Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


One hundred years on, education in the Faith has always been part of the Church’s mission in Eastern Washington

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the February 20, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)

Holy Names Sister Joan Shea works with young students in religion class in this undated photo. (Courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Names)

As the Diocese of Spokane marks its centennial, this brief article seizes the opportunity to call to mind an aspect of Catholic education which has formed the backbone of the Church’s parochial life even prior to the creation of the diocese on Dec. 17, 1913. That aspect is its catechetical ministry. Some might argue that, next to the celebration of the Church’s sacraments, nothing has done more to mold Catholic identity and culture in the Northwest.

Many an Eastern Washington Catholic – especially those of the grandparent or great-grandparent set – have received instruction in the Faith via the dynamics of a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, more popularly referred to as CCD. For those who could not afford education in a Catholic school or in those many circumstances in which such was an impossibility, the well-known CCD classes carried the torch of Catholic Tradition.

Every parish worth its ecclesial salt held weekly CCD classes, conducted after school, overseen and often taught by the local pastor. A group of very dedicated and prayerful women frequently assisted him, either out of blessed self-sacrifice and generosity or because they were pressed gently into service by a persistent pastor. Rarely is there evidence that any of these catechists were paid or even given a stipend for their service. Yet, they educated generation after generation of Catholic youth in the Faith. Catholic culture supported them: Just as one had to gain at least an eighth grade public education, so, too, the faithful Catholic had to remain under religious instruction until then as well. Youth groups, as we know them today, were a thing of the future.

Because CCD classes claimed such a scant number of hours for education in the faith, many a parish – especially those in rural parts – scheduled two weeks of Summer Vacation School. Women Religious who taught in the diocese’s Catholic schools were assigned (usually in pairs) to those parishes which had requested them. One wonders if these wonderful women of faith ever got much of a break from their school work while they trekked from one assignment to the next. The history of many diocesan parishes includes fond and lasting memories of the Sisters coming in those summer months to teach.

The atmosphere was focused on the omni-present Baltimore Catechism but the influence of these women of faith, intriguing the eyes of the young with their sacred habits, gave birth to several vocations to the Religious life and priesthood. Without a doubt, their sacrificial efforts stoked the fires of faith which still burn in the hearts of God’s people in the diocese.

Few, if any, have realized that the highly organized approach characterized by a question-and-answer methodology of the Baltimore Catechism was the historical child of a dynamic which dated back centuries, to the confraternities of northern and southern Europe. For centuries of Church history, its teaching ministry focused on handing on the essentials of faith, using the Apostles Creed and the Our Father as anchors. Pastors were commanded to teach them on Sundays and Holy days. In time, the content of religious instruction expanded to include the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, virtues, vices, etc. Long before the invention of the printing press, these sacred teachings were collected in manuals, the forerunners of the first catechisms.

The protesting voices of the 16th century produced unique challenges to the Church. The Council of Trent, which was called to meet those challenges, noted that renewal and reform in the Church must begin with the religious education of the young. Trent called for the publication of a catechism – Catechismus ad Parochos – to bring focus, stability and commonality to the teaching ministry of the Church, especially among its young. The book would offer firm guidance to the universal Church for the next four centuries.

The hierarchy and the faithful in Italy, Germany and France caught the spirit of the catechetical reforms of the Council of Trent and set about implementing them. Their efforts gave birth to the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Following the direction of the Council, the Confraternity strove to assure that religious instruction was given on Sundays and festivals. So successful was that effort that in 1571 Pope Pius V recommended that the Confraternity be established in every parish. By 1686 Rome had officially asked that it be established everywhere in the known world. The effort was championed by the likes of Sts. Robert Bellarmine, Francis DeSales and Charles Borromeo.

Similar in tone and purpose – religious instruction for girls and boys – was the Pius Union of Christian Doctrine, founded by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Brussels in 1851. In Brussels, adherents to this catechetical movement were found in about 30 parishes in the years before the Diocese of Spokane was born. From there it spread throughout the Lowlands. In addition to the instructions of the popes to establish Confraternities of Christian Doctrine in every parish, perhaps this additional “push” to religious education provided the background for the many priests from Belgium who were to play such a vital and pivotal role in establishing the Catholic Faith in the Diocese of Spokane.

