Earlier this month, I stood in the Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption in Baltimore, Maryland, surrounded by 200 years of American Church history. The newly restored Basilica, soon to re-open, is one of the great historic treasures of the Church in these United States. Cardinal William Keeler was nearly bursting with pride as he gave me and other visitors a guided preview of this magnificent and holy place.
It was there, in 1884, that the Third Council of Baltimore was convened in the Basilica of the Assumption. Seventy-two prelates gathered under the watchful eyes of Archbishop James Gibbons. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore established a Special Committee of Bishops to draw up a new Catechism for use in schools and religious education courses across the entire United States.
The first edition of the Baltimore Catechism was drafted by Bishop John Spaulding, Bishop of Peoria, Ill. For the next 80 years it stood as the gold standard of catechesis and formation for generations of Catholic students. Many people seated here tonight were taught from the third or fourth edition of the Baltimore Catechism.
Many here would quickly respond to the Catechism’s fundamental questions: “Who made us?” “God made us.” “Who is God?” “God is the Supreme Being Who made all things.” “Why did God make us?” “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.”
- During the same year that the Baltimore Catechism was commissioned, our own Bishop John B. Brondel was appointed to serve as the First Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Helena. In that era there were 15,000 Catholics residing in our region, with seven parish churches, four hospitals, three schools and five Indian missions. During his 19-year tenure, Bishop Brondel increased the number of churches nearly eight fold and followed carefully the vision and commission of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. He built 10 new schools and welcomed greater numbers of sisters into the Diocese, including the Sisters of Charity of Providence, the Ursuline Community and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
- The Second Bishop of Helena, the visionary John P. Carroll, built upon Bishop Brondel’s legacy as another great devotee of Catholic education. In a sense, he “upped the ante” by founding five high schools, welcoming the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the Diocese, and issuing a clarion call for Catholic higher education. On his watch, he founded Mount St. Charles, and its name changed to commemorate Carroll’s lifelong commitment to education of our youth. During his episcopacy, 32 parishes were founded.
- In the era just prior to and following World War I, both the Holy See and the Bishops of our nation expressed concern over the tens of thousands of children unable to benefit from the nation’s Catholic schools. Pius X issued a “Magna Carta” in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis, which was the catalyst for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
- Following Bishop Carroll’s death in 1925, Bishop George Finnigan established CCD in the Diocese, which emphasized for the first time the need to train lay men and women to augment the work of priests and nuns for the religious education of our youth.
In the Diocese of Helena, with its many rural venues, Bishop Finnigan expanded the vision of CCD with religious vacation schools in many rural and farming towns. During the meteoric tenure of Bishop Ralph Hayes, both religious education in and after school continued without interruption.
- On Feb. 19, 1936, Joseph Michael Gilmore was consecrated Bishop of Helena. He took to heart the Baltimore Council’s emphasis on Catholic education and initiated a practice that endured in our Diocese for decades – building schools first and celebrating Sunday Mass in the school gymnasium. The crown jewel of Bishop Gilmore’s tenure was found on our own Carroll College campus, a residence hall for pre-seminary students called Borromeo Hall.
- In 1962, when Bishop Raymond G. Hunthausen became the Sixth Bishop of Helena, he inherited 57 parishes, 47 missions, served by 141 priests and 316 sisters. Ordained on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Hunthausen lead a Diocese with seven high schools and 24 active elementary schools. But dramatic change was in the wind.
The Second Vatican Council ushered in an era of tumult and dramatic change. The black and white answers proffered by the Baltimore Catechism no longer seemed to fit the pressing questions of the day. The recipe-like Catechism was set aside and religious education became experimental, experiential and in many cases uneven. The next generations of Catholics experienced a hit-and-miss religious education and many others simply opted out of this whirling dervish post-conciliar Church.
- In the decades that followed the Second Vatican Council, Bishops Hunthausen, Curtiss, Brunett and Morlino faced the same pressing questions that the fathers of the Baltimore Council grappled with at the close of the 19th century.
“How will we pass on the Catholic faith to new generations of Catholics, who also long to know the Lord and hunger for communion with the Church?”
- In the four decades that have followed the Second Vatican Council, the Church is poised to offer our children and young adults an experience of religious education that is built upon a new evangelization. Pope John Paul II stated emphatically that “Jesus wants to enter into dialogue with young people and through his Body, which is the Church, to propose a possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of their lives.”
- The new evangelization is built upon encuentro theology, that is, the encounter with Jesus that is built upon discipleship and communion with Christ and the Church. It is a vision of religious education that involves not only the intellect, but also the heart.
- Religious education, both in schools and in parishes, has new resources to draw from. There is a new Catholic Catechism, which serves as a catechetical baseline, along with catechetical materials that emphasize both the content of the faith and a call to Christian service.
From my vantage, we are entering a new era replete with opportunities to introduce our young people to Christ and the living heritage of our Catholic faith. But our entire endeavor must be characterized by quality, accessibility, affordability and the involvement of parents if it is to produce spiritual fruit.
The events surrounding our Son Light Celebration underscore the importance of the youth and young adults in the Diocese of Helena. Son Light gives us the opportunity to shine the light of Christ upon our young people and empower them to live as disciples of Jesus today and tomorrow.
- Opportunities abound in the Diocese of Helena. We already have model parish programs in religious education that can serve as pilots and models across the Diocese. We have exemplary teachers and youth ministers who are deeply committed to the Church as mentors of Christian living. We have a precious treasure at Legendary Lodge where generations of students have discovered or re-discovered the power of discipleship. We have a spiritual renaissance taking place at Carroll College and on our college campuses, where students are hungering for communion with Christ and the Church.
- For the past 18 months, our Diocesan Pastoral Council has listened attentively to the pastoral needs of our people in every portion of the Diocese. In every vicariate, priests, parents and students have asked – even implored – the Diocese to move more resources into evangelization, education, programs and services for children, youth and young adults.
- This Son Light Celebration raises the visibility and pastoral needs of our youth and young adults, and is intended to heighten our consciousness and sensitivity toward those who long to know and love and serve the Lord.
The Diocese of Helena is on the cusp of something very great and important. The prospects for the formation of our children are limitless, if we can amass the desire and resources to offer them what they long for, that is, encounter with Christ and an invitation to participate fully in the life, the mission and the ministry of the Catholic community.
We cannot fail to meet this challenge, nor can we afford to let the call of our young people go unheard. Nor will the window of opportunity remain open indefinitely.
Son Light Celebration is a reflection of the love of Christ and our desire to reflect His love and His light, and let it shine in the hearts of the children and youth throughout our Diocese.
In the words of the Easter Vigil, Christ our Light! Thanks be to God! Christ our Light! Thanks be to God!
Bishop George Leo Thomas delivered this homily during the Son Light Stewardship Celebration Prayer Service on Sept. 29 in the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 22, No. 10, October 20, 2006.