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Mary Charles Bryce, OSB

By Ann Morrow Heekin


MARY CHARLES BRYCE (1916-2002) entered the twentieth century catechetical movement through the door of the liturgy and the role of worship in religious education.  Her most comprehensive account of the catechism in the United States (Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, 1984) surveys the nearly two hundred-year history of the Church’s life in this country and discloses the principles of cultural diversity and adaptation that Bryce finds to be the hallmarks of Catholic religious education. Bryce finds the interplay of the ministry of catechesis and the cultural plurality of the American faithful to be a characteristic feature of the American Church from the days of John Carroll – consecrated first bishop of the United States in 1790– through the publication of Sharing the Light of Faith – the U.S. bishops’ first national directory published in 1979. Having reached a new threshold in catechetical renewal, Bryce calls for a network of national catechetical centers that can sustain a more comprehensive catechesis that is church-wide and lifelong. Note: photo courtesy of Catholic University of America archives.


Like any good historian, Mary Charles Bryce’s work was colored by her life. A native of the American west when Catholics represented less than 4 percent of the population, she was born on June 14, 1916 in Ramona, Oklahoma and baptized Mary Elizabeth. The second of nine children of Charles and Irene Brennan Bryce, Mary Charles was part Native American, tracing her Cherokee heritage to her paternal grandmother. Mary Charles Bryce entered the order of St. Benedict in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1938 and professed final vows on June 18, 1943. Only twenty-four years of age when she began religious life, her early assignments included teaching at four different schools in Oklahoma between 1940 and 1945. During the summers, Mary Charles served as a Vacation Bible School instructor in various Oklahoma locations and as secretary to Bishop Francis Kelly, second Roman Catholic bishop of Oklahoma and founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society.  She also held a number of administrative positions for her community after the Monte Cassino Priory moved from Shawnee to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She served as novice mistress of the priory (1945-1951) and later as superintendant of the Benedictine Heights Hospital (1951-1958), during which time she was also sub-prioress (1955-1958) (Marthaler, 2002, p. 68).

Sr. Mary Charles completed her undergraduate work at Benedictine Heights College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in 1946. In 1960 she earned a Masters of Arts in Religious Education. Her thesis, “The Study of Some Attempts to Integrate the Life of Worship into Catechisms in the Modern Period,” reflected both her Benedictine spirituality that was rooted in the liturgy and the then strong liturgical movement in the United States in which she played an active role. For the next four years following her graduate studies (1960-1964), she taught at McGuiness High School in Washington, D.C. until joining the faculty at The Catholic University of America in 1964 at the invitation of Rev. Gerard S. Sloyan, then Chair of the Department of Religious Education. Rev. Berard L. Marthaler, O.F.M. Conv., for many years a colleague of Mary Charles in the department of Religion and Religious Education at The Catholic University of America,  recalls the new position took her out of the familiar environs of a school context and into the academy which demanded that she meet the standards of research required of a college professorship, “Although her appointment to the faculty of The Catholic University of America could be seen as an extension (and expansion) of her previous ministry, it was in fact a matter of starting over” (Marthaler, 2002, p. 69).

Mary Charles took little time to demonstrate that she was up to the task of academic life.  Shortly before she joined the faculty at The Catholic University of America she published Come Let Us Eat: Preparing for First Communion (1964) and the adult handbook, First Communion: A Parent-Teacher Manual for “Come Let Us Eat” (1964). Like others of her generation, she joined the catechetical movement through the door of the liturgy. Her ideas on the educative value of the liturgy were clearly influenced by fellow Benedictine, Virgil Michel OSB, who perceived the necessity for religious education to go beyond doctrinal instruction and confines of the school setting. Mary Charles established her own credentials as a scholar in the field of religious education with writings in three topic areas: the integral relation of the liturgy to catechesis, the history of the catechism in the United States, and “transcultural catechesis” or the evangelization of Native Americans (Marthaler, 2002, p. 71).

Mary Charles earned her Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in 1970 for a study entitled, “The Influence of the Catechism of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore on Widely Used Elementary Text Books From Its Composition in 1885 to Its 1941 Revision.” The debate over a uniform catechism had preoccupied the American Church since before the time of the Baltimore Catechism (1885, 1941) and this became the basis of Mary Charles’ doctoral dissertation on the history of the American catechism. With the publication of her seminal work in 1984, Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, she chronicles the role of the bishops in the catechetical history of the United States from the early bishops down to the publication of the National Catechetical Directory, Sharing the Light of Faith (1979). Building on her doctorial research on the factual history of the catechism in the United States, Pride of Place provided a more expansive historical treatment of the U.S. bishops and catechesis and captures what Mary Charles perceived as a singular trajectory: to provide a catechesis that remained true to the teachings of the Church in the context of America’s distinctive pluralism. 

The third area of Mary Charles’ work, the evangelization of Native Americans or what she termed “transcultural evangelization,” was deeply personal but broadly social. “She felt deeply the exploitation of American Indians by the U.S. government” and knew well the tragic history of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (Marthaler, 2002, 70). Mary Charles published several articles on the catechesis of Native Americans in the missionary Church and in modern times and addressed the topic as a significant chapter in her 1984 work, Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States.   In the area of the Native American apostolate in the United States, she was more than an historian of religious education; she was an activist. Mary Charles served as a formal consultant to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (1978-1979). In 1978, she attended the Conference on Catechesis of Native Americans held on the Papago Indian Reservation in Arizona and later published an essay on it. In Pride of Place, she profiled those exceptional missionary priests and bishops who distinguished themselves by a respect for the language, culture and spirituality of the Native American people.  Moreover, her identification with minority groups was never limited to Native Americans.  Throughout her years at The Catholic University of America, she chose to live in a racially integrated Washington, D.C. neighborhood where she was an active community organizer (Marthaler, 2002, p. 71).   

Mary Charles’ credentials as a scholar of religious education very soon earned her the support of her colleagues at the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education (APRRE) who elected her president of the organization for the 1979-1980 term.  In addition to her published writings, she lectured on catechetics at St. Thomas University in Edmond, Canada, the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin, Ireland, and various other institutes in the United States. Upon her retirement from The Catholic University of America in 1983, the annual Mary Charles Bryce Lecture Series at The Catholic University of America was established to honor her contributions and encourage and support new scholarship in the field of religious education. Her work in higher education continued with her subsequent appointment to the Flannery Chair in Theology at Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington (1984-1985). She was the first woman to hold the chair. It was an enormously productive period in Mary Charles’ scholarly life that included the 1984 publication of her signature work, Pride of Place. Her passion and commitment to religious education and pastoral ministry continued after her return to her home state of Oklahoma in 1986. She served as a board member of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and as associate director of the diocese’s Pastoral Ministry Program until Alzheimer’s disease curtailed her work. Mary Charles spent the final years of her life at the Dooley Center at Mount Saint Scholastica Convent in Atchison, Kansas, where she lived from 1995 until her death in 2002 at the age of eighty-five. 

Contributions to Christian Education


  1. The Relation of Liturgy to Catechesis

The work of Mary Charles Bryce in helping to establish religious education and catechesis as an academic discipline began in her deep appreciation for the educative value of the liturgy. Her graduate studies at The Catholic University of America coincided with the peak period of the American liturgical movement of which she was an active contributor.  By the early 1960s, the efforts of the National Liturgical Conference reached deep into the parish life of the country through its annual Liturgical Weeks that modeled the full participation of the laity in the liturgical life of the Church.   Liturgical renewal in the United States would formally arrive with the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent reforms to the worship life of the Church. However, it was the twentieth century contributions of Virgil Michel, OSB that had the greatest influence on Mary Charles’ early appreciation for the catechetical value of worship. Like Michel, Bryce was a member of the Benedictine community whose apostolate focused on the liturgy as the heart of the Christian life. In her essay on Roman Catholic innovators in the realm of American catechetics during the first-half of the twentieth century, she places Michel alongside of Edward A. Pace, Thomas E. Shields, Peter C. Yorke, and Edwin O’Hara. All five were pioneers in mid-century catechesis and together they charted a new vision for religious education in the United States. Michel’s distinct contribution was his conviction about the indispensable role of worship in religious education. Bryce described his enthusiasm for the liturgy as nothing short of contagious, “Perceiving that ‘the greatest hindrance to the liturgical revival … was ignorance and misunderstanding, best stated as miseducation,’ he determined to rectify existing practices” (Bryce, 1978, S49).  

Mary Charles joined the conversation on the role of worship in religious education with her master’s thesis, “Some of the Attempts to Integrate the Life of Worship into Catechisms in the Modern Period,” (The Catholic University of America, 1970).  At this early stage in her scholarship, we discover the first of three areas that would define her contributions to modern religious education – the integral relation of the liturgy to catechesis. Like many others of her day, Mary Charles entered the American catechetical movement through the liturgy. While the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was still in session, she published a text on sacramental catechesis for First Communion, Come Let Us Eat: Preparing for First Communion and an adult handbook, First Communion: A Parent Teacher Manual for “Come Let Us Eat,” (1964). Come Let Us Eat was written for young children and employed the insights of the modern psychological and educational theorists, including educational psychologist and former Catholic University of America professor, Thomas E. Shields (1862-1921). Shields understood that to improve the quality of religious education meant to improve the quality of the educator. This was Mary Charles’ goal in the publication of a teacher-manual for Come Let Us Eat (1964).  In his theoretical work, The Psychology of Education (1908), he pressed for a child-centered curriculum in which “the child became 'an active agent in the educative process,’ and not merely a passive recipient memorizing the teacher’s ideas or selections” (Bryce, 1978, S43-44).  Shields’ influence is wholly evident in the student text for Come Let Us Eat; a child-friendly manual that used biblical stories in accessible language, limited but bold text, brightly colored illustrations, song and dance to teach the meaning of Eucharist outside of the abstract presentation of the catechism.  Bryce explained the importance of the attention to pedagogy this way, “The child under six learns by impressions and concrete experiences…he learns by what he does” (Bryce, 1964a, p. 113). The text is also shaped by the kerygmatic principles of catechesis advanced by Josef Jungmann.  Mary Charles arranged the manual using Jungmann’s five-step method of preparation, presentation, explanation, summary and application. The method allowed her to enshrine the doctrinal teaching on First Communion in a practical and experimental presentation of Christian truth in relation to the life experiences of the child. The child-centeredness of the text also influenced her choice of language and symbols. For example, she explains that the text depicts the Eucharist as a “meal” because a small child can grasp this meaning from within his own experience of family meals. Likewise, the text avoids identifying the Eucharist as a “sacrifice,” a concept too abstract for a young child.

Mary Charles’ adaptation of the content to the learner in Come Let Us Eat is evident in both the teachings she included in the volume and those she left out. For example, she deferred treatment of the Trinity as a too-abstract concept insisting that, “God must never become an abstraction” (Bryce, 1964a, p. 44).  Mary Charles also takes a reformist position in electing to omit the practice of preparation for First Reconciliation prior to First Communion. She argued the soundness of this decision “as a response to the new understandings in psychology that indicate small children are not guilty of sin and the ‘real danger’ of an exaggerated emphasis on sin that can portray God as a harsh avenger rather than a loving and all-merciful God” (Bryce, 1964a, p. 16). Her objection was not to the Sacrament of Reconciliation per se, but rather the risks of preparing a child prematurely. Her decision to omit a catechesis for the Sacrament of Penance did not go unnoticed.  The text found its way to the Apostolic Delegate for Censure but Mary Charles was later assured of the personal support of Archbishop Victor Reed of Oklahoma City (Marthaler, 2002, p. 70).

 With the parent/teacher manual for Come Let Us Eat we discover the importance Mary Charles placed on an informed adult laity and the role of parents as the primary catechists for their children. Drawing on the works of Mary Perkins Ryan and other catechetical leaders of the day, she stressed the orientation of child catechesis to family life as the primary place for Christian formation of the young, “God is real to children to the extent that He is real to the adults with whom children live” (Bryce, 1964b, p. 117). Mary Charles developed the text through a wide consultation with parents, catechists, and clergy, including the Rev. Gerard Sloyan whose preface recommends the text, “For its thoroughness, its sacramental soundness and its pedagogical concern” (Bryce, 1964b, pp. 11-12). The manual reflects the major innovative thrusts of the period in the conviction that effective religious education must entail good theology and good pedagogy and that the catechist must be trained in both.  Her discussion of the pedagogical basis of preparing children for First Communion emphasized, “the mysteries of the faith which are absolutely necessary to salvation are in the case of small children, very few, and are in any case summed up in the mystery of the Eucharistic Bread” (Bryce, 1964b, p. 9). Bryce describes the aim of the text in a “Janus-like” fashion. It looks back to the catechesis of the ancient Church and “attempts a true ‘mystagogy’ that is to say, an initiation of children into the sacred temple by the adult Christian world,” while also looking forward to modern theories on child learning and the principle that, “We instruct a child according to his capacity” (Bryce, 1964b, 9, p. 121) The significance of the work is to be found in the way that they it responds to both modern theological and pedagogical theories in religious education. Bryce successfully applied these principles to the teachings of the Baltimore Catechism (1941) appropriate for First Communion.  In so doing, she recasts catechesis from an abstract context of questions-and-answers to a developmentally appropriate one capable of eliciting the child’s own religious sense.  Mary Charles’ early contributions in the area of innovative Roman Catholic catechesis for children and families led the way for Catholic religious educator Christiane Brusselmans (1930-1991) and her life’s work in family catechesis and the vocation of the laity in the mission of the Church.

During the period of Mary Charles’ writings in liturgical catechesis, “The “New Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” (1972) was still a decade away.  However, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council there was a movement in the Church to restore the liturgical context for the initiation of adult Christians. In a 1969 essay on the pronouncements of Vatican II to restore the ancient model of the adult catechumenate and the centrality of the liturgy and other sacraments in Christian formation, Bryce contends that this past practice affirms present thinking in catechesis. She claims, “An intellectual grasp of what Christianity means has not been and cannot be enough” (Bryce, 1969, p. 26). In her plea to give the renewal of the catechumenate serious consideration, Bryce calls for an effective restoration of the practice. She argues that the early catechumenate’s emphasis on adults and on a catechesis bound up with liturgy and the role of the entire ecclesial community in catechetical formation are principles that hold relevance for post-conciliar times. She concedes, “Surely there can be no question of a carte blanche transplantation of primitive Church practice but neither can these statements [Vatican II] go unheeded” (Bryce, 1969, p. 262). The article concludes on a prophetic note with a call-to-action directed to a less-than-receptive Church in the United States. Bryce refers to the more progressive French and Canadian experiments with catechumenal programs as an encouragement to the Church in this country. The goal to make adult catechesis more significant has already been charted by Vatican II, what is needed now, “is the farsighted convinced pastor to follow through” (Bryce, 1969, p. 273).

