgy. Our pastor had invited us to pray the Triduum liturgies, and an inner need drew me. The liturgy was beautiful and well celebrated, with those around me praying from great depths of faith.  Something in me began to open to God. By the time I stepped out of the church that night, I had had my first conscious experience of encounter with God and I knew I had to somehow respond. I stayed with the Lord in quiet prayer deep into the night and later began to wonder what this meant for my life. It was the beginning of a new relationship and a great adventure.

I found out quickly that this experience needed to grow roots if it was to influence me over the long term. Likewise, over the years, I have seen many good people and dear friends moved by the power of encountering God in the sacraments – and I have seen many of them fall away due (at least in part) to a lack of understanding and sustained conviction. These experiences have brought me to see just how dependent our long-term desire for God is upon sacramental understanding.

Academically speaking, my study of the 20th century’s liturgical and catechetical renewal movements has only galvanized my interest in working towards a flourishing evangelistic liturgical catechesis. Writers such as Josef Jungmann, SJ, Cipriano Vagaggini, OSB, Virgil Michel, OSB, and Sofia Cavalletti wrote persuasively on the intersection of liturgy and catechesis and are some of my intellectual heroes.

T.O. What models of liturgical catechesis do you see as essential for our age?

J.P. There are several models and influences that have much to recommend to us today.

First, Sherry Weddell’s book, Forming Intentional Disciples, has provided the impetus for many pastors and parish leadership teams to rethink the evangelistic identity of the parish. In this book, she describes five “thresholds of conversion” through which most of us travel to arrive at a life of “intentional discipleship:” trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, intentional discipleship. There is much momentum today for models of evangelization and catechesis that focus on small group or personal discipleship, so that individuals might be better accompanied through these thresholds. Rather than attempting to more generically teach a group of 20 or 200 at a time, the discipleship approach promotes a more personal and (in my opinion) more effective accompaniment through these thresholds. Such approaches are consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on “apprenticeship” within sacramental preparation and mystagogy. Employing a discipleship model, liturgical catechesis then becomes an opportunity to be mentored by those who have experience in meeting and giving themselves to God in liturgy, receiving his grace and living a life in cooperation with this grace.

Second, if there is an objective change in our souls that results from sacramental grace, a neophyte process becomes a logical necessity. Whether a newly married couple, a newly ordained priest or a recently confirmed teenager, supernatural capacities are now objectively present which were not before and the neophyte needs assistance in identifying and cooperating with the gift of God. Just as the bishop would meet with the newly initiated after the Easter Vigil in the Patristic era to help them learn how to live in the new life they have received, a focused mystagogical catechesis is a great need for those who receive the sacraments today. The neophyte model relies heavily on the Church’s theological understanding of the sacraments and their effects. Additionally, though, genuine witnesses are needed who can describe from their own experience how to identify and draw upon the graces received, so that a new way of living might be discovered.

Third, there is much that is helpful to catechists from the work of Sofia Cavalletti, founder of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In particular, she writes eloquently of the encounter with God that is possible in catechesis as well as the absolute necessity of evoking and sustaining wonder and awe before the Mystery in catechesis over the long term. Many of the ideals and strategies described by Cavalletti could be applicable no matter the age of those being formed or models being employed.

Finally, a relatively new model of children’s catechesis, called “Come Follow Me,” also has tremendous potential today. Originating in the secular institute of Notre Dame de Vie (Our Lady of Life) founded in the south of France by the soon-to-be Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, OCD, this model of children’s catechesis is being translated into English and has immense potential to prepare children for a rich life in Christ. Having seen the materials and observed the catechesis both in France and here in the U.S., I deeply respect this approach and the authentic life of prayer lived in the institute from which it springs.

There is still time to register for the Center for Liturgy’s Symposium on Liturgy and the New Evangelization.