Editor’s note: The following column is the first in a monthly series being published about the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
When I served as pastor at a busy suburban parish in the 1990s, it was not unusual to meet weekly with several couples preparing for the sacrament of matrimony. Like most priests, I found this pastoral outreach to couples preparing for marriage to be both joyful and inspiring.
One memorable meeting involved a young man and woman born in the early 1980s; the young woman was a Catholic from our parish while her fiancé was non-Catholic. During our conversation, the man showed an interest in learning more about the Catholic faith so I promised that I would give him a copy of the new “Catechism.” Looking perplexed, the young man asked, “Father, how can a book on the ‘catacombs’ be informative about the Catholic religion?”
How wrong I was to assume that people generally understood what the word “catechism” meant. I would not have guessed that someone would confuse the word “catechism” with “catacombs.”
In fact, prior to the 1990s, when the new “catechism” was introduced, most people born in the 1960s or before would have assumed that “the catechism” referred to the “old Baltimore Catechism,” which was especially popular before the 1960s. What many may not have known was that the “Baltimore Catechism” had its origins in the 19th century when the bishops of the United States came together to address the crisis of faith among the Catholic population that was rapidly growing with new immigrants arriving on our shores, including more than 30 million from Germany, Ireland and Italy.
The “Baltimore Catechism” was the fruit of the final Third Plenary Council of the bishops, who met in the city of Baltimore in the 1880s. In 1885, “A Catechism of Christian Doctrine,” prepared and enjoined by Order of the Third Council of Baltimore, was issued.
Before this, the American bishops met several times between 1829 and 1884 in local church councils. Their deliberations led to the decision to publish this local or regional catechism called the “Baltimore Catechism,” which relied heavily on the “Roman Catechism,” which came out of the Council of Trent more than 300 years earlier.
In preparing the “Baltimore Catechism” for the Church in the United States, the bishops were especially focused on the needs of the immigrants, and the children of the Church in the United States. The bishops’ sentiments echoed those of their predecessors going back to 1829 when they observed: “A catechism shall be written which is better adapted to the circumstances of this Province; it shall give the Christian Doctrine as explained in Cardinal Bellarmine’s Catechism (1597), and when approved by the Holy See, it shall be published for the common use of Catholics” (Decree xxxiii).
The final text of what became the national catechism of the United States, more commonly referred to as the “Baltimore Catechism,” was written by a priest of Newark, N.J., by the name of Msgr. Januarius de Concilio and Bishop John Spaulding of Peoria, Ill.
The “Baltimore Catechism” contained 37 chapters with a question-and-answer format. Most Catholic children who grew up before the 1960s could answer by heart the first six questions of the catechism. Almost all could answer question number six: “Why did God make you?” The answer followed: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”
The 421 questions and answers were chosen with the hope that difficult concepts of the faith could be more easily understood by the whole People of God. The brief questions and answers were meant to be more comprehensible to the average person without being theologically intimidating.
The reason the bishops met in Baltimore was because the Diocese of Baltimore had the distinct privilege of being the first diocese created in the United States under the leadership and influence of Bishop John Carroll, brother of Daniel Carroll, one of five men who signed the Constitution of the United States in 1787. Then, in 1808, when the dioceses of Boston, New York, Bardstown, and Philadelphia were created, Baltimore was raised by the Vatican to the dignity of an Archdiocese.
Most memorable in the history of the Church of Baltimore were the three plenary councils. The first opened on May 9, 1852, with a total of 41 bishops present. The second in 1866 had 46 bishops and the third council in 1884 had a total of 75 bishops. It was the third council that gave us the “Baltimore Catechism” as well as the parochial school system and Catholic University of America, all of which was approved by Cardinal John Gibbons, the ninth bishop of Baltimore, and Pope Leo XIII.
The young man who asked to learn more about our Catholic faith would have learned in reading the new universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church” that beneath the streets of Rome, going back to the days of the first apostles, are the catacombs. Underneath the faith lives of Catholics throughout the United States, even those who don’t realize it, is the influence of the “Baltimore Catechism.”
Our hope and prayer is that the new universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church” published in 1992 will enjoy a much longer life, not only in the United States but in the entire world, throughout the 21st century and beyond.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop.