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Catequesis: Camino para convertirse en discípulos (Sr. Ivete Holthmam).

18/07/2010: General House - Rome


Catechesis as a Way to Become a Disciple




The source of every journey of faith is the Word of God. We could ask ourselves: What should we do so that those whom we are catechizing attain to the experience of knowing the Lord, become capable of assuming their own faith. That is a long process and includes listening to the Word of God that is heard through the catechists and other forms of theology, of faith. In addition, it includes perseverance on the part of the person.


In order to understand this process better, we are here presenting one of the most luminous biblical stories, the purpose of which is precisely to illustrate the journey of one person to the point of his religious experience, his adult encounter with God .



1 Samuel 3:1-10


If we read this part of the Book of Samuel knowing about the serious religious crisis at the end of the life of Eli, a man of God and a prophet, the passage speaks of the passing on of authority to Samuel.


In order to speak of the preparation, the formation that enabled Samuel to assume this function of religious authority in the midst of the people, the story's author uses the model of master/disciple, a model that can be verified in other passages in Scripture.


Here is the narrative:


  1. The young Samuel thus served (Heb.: sharet) the Lord in the presence of Eli; at that time it was rare that the Lord spoke, the visions were not frequent.
  2. Now one day, Eli was lying in his room, his eyes were beginning to grow weak, and he could no longer see;
  3. the lamp of God was not yet extinguished, and Samuel was lying in the sanctuary of the Lord, there where the ark of God was.
  4. The Lord called: Samuel! He answered: Here I am!
  5. He ran to Eli and said: Here I am, since you called me. - I did not call you, Eli said; go back and lie down. He went to lie down.
  6. The Lord began again to call him: Samuel! He went to Eli and said: Here I am, since you called me. - I did not call you, my son. Go back  and lie down.
  7. Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
  8. The Lord began again to call Samuel for the third time. He got up and went to Eli and said: Here I am, since you called me. Then Eli understood that it was the Lord who was calling the child
  9. and he said to Samuel: Go and lie down and if you are called, you will say: Speak, Lord, for your servant (Heb.: abad) is listening, and Samuel went to lie down at his place.
  10. The Lord came and stood there. He called like the other times: Samuel, Samuel! And Samuel answered: Speak, for your servant (Heb.: abad) is listening.






The relationship master/disciple manifests itself immediately at the beginning of the narrative. “The young Samuel thus served the Lord in the presence of Eli”. The verb that is used here, “served” (sharet) is a technical verb, which is to say a verb that is used to speak of the service that the disciple renders his master. Scripture presents the disciple as the servant of the master. That is what Joshua is called: “the servant (mesharet) of Moses (Ex 24:13; 33:11).


The ideal is to serve the Lord in the presence of the Lord. However, Samuel serves the Lord in the presence of Eli. He has not yet reached the maturity to understand that one must serve the Lord in the presence of the Lord. So we are faced with a relationship of master/disciple which became fundamental for the NT. The four gospels will speak of this relationship, and the verb used is always the verb “to serve”.


Samuel serves the Lord in the presence of Eli. He is Eli's disciple, and Eli is his master. What is Eli's task? To prepare Samuel so that he will reach religious autonomy and be able to serve the Lord in the presence of the Lord. In today's language, we would say that Eli is the catechist, and Samuel is the one who is being catechized.


As the master, the catechist of Samuel, what must he do? His task is to pass on the whole history, culture, tradition, the customs to Samuel so that Samuel can reach religious maturity; this will happen when he identifies himself with all of these elements. That is formation, that is catechesis, that is the disciple's path.


The story continues: “At that time it was rare that the Lord spoke.” Speaking theologically, the reason the Lord spoke little means a crisis. There is a problem in the relationship between God and the people, which is to say infidelity. The same thing happens when there is a crisis between persons; the tendency is to close oneself. That is the human condition. The author uses the same model in order to speak of the relationship community/divinity. The voice of the Lord was no longer heard and consequently, “the visions were not frequent”, the vision of God only came from time to time. That also designates a crisis. The narrative continues by saying: “Eli's eyes were beginning to grow weak”. It is natural that an old man has difficulty seeing. But that is not what the author wants to say. We are not dealing with a problem of eye sight. Eli is a man of God, a priest, the one who in Israel's midst represents religion. If he is beginning to be blind, the author wants to say that Eli is beginning to enter into spiritual blindness regarding theology and faith. That is to say, the relationship between God and the people is not in good condition. Israel's religious life is fragile. Here is another image to show the problem: “the lamp of God was not yet extinguished”. It is a wavering lamp, it is weak and almost at its end. The Word had not left life, the dynamism of values is feeble. However, there is still a small flame that is burning at the heart of the community, there is still someone with faith, hope. In this context, the one who is going to put oil, a new wick  into this lamp will enter onto the stage. He is going to make the Word of God illumine the present-day reality and continue to act in the midst of the people.


