Tuesday, October 16, 2018

That time when the Pope and I shared a laugh

Today I had a chance to offer my "synod intervention". This is a speech each synod member is invited to present, with a maximum time of 4 minutes. We were asked to prepare ours well in advance (my first draft was finished in June), and then have them approved by the conference of bishops (which the Canadian conference did for mine in the last week of September). Upon arriving in Rome, we registered the text of our interventions with the synod secretariat, so they could arrange the order of the speakers and make sure our intervention would happen on a day when we were discussing parts of the Instrumentum laboris relevant to our personal topic.

Except... on the first day, the Pope told us that we should see our intervention as only a first draft. That we should allow ourselves to be influenced by the discussions going on, and possibly change our intervention. That we should feel free to let the Holy Spirit move.

I was delighted by this, not only because I believe in letting the Holy Spirit move, but because I found the intervention very hard to write. Simply put, the written word is not the same as an oral presentation -- the style and tone are often very different. Also, I had written my original intervention not knowing anything of the dynamics of a Synod, or even who my audience would really be. So I paid close attention to the Spirit, and to the other interventions.

In the end, I decided to re-write my intervention completely. I wanted to speak on catechesis, and that had not changed, but I decided to adopt a less theoretical approach by using a concrete example to illustrate my point (what I've called in the past the "puzzle of faith"). I also decided to risk adding a bit of humour. And it worked! The assembly shared a good laugh, including the Pope!

My intervention was just before the coffee break in the morning, so I had a chance to chat with synod participants over a cappucino. I am pleased to report that not only did they remember the joke, they also remembered the point I was making. One even suggested that Bishop Robert Barron and I collaborate to further develop the point I was making, as Bishop Barron had also spoken about the importance of good catechesis (a fact I referenced in my speech).

Shortly before heading back up to the synod hall, a Cardinal I did not recognize approached me and began to speak of the Youcat catechism published by the Vatican, and he wondered what I thought of it. After all, it was a big seller throughout the world. I replied that, while I appreciated the Youcat and its question-and-answer format, its great weakness is that is does not have a narrative structure. He paused thoughtfully and said he agreed that indeed, it did not. We continued our exchange on the topic, and at one point I admitted that I did not know his name. He apologized for not having worn his nametag, and then said that he was Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna.

Wow. If there is one guy who knows about catechesis, it is him. He was the secretary of the commission that prepared the original version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the late 1980's and early 1990's. That catechism, sometimes called the CCC, is definitely one of the signature contributions to the exposition of the Catholic faith of the past 400+ years. I shared with him about the impact the catechism had on me when it first came out, when I was a young man still asking a lot of questions about my faith. He smiled and said that his time working on the CCC was one of the most significant experiences of his life.

When I get back to the synod hall we still had a few minutes before starting again. The Pope was back at his seat, so I went down just to say hello. He recognized me, shook my hand, broke into a big smile and said (slowly, in English), "If you want to be Pope... you can take it!"

LOL! People have not stopped teasing me since. My point was not to be funny, of course, but to use humour to get a message across. And I think it worked. Several people have asked me for a copy of my synod intervention, something I was not expecting, and an article was even written (in Italian, no less!) about it. So I am happy to share it here for those who are interested. See if you can spot the part that made the Pope laugh.

Putting together the puzzle of faith

My intervention is on the topic of catechesis. I once had a conversation with a young Mormon woman who was in the process of becoming Catholic through the RCIA. She was a catechumen, but she was dissatisfied with the catechesis she was receiving. "We are learning lots of facts, going line by line through the creed for example, but they are not showing us how the facts connect together." She was not criticizing the faith, but the way it was presented. She needed a methodology adapted to her, with some basic starting information to put the whole of the faith in context.

I replied that the Catholic faith was like a jigsaw puzzle, one of those very large puzzles with at least a thousand pieces. The first step is to turn over the pieces to see the image on each one. The individual images don't look like much, but as they are put together a greater picture emerges. To build the image, though, we start by looking for the corner and the edge pieces, so as to build the frame of the puzzle, and then fill it in as we see, over time, where particular pieces fit together. And we often use the picture on the box as a guide put putting those pieces together.

