For Don Bosco no task was more divine and delightful than teaching young people the truths of faith. It may be said that the Salesian Congregation itself had its origin in a catechism lesson. Hence it is not surprising that Don Bosco made the education and evangelization of young the primary objective of his Congregation. Catechesis or faith formation is therefore at the heart of Don Bosco’s educational project. Salesian history in India bears witness to a rich heritage of education, evangelization and catechesis.
In his memoirs, Mgr. Mathias speaks of how in the early 1920s he would take groups of young Salesians on those famous ‘missionary tours’ across the hilly terrains of Meghalaya. They would move from village to village, carrying on their heads foodstuffs, blankets, musical instruments, visual aids for teaching catechism (pictures, posters and cut-outs), and a primitive film projector for showing King of Kings. The arrival of the missionaries would be a feast for the village - music and singing, fun and frolic and, of course, a lot of catechetical instruction, followed by confessions and a solemn celebration of the Eucharist. Without doubt, the Salesian missionary miracle of Assam was to a great extent the result of the down-to-earth and practical method of catechesis adopted by our pioneers.
Their catechetical creativity and dynamism is truly admirable. They transformed the image of the village catechist from a mere teacher of prayers to a kind of ‘lay parish priest’. In 1932, for instance, Fr. Alessi set up a specially trained team of ‘catechist-inspectors’ in Tezpur. Each ‘inspector’ would supervise the work of the other catechists in 10-12 villages. Every month these ‘inspectors’ would report to the missionaries at the mission centre, receive instructions and plan out strategies for the following month. Many of our pioneering missionaries not only broke new ground in catechetical praxis, but also wrote books and pamphlets to help believers understand and appreciate their faith.
The contribution of Bishop L. R. Morrow SDB of Krishnagar (1939-69) in this regard is truly monumental. His bestselling catechism book, My Catholic Faith (later named Our Catholic Faith), continues to be a bestseller even today. He has also a number of other catechetical books to his credit, many of them illustrated, for example: ‘My Jesus and I’, ‘My Baptism’, ‘My First Communion’, ‘My Bible History’, ‘My Wedding Day’. All his books are widely known and used throughout the English-speaking world. It is estimated that some 13 million copies of his catechetical works have been sold worldwide.
Coming to more recent times, the 1970s may be considered the ‘Catechetical Decade’ of the Salesians in India. The Special General Chapter (SGC) came in 1972 to remind us that “catechesis of young people was to be the first and foremost activity” of our apostolate, and called for a “re-thinking and reorganizing” of all other activities in terms of young people’s faith formation (Cfr. SGC 279). Giving God to young people, proclaiming Christ to them, is ‘the very reason of our existence’ said the SGC.
Following this, there was an all-out effort on the part of the provinces of India to qualify personnel and to set up structures to promote catechetical work. Catechetical Centres were set up, first in Calcutta (NITIKA) in 1976-77 and at Bangalore (KJC) in 1977. A National Salesian Catechetical Commission was formed and steps initiated to launch a National Salesian Catechetical Centre too.
Catechetical seminars, exhibitions and training programmes were organized for the benefit of Salesians as well as other priests and religious in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and other places.
In June 1977, Fr. Pierre Babin of international fame from Paris delivered two lectures for the Salesians at Calcutta. The same month, Fr Anthony Alessi of the Salesian Catechetical Centre of Leumann-Turin spent two months in Calcutta to offer help in setting up the new Catechetical Centre there. The following year, Fr. Alessi came along with Bro. Mario Notario (photographer) from Valdocco, to help the Catechetical Centre in Calcutta.
On hearing about the efforts made by Calcutta Province in setting up a new Catechetical Centre, the Rector Major Fr. Ricceri wrote: “I am delighted. The Catechetical Centre is certainly a happy venture, so much Salesian. See to it that you prepare personnel for it, because it is not the gadgets which make the Centre apostolically effective, but the men who should be not merely capable, but first and foremost men of God.”
In June 1980, a meeting of the All India Salesian Catechetical Commission was held in Kolkata to study the proposal of setting up a common Salesian Catechetical Centre for India. The proposed objectives of this Centre were the following:
1. Coordination of the catechetical activities among various provinces;
2. Establishing contacts with ecclesiastical, national, and international centres and organizations;
3. Study and research in the field of Catechetics;
4. Formation of animators;
5. Production of audio-visual aids.
This Centre was to be staffed by a team of experts drawn from the various provinces of India. Though the proposal was accepted by the Salesian Provincial Conference of India, it did not take off as expected. Due to various difficulties, the idea was shelved and individual provinces went ahead, setting up their own centres.
In 1978, the Catechetical and Multimedia Centre at Calcutta was named NITIKA. The Centre is known for the excellent catechetical audio-visual aids it produces. In August 1983, NITIKA launched Catechetics India, a quarterly journal of Catechetics, carrying lesson plans, news and views, audio-visual aids, scholarly articles and other special features. It continues to be the leading Catechetical review in the country.
Visvadeep, the Institute of Youth Ministry and Catechetics attached to Kristu Jyoti College, Bangalore, has been effectively serving the Church in South Asia and beyond for the past two decades through its training programmes.
Deepagam, in Chennai, serves the Church in Tamil Nadu through a variety of animation and training programmes. It offers a well-developed training programme for teachers of Catechism and Moral Science in schools and colleges to equip them with the knowledge and skills needed for becoming professionals in faith-formation. The Centre has brought out over 40 books on faith education and value education and a series of Lectionary-based Sunday Catechism books. It also produces ‘Sound and Light’ programmes on various catechetical themes.
Apart from the above, Salesian India today has several other faith-formation centres both in cities and in rural areas. Kapadvanj in Gujarat, Ponnur in Andhra Pradesh and Alaihal in Tiruchy, Salesian Catechetical Centres in Pune, Lukme and Dimapur Third Mile merit special mention for their creative and contextualized approach to faith formation.
Salesians have been in the forefront of Catechetical movement in India and have contributed in no small measure to the catechetical renewal in the Church in India. Several Salesians, qualified in Catechetics, are on the teaching faculties of seminaries and Institutes of Higher Studies in India and abroad. The Indian Catechetical Association (ICA), which came into being in 1996, was the initiative of Fr. Thomas Kalathuveetil SDB. Salesians have led the Association for a number of years. The ICA offers a forum for catechetical experts to share, reflect upon and study catechetical issues in India. It also fosters research and publication in Catechetics.