A Book in the Backpack. With the Pope's AutographPOPE BENEDICT XVI
It is the catechism for the very young. It will be launched at the worldwide gathering in Madrid. Benedict XVI is betting on it heavily, and recommending it. "Because it speaks to us of our own destiny," more compelling than a crime novel.
The writing and publication of a Catechism of the Catholic Church was one of the greatest undertakings of the pontificate of John Paul II. But also one of the least understood and appreciated.
While still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger made a decisive contribution to that undertaking.
And as pope, one of his very first acts was, on June 28, 2005, precisely the publication of a Catechism B: the Compendium, a shorter version of the full work, concentrated in 598 questions and answers.
Now Benedict XVI is trying it again. He is preparing to publish a third version of the Catechism, aimed at young people between the ages of 14 and 20, in a language expected to be more suited to them.
The volume is entitled YouCat, short for "Youth Catechism." The project was born in Austria, under the supervision of the cardinal of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn. The original language of the volume is therefore German. Translations into twelve other languages are underway, and will be published gradually in the various countries beginning next March. The Italian edition was edited by the patriarch of Venice, Angelo Scola, and is printed by Città Nuova, the publishing house of the Focolare movement. The grand presentation of YouCat will take place at the World Youth Day scheduled for Madrid from August 16 to 21. On that occasion, each young person will find a copy of the volume in his "pilgrim's sack."
The outline of YouCat is the same as for the main Catechism. First the articles of the "Credo," then the seven sacraments, then the ten commandments, and finally the "Our Father."
The volume will be introduced by a preface by Benedict XVI, in the form of a letter. The monthly Il Messaggero di Sant'Antonio has published it in advance, and L'Osservatore Romano has also done so, on February 2, the closing feast of the Christmas season.
It is a preface of substantial interest, as is often the case for the texts that pope Ratzinger writes himself, in direct language, without holding back.
In it, the pope reviews the creation of the main Catechism, emphasizing the audacity of the undertaking. And he explains why he wanted this new version, aimed at young people.
The success of YouCat is an unknown. But even the main Catechism has so far made only the slightest headway into the body of the Church. The same goes for the Compendium.
In recent decades, the various national Churches have expended a great deal of energy on the production of their catechetical texts, but almost always with criteria far from, if not opposed to, those of the Catechism backed by Wojtyla and Ratzinger. In almost all cases, the results have been disappointing.
The consequence is that today the transmission of Christian teaching to the new generations is one of the most dramatic black holes of the Church's pastoral care.
It is a black hole that acts as a background to the preface written by Benedict XVI for YouCat. For example, where it urges young people to "be much more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents."
It is a preface worth reading through and through. Here it is.
"I Recommend to you the reading of an extraordinay book" by Pope Benedict XVI
Dear young friends!
Today I recommend to you the reading of an extraordinary book. It is extraordinary for its content, but also for the way in which it was composed, which I would like to explain to you briefly so that you may understand its uniqueness.
YouCat took its origin, so to speak, from another work that dates back to the 1980's. This was a difficult period for the Church as for society worldwide, during which the need arose for new directions to find a way toward the future. After Vatican Council II (1962-1965) and in the changed cultural climate, many people no longer knew correctly what Christians should really believe, what the Church taught, if it could teach anything "tout court," and how all this could be adapted to the new cultural climate.
Isn't Christianity as such outdated? Can one still reasonably be a believer today? These are questions that many Christians still ask themselves today. So Pope John Paul II resolved on an audacious decision: he decided that the bishops of the whole world should write a book responding to these questions.
He entrusted to me the task of coordinating the work of the bishops, and of making sure that the contributions of the bishops would give rise to a book: I mean a real book, not a mere juxtaposition of a multiplicity of texts. This book was to bear the traditional title of "Catechism of the Catholic Church," and yet be something absolutely stimulating and new; it was to show what the Catholic Church believes today and how one can believe in a reasonable manner.
I was frightened by this task, and I must confess that I doubted that such a thing could succeed. How could it happen that authors scattered all over the world could produce a readable book? How could men living on different continents, and not only from a geographical point of view, but also intellectually and culturally, produce a text endowed with inner unity and comprehensible on all the continents?
To this was added the fact that the bishops had to write not simply as individual authors, but as representatives of their confreres and of their local Churches.
I must confess that even today, it seems like a miracle to me that this project succeeded in the end. We met three or four times a year for one week, and we passionately discussed the individual portions of text that had been produced in the meantime.
The first thing we had to do was to define the structure of the book: it had to be simple, so that the individual groups of authors could be given a clear task and would not have to force their statements into a complicated system.
It is the same structure as that of this book. This is simply taken from a catechetical experience going back centuries: what we believe, how we celebrate the Christian mysteries, how we have life in Christ; how we should pray.
I do not want to explain now how we grappled with the great quantity of questions, until a real book came out. In a work of this kind, many points are questionable: everything that men do is insufficient and can be improved, and nonetheless this is a great book, a sign of unity in diversity. Starting with many voices, it was possible to form a choir, because we had the common score of the faith, which the Church has handed down to us from the apostles through the centuries up until today.
Why all of this?
Already back then, at the time of the drafting of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," we had to take note that not only are the continents and the cultures of their peoples different, but also within the individual societies there exist different "continents": the laborer has a mentality different from that of the farmer, and a physique different from that of a philologist; an entrepreneur different from that of a journalist, a young man different from that of an elderly man. For this reason, in language and thought, we had to rise above all of these differences, and as it were seek out common ground between the different mental universes. With that, we became more and more aware of how the text required "translations" in the different worlds, in order to be able to reach people with their different mentalities and different problems.
And so I ask you: study the catechism with passion and perseverance! Sacrifice your time for this! Study it in the silence of your room, read it with someone else, if you are friends, form groups and study networks, exchange ideas on the internet. In whatever way, remain in dialogue on your faith!
Since then, at the World Youth Days (Rome, Toronto, Cologne, Sydney), young people from all over the world have met who want to believe, who are seeking God, who love Christ and desire common paths. In this context, we asked ourselves if we must not seek to translate the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" into the language of the young, and make its words penetrate into their world. Naturally, there are also many differences among the young people of today; and so, under the proven leadership of the archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, a YouCat was created for young people. I hope that many young people let themselves be fascinated by this book.
Some people tell me that today's young people are not interested in the catechism; but I do not believe in this statement, and I am sure that I am right. They are not as superficial as they are accused of being; young people want to know what life is really about. A crime novel is compelling because the fate it draws us into is that of other people, but could be our own; this book is compelling because it speaks to us of our very destiny and therefore concerns each of us intimately.
For this reason I invite you: study the catechism! This is my heartfelt wish.
This supplement to the catechism does not flatter you; it does not offer easy solutions; it demands a new life on your part; it presents you with the message of the Gospel like the "pearl of great price" (Matthew 13:45) for which everything must be given. And so I ask you: study the catechism with passion and perseverance! Sacrifice your time for this! Study it in the silence of your room, read it with someone else, if you are friends, form groups and study networks, exchange ideas on the internet. In whatever way, remain in dialogue on your faith!
You must know what you believe; you must know your faith with the same precision with which a programming specialist knows the operating system of a computer; you must know it like a musician knows his piece. Yes, you must be much more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents, in order to be able to resist forcefully and decisively against the temptations of this time.
You need divine help, if your faith does not want to dry up like a drop of dew in the sun, if you do not want to succumb to the temptations of consumerism, if you do not want your love to drown in pornography, if you do not want to betray the weak and the victims of abuse and violence.
If you dedicate yourselves with passion to the study of the catechism, I would still like to give you one last bit of advice: you all know how the community of believers has recently been wounded by the attacks of evil, by the penetration of sin inside, even into the heart of the Church. Do not take this as a pretext to flee from the presence of God; you yourselves are the body of Christ, the Church! Carry intact the flame of your love in this Church every time that men have obscured its face. "Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord" (Romans 12:11).
When Israel was at the darkest point of its history, God called to help not the great and respected persons, but a young man named Jeremiah; Jeremiah felt charged with a mission that was too great: "'Ah, Lord God!' I said, 'I know not how to speak; I am too young'." (Jeremiah 1:6). But God did not let himself be dissuaded: "Say not, 'I am too young'. To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak" (Jeremiah 1:7).
I bless you and pray for all of you every day.
The main edition of the Catechism, from 1992: Catechism of the Catholic Church
The abbreviated edition, in question-and-answer form, from 2005: Compendium
Sandro Magister. "A Book in the Backpack. With the Pope's Autograph." Chiesa.com (February 5, 2011).
Reprinted with permission from Sandro Magister. English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
Sandro Magister manages Chiesa and writes from Rome.
Copyright © 2011 Chiesa