A small farm town only two hours north of Milwaukee has the remarkable distinction of being the only Church-approved Marian apparition site in the entire nation. The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, in Champion, has the same status as other more famous Marian shrines in Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe. Its local bishop recently gave his blessing and approval to the holy tradition that the Virgin Mary visited the young Adele Brise, a Belgian immigrant, in 1859.
Now, you might think that private revelations would contain some novel, earth-shattering message, but the approved ones never do. The messages are always remarkably simple. So what does the Queen of Heaven ask of us again and again? More prayer, more repentance, more sacrifices for sinners. These are simple reminders. But we need to hear them over and over again because we clearly forget and, within a generation or two, we tend to turn the page and move on.
What about these apparitions to Adele Brise? What was their message? Along with the usual requests, one of the major themes of the Virgin Mary’s visits was another simple, yet all-too-overlooked need: catechesis. According to tradition, she urged Brise to,
“Gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they need to know for salvation … their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the cross, and how to approach the sacraments.”
The Queen of Heaven came to the woods of Wisconsin to stress the importance of something as simple as making the sign of the cross. How timely for us today, over a century later! Amidst the superabundance of academic degrees and accolades in the United States the importance of simple, undiluted catechesis all-too-often gets left behind. Teach the faith! We have so much information at our fingertips with smart phones and tablets, and yet what do we know about the basics of our own faith? I think it’s fair to say that the state of catechesis among most self-described Catholics in the U.S. is abysmal. Much more is known about popular TV shows, celebrities and their scandals, sports teams and their statistics than the Sacraments and the Saints. Even among those who have attended Catholic schools all their lives, the catechetical lacuna is woefully evident. It begs the question: what is being taught in the classrooms throughout the week and preached from the pulpit on Sundays if not the basics of the faith?
We hear a lot of soaring platitudes on social justice. We hear a whole lot of aphorisms about trying to be just a little nicer at work, or trying a little harder at school. We hear about trying to control that anger when someone cuts us off on the freeway. In other words, we hear a lot of fluff that is hard to disagree with. It’s safe. It’s not controversial. So why not preach about it! “Be nicer and try to smile a little more.” Okay, I get it.
But what about the necessity of the sacramental life? What about the reality of sin? What about the need for grace? (Um…what’s grace?) What about the four “last things” of death, judgement, heaven and hell? What about the existence of the devil? How do we fight him? What about the importance of ecclesial communion? Why do Catholics need to be of one mind with the Church and her bishops on moral teachings? What are sacramentals? How does one pray?
“Teach them what they need to know for salvation.”
So, to those charged with forming the faithful: stop trying to reinvent the wheel with corny and dated marketing gimmicks that inevitably fall flat. Step out of your comfort zone of soft-pedaling the faith in homilies. Be bold, like the Saints. Put away the rehearsed jokes, crack open the catechism for a change and get to work.