     2.  History of Catechesis and the Role of the Bishops in the United States

Mary Charles’ early work in liturgical catechesis for young children brought her face to face with the limitations of the Baltimore Catechism (1885, 1941). This was likely the inspiration for the second area of study in which she would make a lasting contribution – the history of the American catechism.  Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the debate in Catholic religious education was framed largely by those who were supporters and detractors of the revised Baltimore Catechism (1941). Worldwide, the Council called for the development of a catechetical directory instead of a universal catechism and this too was much debated.  Mary Charles’ Ph.D. dissertation at the Catholic University of America, “The Influence of the Catechism of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore on Widely used Elementary Text Books From its Composition in 1885 to its 1941 Revision,” set out to establish an historical context for its origins and its influence.  In this sweeping survey of the effects of the Baltimore manual from its development and over the next five decades, Mary Charles sought to evaluate three principal concerns; the innovativeness of the catechism for its time, whether it set a new direction for American catechesis, and the lessons this history reveals for the value of a uniform catechism for the entire Catholic world (Bryce, 1970, pp. 1-2).

The study was unique in two ways. It was the first exhaustive historical survey of the Baltimore Catechism and the numerous other catechisms in circulation and the only study of its kind that worked from primary sources. Bryce had access to the complete holdings of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Archives that contained correspondence and other papers. She also had access to numerous “hard-to-find” catechisms produced in the United States, both before and after the Baltimore Catechism, from among collections at The Catholic University of America and the private library of the then Rev. Raymond Lucker; a pioneer in Catholic religious education who served as a reader on Mary Charles’ dissertation committee and became Bishop of New Ulm in 1976.

The originality of Bryce’s methodology also included a textual analysis of the forerunners to the Baltimore Catechism in order to determine the originality of the text. Catechisms in use in pre-Revolutionary America were those brought with immigrants from their native countries. Bryce describes it as a period defined by imports and adaptation of catechisms from Europe and the Continent, “Catholics relied on textbooks brought with them [since] before the Revolution there was no publication of Catholic textbooks of any kind” (Bryce, 1970, p. 64).

Catechesis: From Oral to Written Tradition

Bryce opens her study with the reminder that the written catechism was a rather late invention. Catechesis retained its oral, narrative and exhortative nature prior to the sixteenth century, and was “More often contained in sermons and homilies” (Bryce, 1070, 23).  Augustine wrote both the exceptions to this oral tradition. His manual for catechists, De Catechizandis Rudibus, instructed on the order of the presentation of subject matter aligned to the motivation of the candidate, but nonetheless retained an oral-narrative context for catechesis. Augustine’s Enchiridion (On Faith, Hope and Love) was a literary work but held to a liturgical-scriptural center unlike later catechisms of the Church. In contrast to the centrality of catechesis in the early Church, Bryce characterizes the Middle Ages as a period of “catechism scarcity.” Adult catechesis was primarily pulpit-oriented or defined  by the popular devotional practices of the laity.  Alluding to Jungmann’s evaluation of the period she observes, “The era contended itself too easily with religious usage and paid too little attention to the religious formation of the mind, knowledge and understanding” (Bryce, 1979, p. 27).

This era of catechetical minimalism was transformed to an “abundance of catechesis” during the period of the Reformation.  Bryce details the social influences that paved the way for the evolution of catechesis as a written tradition including the advent of the printing press, the growing support of universal education and increasing literacy among the general population.  The tipping point in the transition to catechesis as a literary form was Luther’s introduction of the Large Catechism (1526) when, “the concept of an oral tradition receded as the new literary genre, catechism, took over” (Bryce, 1970, p. 29). The rise of the reformation manuals, including those of John Calvin, the Anglican Catechism and The Heidelberg Catechism, ushered in the new genre of the written catechism which was directed to children and the uneducated, grounded in a theology of the “law-Gospel’ doctrine of salvation, and promoted the value of memory over meaning in religious instruction (Bryce, 1970, 33). Initially, the Roman Church’s entry into the production of catechisms was a reactionary response to the reformers in the effort to “produce a similar work to offset the ‘venomous doctrine’ spread by the ‘heretics’” (Bryce, 1970, p. 36). Bryce observes that three catechisms were foundational to Catholic catechesis in the post-Reformation era, although there was a notable absence of uniformity among these manuals; the Canisius Catechism (1555-1589), which included one version for children that used pictures, songs and poems; the Catechism of Trent (1566), which was directed to clergy, emphasized the sacraments over the law in its order of presentation, and stressed the importance of adapting the message to the level of the learner; and the Bellarmine Catechism (1688), which introduced the questions- and- answers format that  would later become normative for the American catechism.

Development of the American Church and its Catechisms

Bryce traces the development of the first American Catechism – The Carroll Catechism named for the first bishop of Baltimore, Rev. John Carroll – to the spirit of the New Republic. The new climate of religious tolerance that was now constitutionally guaranteed did not put an end to the “anti- Catholic sentiment [which] was very real at the grass roots level” (Bryce, 1970, p. 70). American bishops were challenged on two fronts: to provide religious instruction outside of the common school with its emphasis on readers that were saturated with Protestant teachings and to provide manuals that met the broad swath of Catholic national and ethnic identities. According to Bryce, the proliferation of new catechisms that followed the Carroll Catechism over the next one hundred years were diverse in their origins and presentations, “but they were basically revisions, adaptations, or translations of existing works with only meager attempts at originality” (Bryce, 1970, p. 72).  The Carroll Catechism was itself an offshoot from the Bellarmine manual that had been recommended as a prototype at the First Vatican Council (1879-1880). By and large these catechisms “appeared to be cut from the same catechetical cloth with only a variation of arrangement altering the pattern” (Bryce, 1970, p. 78). The one exception to this rule was the 1825 catechism by John Baptist David, Auxiliary Archbishop of Bardstown, Kentucky.  The David catechism was modeled on the Tridentine order of presentation but also included a section on catechesis for the liturgical year. Bryce notes that this highly popular catechism, with its reliance on The Catechism of the Council of Trent, anticipated the theological presentation adopted by the writers of the Baltimore Catechism in 1885 (Bryce, 1970, p. 79).

