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Attack and Counterattack

May 25, 2006

"Why is there so much hatred of the Church?" a young man asked me as I was making my way into the sacristy of St. Patrick's Cathedral some weeks ago after the 7:30 a.m. Mass.

"What do you mean?" I replied, somewhat taken aback by his rather stark inquiry.

"I mean the hatred you see on every side," he announced. "Someone draws an unflattering cartoon of Mohammed that causes street riots in Europe; and our newspapers will not show it to their readers 'out of respect,' we are told. A movie is made about the passion and death of the Lord; and the radio, television, and print media get all bent out of shape about whose feelings might be hurt. But when a film with no basis in anything but nonsense and anti-Catholicism is about to appear in our theaters, the media cannot stop hyping it up. 'It's a must-see.' 'Don't miss it.' 'It will be the show of the century.' "

"This is nothing new," I observed. "Those who control the culture do not like what we believe and teach. They will abandon their bigotry only when we abandon the Gospel and embrace their ways. Unfortunately, my friend, there is little that can be done about the dyed-in-the-wool anti-Catholic who will both rejoice in the film that angers you and promote it with delight. What we can do, however, is form our people in the faith with greater dedication and effectiveness, so that they will not be put in danger by manifest trash. And we need to start with our young people."

With that, I invited the young man to sit down with me in the area behind the main altar of the cathedral and told him, perhaps in overmuch detail, about a program of more intensive training in the faith for our children that is soon to be launched in the Archdiocese of New York. With remarkable patience, he heard me out; and I dare to hope that my reader will do the same.

In the parishes of the Archdiocese, in addition to the 110,000 youngsters in our Catholic schools, over 115,000 are enrolled in what we have come to call parish catechetical programs. They are courses in Catholic faith, morality, and spirituality provided to public school children throughout the academic year by no less than 10,000 almost totally volunteer teachers known as catechists.

To assist the catechists in their crucially important and marvelously generous work, the Archdiocese has in place an Office for Catechesis, staffed by religious women and men and lay women and men under the direction of Sister Joan Curtin of the Congregation of Notre Dame. The Office oversees the efforts of three groups of devoted teachers of the faith.

The first of these groups is the Directors and Coordinators of Religious Education in each of our parishes. They are women and men who have been especially trained in the Religious Studies departments of Catholic colleges and universities or in such free-standing institutions as our own Archdiocesan Institute of Religious Studies on the campus of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.

The duties of the Directors and Coordinators are similar to those of the principal of a school or the dean of a college or university department. They see to it that the curriculum of faith formation approved by the Archdiocese is followed. They handle such matters as the location and hours of classes in their parishes, the materials that are to be made available to the catechists, and relations with the parish clergy and the children's parents and guardians. All are women and men of extraordinary commitment to the Lord, His Gospel, and His Church.

The Directors and Coordinators are aided in their work by eight Regional Directors of Catechetics, who have their offices in eight communities of the Archdiocese from Ulster County in the North to Staten Island in the South. They are the second group with which the Office for Catechesis relates. All are experienced catechists, former Directors of Religious Education, and fully degreed in Religious Studies. They constitute the essential lines of communication between Sister Joan and her staff on the one hand and the parish catechists, Directors, and Coordinators on the other. And with each having around 50 parishes in their care, they are "on the go" from morning to night.

Finally, the Archdiocesan Office for Catechesis serves the young people in parish catechetical programs not only through highly developed theological and pedagogical preparation for catechists, Directors, and Coordinators, annual catechetical congresses, and ongoing training sessions throughout the year particularly for catechists, but also through regular visits to the catechists in their classes, encouraging them, guiding them, and praying with them as well. For this third group of "heralds of the Gospel," as I like to call them, the staff of the Office for Catechesis spares no effort; and for this the catechists tell me everywhere I go how truly and deeply grateful they are.

Over the past two years, there has been a good deal of discussion in the parishes of the Archdiocese about what needs to be done to strengthen the faith formation of young people attending public schools. Curiously, the various consultations that were occasioned by the recent realignment of parishes made this discussion more focused and intense. It became clear that clergy and laity alike wanted to see progress in the area of catechetics, and the result is a new thrust in parish catechetical programs that was developed by the Office for Catechesis and will be initiated in a kind of experimental phase this coming September.

In briefest terms, 10 percent of the parishes of the Archdiocese will begin a program of parish catechetics in the fall as a "pilot project." The parishes will be chosen because of their location and the particular problems that a more intense catechetical effort will occasion in parishes serving particular ethnic groups, parishes in cities, parishes in rural areas, and such. For all there will be at least 30 sessions per year, with each session lasting 90 minutes. The sessions will be scheduled from the beginning of September to the end of June. In addition, in each parish there will be five hours per year of what is known as "family-centered" catechesis, as developed under the direction of the Archdiocesan Office for Catechesis for the various age-groups in each parish.

There will thus be a total of 50 hours per year of catechetical formation for the children in our parish catechetical programs for all parishes beginning in September of 2007. By then, thanks to what we will have learned from the "pilot project" throughout this coming academic year, we will be in a position to offer a more thorough and more effective religious education for our youngsters. And while all of this was under study long before the recent anti-Catholic film came on the scene, for those who see such expressions of bigotry as dangerous assaults on the faith, our new program will hopefully be viewed as a step toward a response to the assaults, the kind of response that one would expect from a Church that is alive, energetic, and above ugly and useless confrontations with those who, for whatever reasons, hold our beliefs in contempt.

This coming Friday morning, when I have finished the 7:30 Mass in the cathedral, I hope and pray to see the young man who approached me some weeks ago about his concern over "hatred of the Church." I will ask him if he saw the movie that so worried him; and if he did, I will inquire whether it was as tedious, silly, and garbled as so many have reported. Finally, I will invite him to consider becoming a catechist in his parish; and I will explain that in so doing he will be answering Hollywood's most recent attack with a counterattack that will do unlimited good here and hereafter.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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