Pope Benedict XIV – Cum Religiosi – On Catechesis, 26 June 1754

[Pope Benedict XIV]
To the Patriarchs, Archbishops, and Bishops of Italy. Venerable Brothers, We give you Greeting and the Apostolic Blessing.

Removal of Impediments to Marriage

Religious men, devoted to the improvement of divine worship, have informed Us that it would be best to appoint special ministers in Our patriarchal basilicas, Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s on the Vatican, and Saint Mary Major’s; their purpose would be to instruct those sent to these basilicas by the Apostolic Chancery to perform there the required servile works. These works are required before they are granted the object of their journey to Rome, which is the removal of an impediment to marriage. The aim of this instruction is to enable these people to be duly and beneficially cleansed by the Sacrament of Penance and to partake of the Sacrament of the Altar in a worthy manner. The Chancery demands that they receive both of these sacraments in addition to making the sacred pilgrimage to the seven churches and to ascending the holy stairway. We have issued timely orders on this subject before, as may be seen from Our encyclical letter of last January 16th to the Cardinals who are archpriests of the said basilicas. We have subsequently been reliably informed of the great zeal shown in this important work by some of the canons and other clergy of the said basilicas; they constantly and eagerly press on with the careful carrying out of Our commands. Because of these reports, We have experienced a specially deep joy, and with all Our heart, have rendered due thanks to the Most High God Who is the source of all good things.

Many Ignorant of the Mysteries of the Faith

We could not rejoice, however, when it was subsequently reported to Us that in the course of religious instruction preparatory to Confession and Holy Communion, it was very often found that these people were ignorant of the mysteries of the faith, even of those matters which must be known by necessity of means; consequently, they were ineligible to partake of the Sacraments. Although the ministers mentioned continue unceasing instruction to eradicate this great evil, yet this evil greatly distresses the people requesting and waiting for their dispensation. For oppressed by poverty and begging for their food with their own hands, they wish to leave the city as quickly as possible, to return to their homelands and marry; this is the purpose of their journey, and they are undeterred by the discomforts of public and heavy penance.

Bishops Not at Fault

2. At the start of Our pontificate, We wrote an encyclical letter to increase the zeal of Our Venerable Brothers to ensure that in every diocese the elements and precepts of Christian doctrine be explained and learned. We have read both the old and new reports of their diocesan synods; We know they are filled with instructions and exhortations, and that they include everything helpful for transmitting Christian doctrine. Therefore We heartily assert Our conviction that in this matter none of the bishops can be found lacking in the Apostolic office entrusted to him; the fact that some members of their dioceses are ignorant is not due to their fault or negligence. It must clearly be attributed either to the obstinacy of their subjects who, despite the commands of their superiors, have avoided instruction in their Christian doctrine; they have, in fact, seldom if ever gathered to hear the word of God explained in preaching. Or it could be attributed to the slowness of some for learning what is taught. Or perhaps it is because that although they learned the elements of Christian teaching in their earliest years, when they were older, they ceased learning and building upon the foundation of their youth. Because of this, they are gradually reduced to a state like that of people who were not taught in their early years or who never received instruction in Christian doctrine. Although these setbacks have continued in spite of every measure taken by Our Venerable Brothers, We must nonetheless stir up their zeal again by this encyclical letter. And they are obligated anew to take every step and care possible in this matter on which the eternal salvation of the souls entrusted to them depends.

Work of Saint Charles Borromeo

3. Each one of you, Venerable Brothers, has thoroughly understood the measures taken by Saint Charles Borromeo, both in his own large diocese of Milan and in the entire province of which he was Metropolitan. He took these measures in order to establish a fruitful method of transmitting Christian doctrine, and he labored greatly in order to strongly sustain this religious education. And when he observed that his toil had not borne the fruit he desired, he did not despair, but instead increased his cares and concerns as is seen in the fifth synod of Milan: “We have hitherto shown great care in looking after the instruction of individual Christians in the fundamental doctrines in the Christian faith; but since we realize that we have profited little so far, we are led by the importance of the matter to make these additional decisions.” For it was enough for that holy prelate to see that the need still existed, and thus to address himself to the work a second time; in this endeavor, he added cares to cares and minimized the many measures he had employed up till then. In like manner, it was enough for the Assyrian king to be informed that the nations did not know the commands of God: “and it was announced to the king of the Assyrians, and said: the nation which you transferred and sent to dwell in the cities of Samaria do not know the laws of God’s land.” He at once sent a priest to teach those nations the commands of God: “And the King of the Assyrians gave commands, saying: bring there one of the priests which you led off as prisoners and let him go and dwell with them and teach them the laws of God’s land” (4 Kings 17).

Teach the Fundamentals of the Faith

4. Therefore with the example of Saint Charles Borromeo before Us, We encourage you and implore you by the mercy of Jesus Christ not to despair in this important work of handing on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, even if hitherto you have devoted all your zeal and care to it. See to it that every minister performs carefully the measures laid down by the holy Council of Trent and by the statutes of your synods: that on fixed days school-masters and mistresses should teach Christian doctrine; that confessors should perform this part of their duty whenever anyone stands at their tribunal who does not know what he must by necessity of means know to be saved; that priests should also provide this instruction before uniting spouses in marriage; that fathers of families and lords of houses should be gravely advised of the duty imposed on them of being themselves instructed and of seeing to the instruction in the commandments of Christian doctrine of their sons and of the members of their household; that the practice of reciting aloud properly-composed acts of Faith, Hope and Charity by the priest and people before or after the parish mass should be preserved in the dioceses in which it is customary and be carefully introduced where it is not. Parish priests should not avoid their duty of at least on feast days, explaining the Gospel to the people from the altar when there is no sermon. In addition, they are obliged to teach them the chief mysteries of our holy religion, the commandments of God and the Church, and everything which is necessary for their worthy partaking of the Sacraments. Preachers should also follow this path, recalling the salutary advice that they should join instruction to exhortation whenever their hearers stand in need of both. Finally, the best method for instructing ignorant men in Christian doctrine is indicated by Saint Augustine who says (de Cath. Rud., 10) that the most fruitful procedure is to ask questions in a friendly fashion after the explanation; from this questioning one can learn whether each one understood what he heard or whether the explanation needs repeating. In order that the learner grasp the matter, “we must ascertain by questioning whether the one being catechised has understood, and in accordance with his response, we must either explain more clearly and fully or not dwell further on what is known to them, etc. But if a man is very slow, he must be mercifully helped and the most necessary doctrines especially should be briefly imparted to him.” We are assured that you yourselves will pursue many more paths than We point out to you in this encyclical letter. In the meantime, Venerable Brothers, We lovingly impart to you and to the flock entrusted to your care Our Apostolic Blessing.

Given at Castel Gandolfo on the 26th of June 1754 in the fourteenth year of Our Pontificate.