Independently of the crisis, Eli is still carrying out his function as master, since he must form his successor. A new leader is needed.


Samuel was a disciple, an apprentice; he lived with his master in the sanctuary. His parents had brought him there as soon as he was weaned. His mother, Anne, was sterile; once she went on pilgrimage to Shiloh where she prayed to the Lord asking for a child. If God heard her, if God gave her a son, she would consecrate him to the Lord's service for his entire life. And that is why Samuel was entrusted to the care of Eli, a priest in the sanctuary. That is why the author says: “Samuel was lying in the sanctuary of the Lord, there where the ark of God was”, so in the presence of God who calls him three times.


First call

The first time, Samuel “ran to Eli and said: Here I am, since you called me. - I did not call you, Eli said; go back and lie down.” In fact, it is God who calls him, but he hears the voice of the master. What does the author want to show? That the voice of God comes through the voice of the master or of our parents, educators, catechists, etc. He wants to say that all Samuel has as religion, theology, catechesis comes from his master. Years and years of listening, of sharing, of service. That is the path that will lead to independence, to religious autonomy, whence he will go on to hear the voice of God. That is the preparation through which he has to go.


Second call

The second time he hears God's call, the same thing happens. When he heard it, “he ranto Eli and said: Here I am, since you called me.” And Eli answered: “I did not call you, my son. Go back  and lie down.” Immediately afterwards, the author explains why the young man ran to his master: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

Is it possible that even while serving God he did not yet know God? He only knew God through hearsay, like Job (42:5), but he had not yet had his personal experience, his adult encounter with God.


Third call

For the third time God calls him, and he goes to his master: “Here I am, since you called me.” This time Eli tells him: “Go and lie down and if you are called, you will say: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This is exactly the moment when Samuel is going to make the distinction between the voice that he always heard during his formation, in catechesis, and the voice he will hear from now on, the divine voice.


We must remember that the story begins with the verb “to serve” (sharet), which means the service given to a master. And the story ends with the word “servant” (abad), which also has to do with “serving”, but it is a word that is used only for the service of God. Now he no longer “serves” (sharet) through someone, but he “serves” (avad) the Lord directly. All of this tells us that during our life, all we know about religion and theology is what we hear and receive from our masters and mistresses: father, mother, teacher, grandfather, grandmother, catechist, pastor, priest...


The child and the adolescent believe through the adults, through those who catechize him or her. The passage to autonomy will occur gradually throughout life, when there is ongoing formation, study, a deepening of faith, of religion. That is where a maturing in the relationship with the divine begins. To follow is not to hear or read about faith. On the contrary, what is important is that there is something which, during the process of apprenticeship, will gradually be taken on as if it were a part of one's own person, a transformation that comes from within. Then we can say that the person is beginning to read the Sacred Scriptures on human tablets.



The disciple in Jewish tradition


In this same spirit of Samuel's story, let us now deepen the idea of being a disciple and especially the relationship master/disciple in the Judaism of the Second Temple period.


First of all, we must state clearly that the formation to be a disciple already existed before the time of Jesus' earthly ministry. Several centuries before he came into this world in human flesh, there were masters who formed disciples, who influenced the life of others with their teaching. This was a reality among the Greeks, the Jews, the Chinese, and in other ancient cultures. Several of these masters refused to accept the use of the word “master” when they spoke of themselves, or of disciples, their students, since the link between them was very intimate. We can see that the Pharisees and their disciples called their masters “sages”, and among themselves, they called themselves “disciples of the Sage”. (Talmud).


Jesus himself would say: “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Mt 23:8)

Greater attention to the New Testament and to Jewish tradition shows that “disciple” implies a deeper connection with the “master” than we can sometimes imagine from the modern use of the words “pupil” and “student”. The relationship that is created between the master and the disciple is not only linked to the study of the Word of God, but includes personal contact, and each one takes an effective and affective part in the life of the other.


The disciple not only feels that he or she is at the feet of the master learning Torah from him. In truth, with the master's teaching he or she commits himself, herself. To be a disciple means not only listening to the master, but also acceptance, exclusive devotion by attaching oneself both to the master's teaching and to his life style. Here we remember Samuel's attitude; when he heard the call, he responded immediately. He is at the master's service day and night.


In a broader sense, no matter what the disciple learns from the master, it is part of the culture of the people. Thus words such as “follower” or “apprentice” must be added so that we can understand better the meaning of “disciple”.