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the problem of the multiplicity of catechisms concerned not only discordant manuals but also two incidents of schismatic catechisms that threatened Episcopal governance (Bryce, 1970, p. 81). Rising interest in a uniform American catechism followed the growth of the American church and the emerging parochial schools system. “One instrument considered vital to this education was a good catechism” which the First Provincial Council of Baltimore (1829) took to heart but never executed (Bryce, 1970, p. 83).

The issue of a uniform catechism threaded its way through the hierarchy for another forty-five years; however it was not until the Third Plenary Council (1884) that the bishops got down to work (Bryce, 1970, p. 98). Under the leadership James Gibbons, then Archbishop of Baltimore, A Catechism of Catholic Doctrine Prepared and Enjoined by Order of the Third Plenary Council was published in 1885. Later known as the Baltimore Catechism, it modeled The Catechism of the Council of Trent for its theological order of doctrine, but its intended audience of children and its method of presenting doctrine in a brief and easily memorized questions-and-answers format followed the tradition of the Bellarmine Catechism

The Baltimore Catechism – Origins and Criticisms

Bryce’s major contribution in the study is an original textual analysis that compared the Baltimore Catechism with its forerunners in order to determine its originality and its merits.  The analysis includes four popular catechisms in circulation in the United States prior to the publication of the Baltimore Catechism; The Catechism Ordered by the National Synod of Maynooth, a revised version of the popular Irish catechism written by Dr. James Butler (1882); the General Catechism of Christian Doctrine, published by the third Archbishop of Baltimore, Rev. Augustin Verot (1869); A Catechism of Christian Doctrine for General Use , prepared by John M. McCaffrey in New York (1866);  and the Catechism of the Diocese of  Bardstown, written by John Baptist David, Archbishop of Kentucky (1825). Her analysis showed that of the 421 questions found in the Baltimore Catechism, 372 questions were present in the four catechisms, 287 questions were common in all four of the catechisms, and 49 questions were unique to the 1885 manual.  She concludes, “While the Baltimore Catechism relied heavily on manuals in use prior to and during the era of its origin, it did not depend solely on them…it was indeed a ‘new’ catechism” (Bryce, 1970, p. 115). An interesting observation from Bryce is that the questions unique to the Baltimore manual were related mostly to the Church authority and ones previously emphasized by Vatican I (1879-1890).

The response to the Baltimore Catechism was lukewarm at best. (Bryce, 1970, p. 170) But a revision of the Baltimore manual would happen no more quickly than the original.  In the meantime, the problem of the multiplicity of catechisms continued and “even if a proper catechism were to be prepared, the Board of Archbishops had no authority to order its general use” (Bryce, 1970, p. 119). For a period of time, it was thought that the impending “Catechism of Pius X” would serve to provide a universal catechism but it was only adopted for use in Italy (1905). Subsequent pronouncements of Pius XI, beginning in 1923, stressed the seriousness of instruction in Christian doctrine including the call to bishops to establish separate schools for teaching the catechism that would later influence the revival of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. With the publication of The Christian Education of Youth (1929), Pius XI exhorted the entire Church to take responsibility for an integral Christian education and reminded parents of their obligation to educate their children in a Catholic school (Bryce, 1970, p. 174).

A significant result of the Vatican push for catechetical renewal at a time of growing disenchantment with the Baltimore manual was its influence on the development of graded religion text books in the United States.  Catholic forerunners in the graded series sought to incorporate modern educational theories in adapting the content to the age of the learner. Already by this time, some innovation was afoot. Peter Christopher Yorke, a priest of archdiocese of San Francisco, developed a graded series of manuals called Text Books of Religion beginning in 1898. The series placed the content of the Baltimore Catechism in a scriptural context and adapted it to the age of the learner (Bryce, 1970, p. 151). In 1908, Thomas E. Shields, an educational psychologist and professor at the Catholic University of America, introduced his Religion Series that “endeavored to appeal to the fundamental instincts of the very young child…by use of colored pictures and limited content “(Bryce, 1970, p. 144).

Bryce evaluated 179 manuals published in the fifty-six year period between the Baltimore Catechism and its revision and concludes that the original manual had a negligible influence on the development of graded textbooks. Almost two-thirds of the seventy manuals published before 1918 bore no relation to the Baltimore and of the one hundred six manuals published during 1918-1941, fifty-percent showed no reliance (Bryce, 1970, pp. 153, 185). Among those texts with no discernable influence was the growing number of First Communion manuals that Bryce attributes more to the influence of Pius X (and his mandate for an earlier age for the sacrament) than that of Baltimore (Bryce, 1970, p. 186). Of the communion manuals belonging to a graded series, The Christ Life Series by Virgil Michel and Basil Stegmann was unique in its centeredness in the liturgy and its complete lack of dependency on the Baltimore Catechism.

