Catechisms of any sort are not ordinarily absorbing reading, so it is a strange item on which to focus my attention these last days of November. What’s the pull? The original red and white dust jacket is still folded and tucked inside the back cover. Reading the summary on the front and back flaps of the jacket recalls for me the hopes that that book probably raised in my religion teachers two years after the close of Vatican II. Reading the publicist’s text of forty years ago suggests reasons I would have held on to the book for so long:
The greatest overall achievement of the Second Vatican Council was its conscious proclamation of the fact that Christianity is an adult religion, and therefore a way of life that can be adequately understood and lived by those who have “come of age.”
Had my classmates and I sufficiently “come of age” by 1967 so that a religion teacher could think the Dutch Catechism – as it was popularly called – was just the thing for his class with us? What business had I reading about “an adult religion” in a text originally commissioned by the Roman Catholic bishops of the Netherlands? For that matter, what did I know about Holland – beyond what I may have absorbed as a younger reader immersed in yearly re-reads of Anne Frank's diary?
It is the child who leads a submissive, compliant existence sheltered against the dangers that lurk outside the circle of his own family. But Council teachings have understood that this is not where the modern Christian dwells.
In 1967 I was still a year away from the first car-trip I would make with my family to New England and to Boston to visit my oldest brother Martin. Parts of Boston and Cambridge, all red-brick townhouses and lamp-lit bookstores, would recall for me the Dutch capital of Amsterdam as I had grown to imagine it from library research for book reports about Anne Frank and her family. An intellectual and cultural landscape was opening up for me the more I read. At age 17, I had generally known no more reliable escape from the emotional confinement of home life than the books I was borrowing from the local library as well as my school library.
A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults, the authorized English language edition of the “Dutch Catechism,” is written to speak to this modern Christian. It regards him as a responsible, self-directed being whose questioning of the very purpose of existence is a natural activity, and whose reactions to the world around him reflect its complexity.
My brother Martin had already been a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for five years by the time my family visited him in Boston. His Christmas gifts to me each year had been purchased in the bookstores of Cambridge and packed in his suitcase for the flights home to New Orleans. One year it was a new biography of my favorite Southern author Thomas Wolfe; another year Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy; still another year Cassell’s Latin-English Dictionary and companion editions of Edith Hamilton’s Greek Way and Roman Way. The books he bought me were among the first gifts that I ever received that felt intended for me, selected on purpose because of what someone knew about me and not simply because they were what seemed suitable or – worse yet – useful for a growing boy my age.
In short, man is taken as he is found in the world – as he experiences his life, his faith, and his doubts – and he is presented with God’s kingdom and the invitation to be a responsible, participating believer, a believer who, in the words of Paul, has “set aside the things of childhood.”
I guess no one at the time knew exactly how much I longed to set aside the things of my childhood and why. What no person, what no book was telling me directly or allowing me to admit was that it could be hard to be a child in that household. From the oldest brother who had already escaped our New Orleans household, weekly letters to the family had communicated something vivid to me about days lived in independence and intellectual adventure and confident choice.
A gay man in his fifties living with a man he loves, I am living out what I glimpsed long ago could be a religious tradition that acknowledges the adult I am. The mystery of life is no less amazing, no less puzzling, no less wonderful than it appeared forty years ago.
I hope it stays that way.
Photo of Amsterdam Canals from Saint Mary's