What must be the disciple's attitude? He and she must be in agreement with the master in everything. The disciple must observe the master's every step, every gesture. The way the master speaks, walks, gesticulates, sits at table, how he helps himself to food, treats people, the master's sobriety, since the master is someone who makes the ideal of life in society concrete: culture, language, fitness, customs, etc. The disciple is always before his master, the disciple looks at the master and is looked at by him, the disciple knows the master and is known by him. The disciple assimilates the master in such a way as to be able to reproduce all his gestures and teachings. This results from years and years together, sharing, life in common. Through all of this, theology is introduced.


In addition to this, the disciple never distances himself from his master, as the Gospel says: “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” (Jn 12:26) If necessary, the disciple can even disobey, but he can never leave the master. This is what we see in the story of Elijah and Elisha. To show that Elisha is a true disciple of Elijah's, it is necessary that Elijah say the same thing three times to Elisha while only changing the place. This is a test, and the sentence is the following: “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to ...” (2 Kings 2:2.4.6) The trial is to give an order – and apparently the order given bears the authority of God - “the Lord has sent me”... Obey or not obey? Obviously, one would expect Elisha to obey and not to follow Elijah. But in this case he would be separating himself from his master, which cannot be permitted in the relationship master/disciple. That is why Elisha must disobey the order and follow his master. The continuation of the text shows that this occurs three times: vs. 2, 4 and 6. The same thing said three times leads to an indisputable conclusion. Let us see what Elisha answers: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” (2 Kings 2:5)


This must necessarily be the disciple's answer. The true disciple remains with his master until the end, he never distances himself from him since he is convinced that the master's teaching comes from God. And here it is good to remember the beloved disciple in the Gospel who remains with Jesus until the last moment of Jesus' life (cf. Jn 19:26). Elisha is a disciple. He knows that to leave is wrong and to disobey is right, since a disciple never distances himself from his master for any reason whatsoever.


The master is the one who teaches, who guides, who corrects, who explains everything that he himself learned when he was a disciple, adding of course from his own development: “Therefore  every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Mt 13:52) The people's whole theology is with the master and must be passed on to the new generation. The relationship master/disciple ensures the continuity of tradition. And this continuity manifests itself through fidelity to the old and through the ability to bring forth new things from the old. “The disciple's religious fidelity to the master's teaching is the guarantee of authentic preservation and a factor that enables legitimate renewal, which happens through exegesis.” (Pierre Lenhardt). This does not mean that in becoming master the disciple will be a reproduction of the master, his clone; the disciple will also do things that the master did not do, will see what the master did not see. That is what we call innovation. The Gospel according to John says: “The one who keeps my commandments,” or if you are really my disciples, you “will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (cf. Mt 21:21; Jn 14:12)


The relationship that is established between them is that of father and child. The master educators in faith must be venerated as a father and a mother. Father and mother give physical life that comes from God. In the same way that we only receive life from our parents, we cannot receive the Word of God without the masters who transmit it. Whence the need to form new disciples so as not to break the chain of transmission.



Disciples in the NT


Fundamentally, the relationship master/disciple in the NT follows the same pattern as in Judaism: it is something that makes a person different. When the hagiographers of the gospels do catechesis, they are not simply talking about following Jesus, the master from Nazareth. What they want to teach is how to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At first glance, what we see is Jesus calling his disciples to be with him, to follow his footsteps, to go on his path. As we have seen, remaining with the Master is the indispensable condition for being a disciple.


To be with Jesus is the point of departure for an intimate knowledge, and he is only known to the extent to which he is imitated. To follow Jesus is to identify oneself with his attitudes, with his Spirit, with his values, it is to imitate him in everything. Paul says: “It is not I who live but Christ lives in me.” Paul assimilated the person of the Master in such a way as to be able to say that.


Urged on by faith and by love, the disciple should not leave the master for a single moment. Is that what happened to the disciples of Jesus? Let us look at some examples. Peter, who appears as the leader, is always doubting or having attitudes that are not those of a true disciple. Peter answered Jesus: Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Peter doubts: “if it is really you”. This doubt shows the extent to which Peter must still journey in order to be a true disciple. He is weak in faith, he falls. Like Israel in the desert, he needs to submit to several trials; he must face the process of an adolescent's growth before becoming an adult imitator of Jesus Christ.


When Jesus explains that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer, Peter wants Jesus to turn away, but Jesus himself reproaches him: Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:21-23) Peter would really be a mature disciple in faith if he had placed himself at the side of his master. He is human, he is learning. In another passage, Peter wants to be rewarded: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Mt 19:27) He does not understand the gratuitousness, the service of the Kingdom. When Jesus washes Peter's feet, he wants to refuse. He judges according to human standards. However, Jesus' gesture establishes in the disciples the ability and the duty to imitate the Lord. The condition of disciple must necessarily be similar to that of Jesus, who leads the individual to the gift of his or her own life at the service of his and her brothers and sisters. Peter does not understand. He says that he will be faithful to the end and he affirms: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mt 26:35) But he flees when his master is arrested, “and all the disciples said the same thing”, and they also fled. In any case, we can see all the disciples in the person of Peter, including ourselves today. As was already said, the only true disciple is shown in the Gospel according to John when it speaks of the beloved disciple. Why? Because he did not abandon his master, he went to the end, he arrived at the foot of the cross and gave continuity to his mission.


