The value of learning by heart

The Synod of Bishops in 1977 considered the theme "Catechesis in our Time" and in 1979, St John Paul II issued his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae which I remember reading as soon as it was available: in those days we had to wait for a printed version but the CTS were always quick off the mark.

A section which struck me then and I think is worth recalling, is paragraph 55 on memorisation (spelt in the official English version with the American Z, of course.) St John Paul recognised the disadvantages that can be associated with learning things by heart, but lamented the suppression of memorisation in catechesis. He says:
"A certain memorization of the words of Jesus, of important Bible passages, of the Ten Commandments, of the formulas of profession of the faith, of the liturgical texts, of the essential prayers, of key doctrinal ideas, etc., far from being opposed to the dignity of young Christians, or constituting an obstacle to personal dialogue with the Lord, is a real need, as the synod fathers forcefully recalled."
Dr Peter Kwasniewski wrote on memorisation a while back in an article for NLM, On Liturgical Memory. He makes some helpful observations on the importance of learning liturgical texts by heart. He says,
"Prayers run the risk of remaining external to the celebrant as long as they are merely written in the Missal, because their location is an external book. Memorized prayers, on the other hand, are already internal(ized) and, as such, are more available as a wellspring of piety within. The heart has become the book, the living book from which the Mass is celebrated."
The two crucial ecclesial activities of liturgical worship and catechesis thus both have a place for learning by heart, and both have suffered from different pressures which have reduced the popularity of memorising, and deprived many people of the benefits of the practice. In the Liturgy, as Kwasniewski explains, when the celebrant is encouraged to extemporise, to use "these or similar words", the appeal is to imagine and construct rather than to conserve and contemplate. As we know all too well from either listening to extemporisation or attempting it ourselves, the resulting formula is never of the same quality as a well-prepared composition, let alone a text hallowed by organic development, traditional conservation, and long-term prayerful use.

In the case of catechesis, the attack on memorisation in the heady 1960s was more fierce and explicit. Learning formulae by heart was derided as a form of oppression of the young who were deprived of their creativity by being forced into the straight-jacket of unintelligible definitions. It was a common device of popular speakers of the time when promoting the "New Catechetics" to refer with a knowing smirk to mistakes made by children who had misunderstood texts whose vocabulary was beyond them. ("Let the petrol light shine upon them" is one that I remember prompting roars of laughter among the smart set.)

We have come a long way since the days of the Dutch Catechism, the notorious "Corpus Christi College" and the early neo-modernist school books which replaced the derided Penny Catechism. Since then, decades of effort have given rise to some fine expositions of Catholic doctrine for children and young people. Unfortunately, the practice of learning by heart seems to have been left in the past, as though it were something we did well to discard.

I agree with Dr Kwasniewski that there are sound spiritual reasons for priests to memorise the texts of the Mass. There is a practical advantage in that a priest who knows by heart the ordinary of the Mass and one or two propers, can continue to celebrate Mass if his eyesight fails - or indeed if he is in prison like a Czechoslovakian priest I once met who had spent some years locked up in in the days of Communist persecution. However, the advantages of knowing the liturgical prayers by heart are not only for extreme circumstances. By having them sealed into the mind, so to speak, they can be pondered freely in preparation and thanksgiving for Mass, and at other times of the day. The heart can relish them, take them apart, re-think them, re-discover them and pray them anew.

With catechetical formulae, this same meditative love can be applied to the truths of our beautiful Catholic faith in its depth and richness, but there are other distinct advantages. A child may not fully understand a definition when it is first learnt by rote; they may fall prey to one of those amusing misunderstandings. Later, with increased literacy and knowledge, the crystal clear definitions of the carefully worded children's catechism take shape in the mind and provide a firm basis for deeper understanding of the mysteries of the faith.

Take as an example the definition of a sacrament which I learned as a child from the Penny Catechism:
"A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls."
Over many years of teaching sacramental theology at degree level at the seminary, I was always in awe of the composer of that formula. Without wasting a word, he got across the visible and invisible elements of a sacrament, steered carefully through the question of the institution of the sacraments by Christ, and taught the essential doctrine of ex opere operato by means of the words "by which." Not all of the formulae of the Penny Catechism come up to quite that standard, but a child who has learnt the more important definitions will have the framework of the Catholic faith available for the rest of his life. It is certainly true that Catholic theology has depths that will reward many lifetimes of study, but it is important that we also recognise that the basics of the faith, the truths necessary for salvation, can be known by all, and do not require advanced academic ability.

And for those who did have the benefit of learning things by heart - do you remember that it was in fact something enjoyable to do? Children have had fun learning one of the speeches from Shakespeare, being able to list the elements of the periodic table, stating pi to fifteen decimal places, or, heaven help us, reciting the words of some ephemeral and currently popular ditty. Being able to list the seven sacraments and define them, knowing the ten commandments, learning a simple formula for confession together with a more "grown up" Act of Contrition, should not be considered as somehow stifling a real and living faith, but as bricks and mortar in building a life based on Christ, using the faculties that God has given us.

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