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What the Baltimore Catechism has to say to adults

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A random encounter with a storied old teaching tool brings a 29-year-old Catholic to a startling realization

After Mass on Sunday morning, I browsed a local Catholic bookstore, where I spied Baltimore Catechisms. I opened one up and immediately became immersed in a children’s catechism – a primer full of basic stuff for grade-school Catholics, presenting sophisticated ideas in the simplest terms possible.

The last book I had finished was The Everlasting Man, by G.K. Chesterton, and yes, the Baltimore Catechism was a much easier read. Still, much of the material was new to me. I had either forgotten a lot of basic stuff, or I had never been taught it, and I found myself dumbstruck and thinking, “I am 29 years old, and I don’t know what the Corporal Works of Mercy are?”

It occurred to me that maybe, instead of trying to commit Chesterton’s “Lepanto” to memory, or reading Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, I should just read the Baltimore Catechism and give myself the education I should have received before my First Communion.

Then, another thought: “I should probably sit down and read the Bible.”  I couldn’t even recall the last time I did that.

Later that night, my father telephoned to catch up, and after some small talk, I asked, “Why didn’t you have me read the Baltimore Catechism when I was younger?”

My father informed me that he had, in fact, provided three Baltimore catechisms for me while growing up, placing one in my room, one in our family room, and sending a third to me when I was at college. “I couldn’t force you to read it, but I gave you every chance to do so on your own.” He added that a Baltimore Catechism still sits on my nightstand in my room back home, as it has since I was eight years old.

Well.

I felt humbled.  After all the movies, documentaries, and books that I’ve consumed on this spiritual journey, I needed to return to the room in which I grew up.

Like Chesterton in his introduction to Orthodoxy, I had – amid my ambitious travels — found a new land, except it had been there all the time, for that’s how it looked to me: The Ten Commandments; the Eight Beatitudes; the Seven Sacraments the Three Christian Virtues, and on and on, this new land did spread out before me.

And, there’s this learned man I’ve discovered in the new land. I’m told he raised me. When I was 18 I called him “Dad” and usually ignored him; I didn’t think he knew much. It turns out, he seems to know everything, or everything important anyway.

We Catholics have a rich culture with an abundance of tales and saints, fine arts, and music and literature and more; we have so much beauty — and beauty brings people to the church because it’s compelling. “The world will be saved by beauty.” But, as we await that day, perhaps we should re-familiarize ourselves with the basics. I encourage every Catholic to remind themselves before going to Mass: we do not attend Mass for the preaching, or even the music, as grand or awful as it might be, but to consume the flesh and blood of Christ – to commune with him, in community with each other.

Just as it says in the Baltimore Catechism.

Pick one up if you get a chance. You may find yourself in a new land, and you will be humbled.

Nothing is more humbling than to think you have discovered wisdom through your travels, only to learn that you were home all along.

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