By the time of the appearance of the revised Baltimore Catechism in 1941, the world had changed but the revised manual “bore an unmistakable similarity to the 1885 catechism in more that name” (Bryce, 1970, p. 195). She laments, “Those responsible for revising the Baltimore text seemed completely unaware of, and uninfluenced by, the more thought-involving trend evident in newer religious manuals appearing on the market” (Bryce, 1970, p. 227). Despite the breakthrough theories of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike that took root in American soil, “Very little of the progress which professional educators regarded as valid and valuable was acceptable by catechists and catechism writers” of the time (Bryce, 1970, p. 143).

Bryce concludes this sweeping history of the Baltimore text with a balanced assessment. The strengths of the manual were also its weaknesses, “In their efforts to achieve absolute exactness [of doctrine] in an economy of words, catechism writers usually failed to impart the wholeness of the doctrine studied” (Bryce, 1970, p. 228). She finds the most compelling lesson of the history of the Baltimore manual in the idea that no single uniform text will ever be sufficient in handing on the faith.  Bryce notes that the more meaningful contemporary manuals that it influenced teach the value of a more comprehensive Christian education that incorporates modern theological and pedagogical advances and fosters the social dimension of catechesis as integral to Christina living. These principles, says Bryce, have already been embraced in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Bryce’s survey of the history of the American catechism leads one to conclude that its failings were not the aims of the endeavor but the limitations of the genre.  The ideal qualities of modern religious education indicate, “one ‘master’ manual could scarcely prove effective” (Bryce, 1970, p. 236).

Bishops and the Ministry of Catechesis: Hermeneutic of Continuity

Mary Charles would return to the history of the catechism in the United States but with a more expansive view of its trajectory in her seminal work, Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States (1984). In the fourteen years since her first study on the Baltimore Catechism (1970), the catechetical landscape had changed once again. The exclusive emphasis on the catechism in the nineteenth century that led to mandated specific textbooks that served American Catholics until the post-Vatican II period, shifted once again to biblical study and general directories. The premise of her present research was two-fold; to stress the role of the bishops in the modern Catholic catechetical reform up to and including Sharing the Light of Faith: National Catechetical Directory for Catholics of the United States  (1979), and to discuss the role of religious education in the context of the ethnic diversity of the American Catholic Church.

Bryce takes her title from the Second Vatican Council document, Christus Dominus, which called the bishops “to present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times…to use the various means at hand for making Christian doctrine known; namely…preaching and catechetical instruction which always holds pride of place” (Abbott, 1966, p. 405).  The contours of her study of American catechesis begin in the Carroll Catechism (1793), progress through the deliberations of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore and the original Baltimore Catechism (1885) and lead up to the recent publication of the American Bishops’ Sharing the Light of Faith (1979). Bryce aims to illustrate that this history reveals a hermeneutic of continuity, “As one surveys the nearly two-hundred year history of the Church’s life in this country, one discovers that the principles of adaptation and respect for diverse circumstances have been in many cases the hallmarks of catechesis in the U.S. Church” (Bryce, 1984, p. 6). Bryce also has a second aim: to examine the ministry of catechesis as distinct from the Catholic education, “Of its nature catechesis is an ecclesial ministry which may, and indeed does, take place in classrooms; but is setting is also the marketplace, the home, the playground, the business office, the restaurant, the sanctuary, along with places of formal inquiry and learning” (Bryce, 1984, p. 3).  

The result is that the expanded study provides a more expansive history of the catechetical mission of the American Church as one not limited to texts, schools and children. It is the history of the innovative leadership of the bishops in creating the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine as a national organization to reach public school children and of a gradual extolling of adult catechesis through Scripture study clubs and the use of social media such as Catholic newspapers and periodicals. The founding principles of adaptation and inculturation that shaped the American Church and its catechetical manuals are also the root of the diversity of forms of catechesis that emerge in the early twentieth century and which help to totally recast the ministry in the broader framework of religious education in the Vatican II Church.

Bishops, Catechisms and the Americanization of the Church

With Pride of Place, Mary Charles’ contribution to catechetical history includes access to pertinent archives at the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. As a result, Bryce succeeds in supplying an additional layer of factual Episcopal history.  The focus of her present study is neither limited to the Baltimore Catechism (1885, 1941), or the religious textbooks that developed in the fifty-six year span between the catechism’s original and revised editions.  Instead, her research chronicles the ideas and the efforts of the early bishops to catechize during the period of the expansion and Americanization of the U.S. Church.  She also demonstrates a more theoretical grasp of this early Episcopal history. Her discussion of the “identity crisis” of the nineteenth century American Church, when rising Irish and German immigration fueled an image of the Church as “essentially a foreign power [Rome] which, if allowed to expand without limitation, would bring an end to the American way of life,” provides a more nuanced understanding of this period in Church history (Bryce, 1984, p. 27).  The challenge to American bishops, according to Bryce, was the need to educate Rome to the uniqueness of the New Republic that separated church and state while at the same time confronting hostile Catholic sentiment at home and endeavoring to support Catholic assimilation without relinquishing Catholic identity.

