From the earliest of times, when God inscribed the Ten Commandments on a tablet with his finger for Moses to present to the people, and the teachings of the prophets, which was fulfilled in Jesus, God has been teaching people about himself.

Each year on Catechetical Sunday, this year falling on Sept. 20, the church celebrates the role of catechists in carrying this work of instructing people on the faith and evangelization.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in its prologue, “Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the church’s efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.”

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “In the New Testament, the Gospels are the first great ‘Catechism’ which was transmitted orally and then put to writing. Jesus ‘teaches’ and ‘preaches’ as seen in the Sermon of the Mount of the ‘teaching to the disciples.’ This mission was handed over to St. Peter with the office of the ‘keys’ which, in Hebrew mentality, meant, amongst others, the office of teaching. In Acts of the Apostle and the Pauline Letters the word ‘to catechize’ appears already as the instruction regarding the salvific action of God.”

The earliest catechetical instructions were mainly pre-baptismal preparation because in the first centuries of the church, because most people who became Catholics were already adults. They had to undergo a catechumenate or a preparation for baptism which included instruction in belief, in practice, in prayer and in Christian life before they were accepted into the church.

It was generally presumed that the children of such converts, who were themselves baptized in infancy, would be instructed by the families who had received a thorough catechetical preparation for baptism.

The great catechists in history include St. Augustine, who wrote, De Catechizandis Rudibus, or “How to Catechize the Ignorant,” linking salvation history to faith, to hope and ultimately to charity.

St. Gregory the Great also played an important role in catechetical development. He wrote a series of “Books of Dialogue” which expressed to pastors, parents and teachers the proper way of handing on and giving them the content of the faith.

Missionary saints, such as St. Bede, St. Alquin and St. Boniface were also extraordinary catechists.

Because people did not have access to books before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, catechesis was passed on orally in families and in the liturgy. The readings from Scripture in liturgy and the sermons were lengthy. In a time before television, radio and social media, they were a source of enjoyment and instruction for many people.

Cathedrals were also thought of as “living catechism” with their stained-glass windows depicting the story of salvation.

The Catechism also notes that “The ministry of catechesis draws ever fresh energy from the councils. The Council of Trent is a noteworthy example of this. It gave catechesis priority in its constitutions and decrees. It lies at the origin of the Roman Catechism, which is also known by the name of that council and which is a work of the first rank as a summary of Christian teaching … . The Council of Trent initiated a remarkable organization of the church’s catechesis. Thanks to the work of holy bishops and theologians such as St. Peter Canisius, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Turibius of Mongrovejo or St. Robert Bellarmine, it occasioned the publication of numerous catechisms.”

With so many catechisms, in 1985 St. John Paul II convoked an assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the 20th anniversary closing of the Second Vatican Council. After years of collaborative efforts, St. John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Vatican II.

The pope wrote, “It is meant to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms, which take into account various situations and cultures, while carefully preserving the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine.”

The method of catechesis has evolved over the years from those stone tablets to many online ministry and theology courses, as is the case in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Degrees are also offered, including locally through Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge, that can help people become theologians or scholars when it comes to the faith and evangelization.

But the mission remains simply the same: to teach others how to become disciples of Christ so they themselves can teach others how to become disciples.