I was born in 1970, and my religious upbringing in the Catholic school system and in our parishes used a new approach to catechesis. I can say it was an abysmal failure. In many cases, it remained too academic, i.e. it just gave us pieces, and no overall picture. It also gave us no starting methodology to build the puzzle ourselves. And often, our catechists left out pieces or tried to introduce others that were foreign to the Catholic image, or refuse to turn some of them over so we could see the true image and not just a grey backside. Thank goodness I had parents well-versed in Catholic teaching, as I do not think the catechesis and Catholic education I had received at my parish and school would have been sufficient. I can see the results among my friends, many if not most of whom no longer practice or even believe.

Based on some previous interventions, it would seem my experience was not unique. We know that there must be more than just an intellectual component to being a disciple, but we must also realise that young people -- and not so young -- have real and often deep questions for which they seek answers. We have heard how a new form of catechesis should follow the questions of young people, as was mentioned by Bishop Barron in his comments on Part I. Of course, with such a huge puzzle -- and life itself generates many questions -- we need to know where to start. We need the corner and edge pieces of the puzzle that give us the framework -- four key questions, you might say -- and we need an overall picture to help guide us as we build that puzzle.

The Holy Father has invited us to speak boldly. In that case, let me say that if I was Pope -- I know I'm not, and rest assured, you Holiness, I am not after your job -- but if I was, I'd write an encyclical on the 4 basic questions I believe constitute the corners and edges that anchor the puzzle. These questions are:

  • Who is God?
  • If God is good, why is there evil in he world?
  • If God is good but there is evil in the world, what has God done about it?
  • If God is good but there is evil in the world and God is doing something about it, how can we be part of it?

It is my conviction that these questions haunt the heart of every person, religious or not, and that the Christian faith can give a complete answer to those questions. God is love, the tragedy of sin, the drama and beauty of salvation history, and the call to vocation. In other words, start with the answers to those questions, and every other question falls into place. The picture on the box is revealed. It does not exempt us from building the puzzle ourselves, as no two people will notice the same patterns in exactly the same order, as our life experiences are different. But we'll know where to start and how to finish, and if we make a mistake we can more easily correct it without confusion.

It is my hope that this Synod will propose a renewal of catechesis that includes an approach respectful of individual questions but which also helps guide young people on their journey of "building the puzzle".

Thank you for your attention.


  1. Excellent Bishop Tom. My prayer that young people and not so young people- can see with clarity the need to "building this puzzle". And I will be a number 1 fan on praying for you to write this encyclical!💖🙏

  2. If the Pope wants help with it I'm there!

  3. A votre retour à Montreal je vous offrirai un petit livre: Parlez-nous de Dieu. Le nihil obstat est du Cardinal Schonborn


  4. I love the analysis and agree, answering those questions, would bring people back to or even to the church. Travel safe!

  5. Your cousin Sabine passed on your blog post and it is perfect. Thank you for listening to the Holy Spirit and being bold in your proclamation. I help to form the very young in our parish (grade 2) for all their sacraments, and hope to use what you've shared in further developing my program.

  6. Great job, as always. Interesting that the pope said that you could take his job. Not sure that he was joking. He is most likely overwhelmed, and would welcome your assistance.

  7. I was very sad and disappointed to hear from my 2 teen kids have both decided they no longer practice being a Catholic, no longer pray, or even believe in God (happened after my sister passed away). After all the hard work helping them through FaithEd classes in our Church for 6 years and teaching them from very young age about God, Jesus, Virgin Mary and Holy Spirit, it breaks my heart to hear of their choice. I pray they will come back to follow the Lord and hopefully continue our tradition of being Catholic. Thanks for your amazing blog and keep up the good work. Take care Bishop Dowd. Happy Holidays!