Her more expansive treatment of the early bishops recalls other tensions in the nascent American Church including the challenge of “trusteeism” and the attempts by lay trustees in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and other cities to name their own pastor and govern their own parishes in violation of Church law. Bryce chronicles how the “Americanization” of the Church beginning in the early nineteenth century already showed signs of evolving past a more limited understanding of catechesis as a ministry directed to children, schools and texts.  She cites the work of John England, the first bishop of Charleston, who confronts the issue of “trusteeism” in an 1841 pastoral letter affirming the separation of church and state that extended even to the pope who had no “power or right” to interfere in United States civil law. England’s efforts to construct a Church in the south along the lines of a democratic republic included the formation of an annual convention comprised of the bishop and a house of lay delegates that recognized the role of the laity in temporal matters of the Church (Bryce, 1984, p. 32). To support the formation of a more educated laity, England’s other initiatives included a catechism for adult Catholics (England’s Catechism was largely based on the 1807 Butler Catechism), the creation of the first Catholic newspaper (The United States Catholic Miscellany), the formation of book societies to encourage adult parishioners to read Catholic literature, and the publication of the English Missal, an innovation largely unknown in the Catholic world that created controversy among his fellow bishops.

Adapting Catechesis to Cultural Diversity

Bryce’s research includes other outstanding bishops whose commitment to a unity in catechesis in the context of a culturally diverse American Church also led to innovative practices. We learn how Benedict Joseph Fenwick, Boston’s second bishop, responded to the catechetical needs of his diocese by publishing a catechism in 1843 (a version of the Carroll Catechism) that included a section for use during the liturgy along with his publication of the first young Catholics’ weekly, The Expostulator (Bryce, 1984, pp. 55-56). Another example was Philadelphia’s third bishop, Francis Patrick Kenrick, who responded to the national and ethnic composition of his dioceses and approved the Kleiner Katechismus for German speaking Catholics and for English speaking ones, the Butler Catechism (Bryce, 1984, pp. 57-58). Bishop John Neumann, Philadelphia’s fourth bishop, wrote two catechisms for German speaking Catholics in Pittsburg. Bryce describes Neumann’s work as influenced by the catechisms of Canisius and Bellarmine but also the works of Augustine and Gregory the Great.  She claims the distinctiveness of Neumann, “foreshadowed the ideal which the U.S. bishops were later to project in their 1979 directory, Sharing the Light of Faith [for] he did not restrict catechesis to question-and-answer instructions but expanded it to its fuller concept of all activity which resounds and exemplifies God’s loving word, which awakens, nurtures, and contributes to developing the life of faith in Christians” (Bryce, 1984, p. 61).

A significant development in Bryce’s 1984 history of the early bishops is the attention given to catechesis among Native Americans. Although she did not give a critical account of bishops’ whose missionary efforts were less than exemplary, she cites two bishops for their embrace of Native American culture in their missionary efforts, Frederic Baraga (1797-1898), the first bishop of Marquette (Michigan), and Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883), first bishop of Oregon City. Baraga ministered to several different nationalities and races in Marquette, including German, French and Indian and he was proficient in all three languages. Bryce defines his immersion in and respect for Native American culture as his distinctive contribution to apostolate. In addition to writing both a catechism and a history of Jesus Christ in the American Indian tongue, “At one point he wrote a pastoral letter to the Chippewa in their tongue, the first ‘official document’ ever issued in a language of the Red People” (Bryce, 1984, pp. 52-53). Bryce finds Baraga was ahead of his time for his deep appreciation of the how the Christian message should ideally inculturate an indigenous culture.  Two other missionaries to Native Americans were the first bishop of Oregon City, Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) and bishop of Vancouver Island, Modeste Demers (1809-1871). These friends and colleagues worked together as pioneers in the Oregon mission, writing catechisms and a directory for the Chinook tribe. Bryce adds a personal aside to this section of her study which reflects her own Cherokee heritage and her present work with the U.S. Bishops to promote justice for Native Americans when she laments the use of the term “savages” to describe Native Americans, “This writer winces every time she reads or hears the term …it is an unfortunate and inappropriate description of people who in many cases had a high sense of morality among themselves and were ingenious in adapting their lives to the land” (Bryce, 1984, p. 54).

Unity versus Uniformity of Message: Worldwide Church Debate

Bryce’s treatment of the period of the Plenary Councils of Baltimore (1852-1884) and the work of the U.S. bishops to develop a uniform catechism extends beyond her 1970 study in the attention to the role of the bishops in the interim period between 1866 and 1884. AS Bryce observes, the Second Plenary Council (1866) closed without approving a uniform catechism but, “the catechism was not the only focus for the conciliar leaders in the matter of catechizing” (Bryce, 1984, p. 73). A series of new provisions were approved by the bishops which included the call for pastors to offer catechetical classes for children attending public schools, the instruction to pastors to build a school in every parish in order that all children might have access to a Catholic general education, and the need to support the Catholic press to make known the truths of the faith. Bryce chronicles the more innovative initiatives of the day among those of Richard Gilmour, Cleveland’s second bishop. Benziger Brothers published Gilmour’s Illustrated Bible History in 1862. It was followed by his editing of a series of readers first published by Benziger in 1874, the National Catholic Series of Readers.  Bryce observes, “These books were the country’s earliest classroom readers calculated to impart Catholic moral and religious instruction as well as to teach reading and spelling” (Bryce, 1984, p. 74). They became the standard text for Catholic elementary schools in the United States for more than forty years.

