The earliest text-book that I remember from my first years in school is The Penny Catechism. My recollection is that it was a small book, both in size and in the number of pages. But it compensated for the smallness in size by the quality of the information it offered.
I remember that it dealt with all religious matters from God and Creation to the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) with a clarity and confidence that left no room for doubt. Its layout was a simple Question and Answer style. Even after many decades, some of the Answers come back to me, and I am left wondering, “What was the Question?”
“About four thousand years” is one Answer that kept coming back to me, but I could not succeed in recalling the Question it answered. I suspected it had something to do with the creation of the world, but I just could not be sure.
Recently I made a lucky strike. Browsing the Internet I was able to locate an old copy of The Most Reverend Dr. James Butler’s Catechism (1821) the forerunner of the Penny Catechism of my early schooldays. The copy must have been badly deteriorated, and large portions were so garbled that it was impossible to decipher them.
In spite of the difficulties, I learned that the Catechism had 69 pages, and that the first Question was, “Who made the world?” But then, wonder of wonders, at the top of page 22, I found what I was looking for: Q. How many years after the fall of our first parents did Christ become man? A. About four thousand years.
I remember always having been impressed by that answer. It was so serenely confident, unchallenged even though it gave no explanation of where that number came from.
The Church allowed that Question and Answer to stand and be taught for more than 100 years before replacing it with n.75 in the revised Catechism of 1951: Did God the Son become man soon after the fall of our first parents? God the Son did not become man for thousands of years after the fall of our first parents. In this way a vague but defensible answer replaced a concise but inaccurate one.
Some people may be troubled at this apparent change in Catholic teaching. But the Church is skilled at maintaining the appearance of unchanging teaching while revising her position in response to new scientific knowledge or changed circumstances and conditions.
I remember an important change in the ordination to priesthood introduced by Pope Pius XII in 1947. In his document Sacramentum Ordinis (Sacrament of Orders), Pope Pius decreed that the ordination of the priest is conferred by the bishop’s imposition of hands on the candidate and speaking the words of the Ordination Preface. This overruled what had been declared by the Council of Florence in 1439 that priesthood is conferred by the bishop giving the chalice with wine and the paten with bread to the person being ordained and saying: “Receive power to offer sacrifice in the Church for the living and dead”.
I was a seminarian at the time of the change, and I remember that it gave a new focus to the ordination ceremony. It relieved the ordaining bishop’s assistants of the duty of ensuring that the candidate’s hands actually made contact with the chalice and paten.
To the majority of people in the Church this momentous change passed unnoticed. But it is a reminder that unchanging teaching is not always what it seems. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that the Church has no authority to ordain women. He closed all debate on the subject by declaring it a definitive teaching (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis May 22, 1994).
In 1870 Council Vatican I defined Papal Infallibility as a divinely revealed doctrine. A substantial majority of the bishops had declared in favor of Papal Infallibility. Some, like Cardinal Newman, believed that the declaration was premature, that the doctrine needed further refinement.
When the Council ended, Newman is reported to have counseled worried Catholics, “Let us be patient, let us have faith. There will be another Pope and another Council”. Newman loyally accepted the Council’s decision, but he did not accept that it had said the last word. We know that the Council of Florence erred in thinking it had said the last word. It is wiser not to claim the last word, but to leave that to God.
The feast day of Corpus Christi was celebrated this year Thursday June 7 or Sunday June 10. Corpus Christi means the “Body of Christ”. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is present in this Sacrament under the appearances of bread and wine.
Corpus Christi was declared a universal feast of the Catholic Church in 1264, following a vision received by a Belgian nun Sister Juliana. Sister Juliana pleaded with her local priest Monsignor Pantaleon to designate a special feast day for the Body of Christ. The priest later became Pope, and as Pope Urban IV he fulfilled her wishes.
The presence of the body of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine takes place during the celebration of Mass. The Mass is the response of the Church to Our Lord who changed bread and wine into his body and blood at the Last Supper, and then added: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22, 19). Since that command more than 2000 years ago, Mass or the “breaking of bread” (Acts of the Apostles 1, 46), has been celebrated in Catholic communities at least every Sunday, and often more frequently.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta had an interesting observation. She said that the Mass is connected with the sufferings and death of Jesus, and that without the tradition of celebrating Mass we would have forgotten the crucifixion. It would have faded into the past, and we would soon have forgotten that God loves us.
Each Mass is meant to send you out with a new awareness that you are loved by God. Unfortunately the simple “breaking of bread” has developed over time into a very wordy and elaborate ritual that has made the Mass a complicated and sometimes boring experience for many people.
The essence of the Mass is that bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ so that you can be sacramentally nourished by the God who loves you. In response to that love you pledge yourself to be more caring towards your brothers and sisters at home and abroad. That is the meaning of Holy Communion, communion with your fellow human beings through your communion with God.
It is important that the words and rituals in the Mass give emphasis to this central meaning, and not obscure it or distract from it. The Mass has a long tradition, and the many changes added over the centuries can actually obscure the meaning of the original simple ceremony. Mother Teresa’s comment is profound, and it also has the virtue of simplicity.
Pope John XXIII once remarked: “Some people make simple things complicated. I like to make complicated things simple”. I like to think that God wants it that way too. Thank you, Pope John XXIII. Thank you, Mother Teresa.