Let's look at the figure of Thomas in the Gospel according to John: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5) That is the kind of question that can only be asked by the person who does not understand and who is in the process of learning. The true disciple must know everything about his master, must know him deeply. In this case, Thomas learns from his master, and Jesus responds: “I am the way”. The way is to follow Jesus. Then Philip appears and says: “Lord, show us the Father.” And Jesus asks: “How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?” “Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?” (Jn 14:9) These are questions that can arise with anyone who begins this path with Jesus. One learns in walking, in falling and in rising. The disciple will only be prepared when he can say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:9)



Walking a path


This is the path upon which Israel entered when it decided to leave slavery and to serve the Lord. Israel learned to serve the Lord on the desert paths. It was God himself who guided it, led it, gave it direction through the pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night, elements that symbolize God's presence. Unique certainty: God is walking with us. The path or paths of God thus show God's liberating activity (Ps 67:3), or in a more general sense, God's way of acting (Ps 25:10; 145:17). The difficulties are not in vain. They serve precisely so that the disciple will place his and her trust solely in God and in no other. Trial is one of the elements that lead to trust. God himself explains: “Remember the journey on which the Lord your God took you during the forty years in the desert, in order to humble you, to try you, and to know the depth of your heart: would you keep his commandments or not?”


Later, the reflection in the OT will say that “walking in the paths of the Lord” means acting according to God's will, which is revealed in God's commandments and precepts.


In the Gospels, the idea of “path” is intimately associated with that of “following”. The disciple must follow Jesus. In its ordinary sense, “to follow” means to remain near someone, to take the same path. In this sense, it is easy to pass over to the figurative meaning. Since the “path” is an image of behavior, of the way of proceeding, “to follow” Jesus means to be a disciple, and the true disciple is the one who hears the Word, who welcomes it and puts it into practice (Mt 7:25ff.; Lk 11:27-28).


While the people were going through the desert, they were formed by the Word. Now, the condition for the path of discipleship is knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Word of God. In his opening discourse at the 5thConference, the pope said: “It is necessary to form the people by means of reading and meditation on the Word of God.” To be a disciple means to go to the school of Jesus, and his school is based on the Word of God. (247) “The disciples who are taught in the school of Jesus leave everything in order to find everything; they strip themselves in order to be clothed with Jesus Christ.” (Fr. Theodore)


The attitude of the person who is being catechized is one of listening and of assimilation. Listening to the Word of God explained, interpreted, chewed by the catechist, his and her master, mistress. In Hebrew, to listen is “shema”. This verb does not only mean to hear with one's ears, but also understanding, the faith of the heart. To hear presupposes keeping the Word in the memory of the heart in such a way that this Word that has already been heard might mature, grow until God reveals its meaning. On this catechetical path, the disciple listens, interiorizes, and enters into the process of conversion.


For this to happen, we need disciples who are already in the school of the Word and who feel sent to be masters of the Word. The divine Torah, the objective Word of God that reveals itself, is only known because the people who received it have passed it on and still pass it on in the master/disciple relationship (Pierre Lenhardt). Saint Paul said: “How are they to believe if they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:14.17) Let us remember that the idea of “believing” comes from the Hebrew root that means to exercise. The basic meaning is exercise for faith. Throughout the exercise, the person experiences living a relationship of trust, of faith. The catechist has the responsibility of being truly a disciple, of living the Word of God in his or her mouth and in his or her heart before passing it on. The catechist does not preach him- or herself, but Jesus Christ through fidelity to the Word and to the integrity of its message. (cf. DNC 27)


The task of catechesis is to give everyone a clear and deep understanding of all that God wanted to transmit to us through Tradition and Scripture. For this, disciples are needed who are well formed in the school of the Word. Through catechesis, God continues to speak to God's people. Teaching a biblically inspired  catechesis implies fidelity to the teachings of the Bible and of the Church, which is to say, the whole of tradition. Passing on the Word in a complete way, without reducing it or omitting anything. The catechetical message must be based on the Bible which must illumine our reality and our present day. And also the sacred liturgy, since the Word of God is made manifest in it. (cf. DNC, 112)


No matter what the ministry in which we engage, the essential is to follow Jesus, the Master, since “to be a disciple is a gift that must grow” (DA 291). It is a path that one walks little by little and that has no end. No one can say that he or she is a perfect Christian. “Catechesis must not occur from time to time, reduced to moments that prepare for the sacraments or for Christian initiation, but rather, it must be 'a permanent catechetical journey.” (Benedict XVI)