As they gathered in Baltimore in 1855, the bishops of the United States turned their attention to the dire need for instruction in the Faith on the American scene. Not only did Catholics – many of them immigrants – bear the brunt of prejudice; they stood in need of religious education in a way that solidified the faith and assured its common transmission to the folks in the pew. The bishops called for a common catechism to help meet the challenge. The appeal was repeated at the second convening of the group in 1866. Yet it was not until 1884 that their efforts bore fruit in the publication of the Baltimore Catechism, the first-ever such catechism for Catholics in North America. Its use replaced translations of St. Robert Bellarmine’s 1597 work, Small Catechism.

The Baltimore Catechism was published for use at three levels. Its well-recognized first level was oriented to students from First Communion age through fifth grade. Level No. 2 expanded the systematic presentation of the Faith for students in sixth to ninth grades – in time, it became a tool for preparing students for their Confirmation. A third book presented the Faith for post-Confirmation students and high schoolers. A less-known fourth book served more as a teacher’s manual and resource for advanced questions in the Faith.

No doubt Pope St. Pius X was influenced in childhood by developments in the catechetical field in Italy. He issued a mandate in 1905 that the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine be canonically erected in every parish, providing just the right platform for the universal use of the Baltimore Catechism. His additional 1910 instruction created an even greater need for common learning materials for children preparing for First Communion. The Baltimore Catechism found a home.

Though considered by some bishops as inadequate and imperfect in its presentation, the work became the normative tool for education in the Faith both in Catholic schools and in parish catechetical programs. Wherever the presence of the Church expanded, the Baltimore Catechism and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine went with it. There was little argument over content, style or methodology. The two set a pattern, the impact of which would last for decades. And the bishops of the Northwest would become nationally recognized and honored among their peers for their efforts to establish CCD in every parish, small or large.

The second bishop of Spokane, Charles D. White, established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in the Diocese of Spokane on April 13, 1932. He oversaw its implementation with the firm hand which so characterized his episcopal oversight.

For all practical purposes, the format for instructing children and youth in the Catholic Faith remained unchanged for decades. Its question-and-answer style, the use of charts of stars to mark the achievements of memorization, academic achievement, and classroom methodology were common throughout the Diocese of Spokane until the post-Vatican II era.

Among the 16 official documents produced by the Second Vatican Council is the Declaration on Christian Education (1965) in which the Council Fathers called for a revitalization and reorientation of the evangelization and catechetical ministries of the Church. They also called for the preparation of catechetical tools which would reflect a more experiential approach to the Faith, to balance out the intellectual memorization of its tenets.

The last quarter of a century witnessed rapid changes and developments in the catechetical world. For some they have been troubling and disturbing; for others they have been exciting and life-giving. The dynamics of “experiential catechetics” has fought for its place over mere memorization. Publishers have vied in the publication of attractive, hands-on catechetical books. The laity have largely replaced priests and nuns in the classrooms. Larger parishes have hired a Director of Religious Education (DRE) to oversee a multiplicity of programs.

Like other facets of Church life, its realm of catechetical instruction has known the challenges of the times. A busy and secularized world has taken its toll on the ministry. In the United States, the bishops have offered instruction and guidance. Responding to the Vatican’s publication of a General Directory for Catechesis in 1971, the next year they produced a pastoral message on Catholic education titled To Teach as Jesus Did. A more formal document, Sharing the Light of Faith: National Catechetical Directory for Catholics in the United States, was published in 1979.

Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992 and revised in 1997, has replaced the Baltimore Catechism as normative in the catechetical ministry of the Church, particularly in the United States. Not exactly a “catechism” in the traditional sense of the word – certainly not in the format evidenced in the popular Baltimore Catechism – the volume provides a compendium of Catholic teaching which is the common basis for the development of any national catechisms and/or catechetical works. Catechetical textbooks are available in a variety of presentations. Only those which have made it to the list of acceptable texts maintained by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops may be used in Catholic schools or parish catechetical programs.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects advancements in the Church’s theological tradition, the contemporary understanding of human growth and development, and classroom methodology. In many ways the publication of the 1992 Catechism has put the brakes on a brief period of experiential catechetics and returned the focus of catechetical instruction to the basic tenets of the Faith.


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