Bryce also brings into focus the role of the U.S. Bishops at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870 when the approval of a single catechism for universal use was debated along the lines of “unity versus uniformity”. The problem of multiplicity of catechisms was not distinctly American.  Council fathers, who argued for uniformity, or a universal catechism, stressed the proliferation of catechisms in circulation, the reality of urban migration to the cities that undermined religious formation in the home, and the ongoing emigration of Catholics from Europe and the Continent to North America that created confusion due to different local catechisms. Among the most vocal opponents to the Council’ proposal for a single catechism for worldwide use was Augustin Verot, third bishop of Savannah, Georgia. Verot had published his own catechism in 1869 that included sections on prayer, comprehensive questions and answers relating to doctrine, and a biblical-narrative history of religion. Sensitive to the vast religious plurality of his diocese, he also published two separate catechisms for adults, one for converts from Protestantism and a second for converts from Judaism. Verot stressed that the bond of unity was already found in the unity of doctrine in the Church. Bryce describes Verot as man ahead of his time for his interests in ecumenism and the ongoing formation of adult Christians, “Like the thrust of the General Catechetical Directory (1971) and Sharing the Light of Faith (1979) he clearly considered catechesis an enduring element in the faith life of a Christian and not solely for children” (Bryce, 1984, p. 76). It was Felix Dupanloup, bishop of Orleans, France, who addressed the Council with the most succinct rebuttal to the identity of uniformity and unity when he stated, “unity of doctrine is already present in the creed, commandments, and basic teachings” (Bryce, 1984, p. 82).  The debate over a universal catechism at the First Vatican Council ended with the approval of a schema for a small catechism. Those bishops who fought valiantly to oppose a uniform catechism and argued its impracticality for the diverse Catholic world did not win the day. The schema was approved. The majority of U.S. bishops supported it, including Verot who voted in favor with reservations. However, implementation was another matter. In fact, a universal catechism never materialized, and “It was nearly one hundred years later at the Second Vatican Council that the concept of a ‘catechetical directory’ replaced that of a single catechism for the Church universal” (Bryce, 1984, p. 84).

The complex matter of a uniform catechism continued to plague the U.S. Church even after the project failed to materialize at the First Vatican Council (1869-1879). Efforts for a uniform U.S. catechism finally bore fruit at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884). In April 1885, a seventy-two-page manual containing 421 questions-and-answers appears under the official title, A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by the Order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. Bryce’s original research (1970) on the Baltimore Catechism analyzed both the manual’s likeness and differences from the four popular catechisms in use at the time (Maynooth, Verot, McCaffrey and David) and its influence on the development of religion textbooks between the time of its first edition in 1885 and its revision in 1941. Bryce concludes that despite Episcopal approval, reception to the new manual was cool at best. The most forceful criticism came from a series of articles in the St. Louis monthly, the Pastoral Blatt, appearing between 1885 and 1886. The critical evaluations charged the text contained both pedagogical weaknesses in its language and length considered inappropriate for its primary audience of children, and theological weakness in the insufficient attention to the role of the Holy Spirit and single reference to the Resurrection. However for the majority of bishops, the introduction of the Baltimore Catechism meant business as usual. By the turn of the century, fifteen new manuals appeared carrying the stated approval of a local bishop (Bryce, 1984, p. 96).

Early 20th Century Innovations: The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine

Bryce stresses that the sameness of the American catechetical scene was in sharp contrast to rapid developments in Europe during the middle to late nineteenth century. In Germany and Austria, catechetical advances led by Bernhard Galura, Bernard Overburg and Johannes Hirscher called for a return to a historical framework as the appropriate context for catechesis. All three wrote catechisms in that perspective, and “The writings of all three men had a distinct influence on Josef Jungmann, S.J. (1889-1975), who subsequently incorporated much of their thought in his own work” (Bryce, 1984, p. 97).

By the turn of the twentieth century, the sameness of the American catechetical scene with its emphasis on doctrinal manuals would yield to a new movement in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD). Bryce identifies the development of the CCD as a major catalyst to modern catechetical reform in the United States. The earliest model of the apostolate was a group organized in Our Lady of Good Counsel in New York City in 1902. As Bryce writes, this ministry appeared more than five decades ahead of Pius X’s later encouragement to establish catechetical schools in every diocese. However prophetic this first local CCD group in NYC, it was the visionary leadership of Rev. Edwin O’Hara that would eventually lead to the establishment of the CCD as a national organization of the U.S. bishops. Bryce chronicles the history of the CCD under O’Hara, from its origins as the “Rural Life Bureau” arm of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) in 1921 and its first project to establish a Catholic vacation school for children, to subsequent reforms for reaching adult Catholics. Bryce writes that O’Hara knew first-hand of the “intellectual poverty” of rural Catholic America and was convinced that its solution was not limited to improved religious education of children (Bryce, 1984, 102). Among O’Hara’s initiatives to nurture a more informed Catholic adult laity was the Catholic weekly, St. Isidore’s Plow. First published in 1922, it became the official imprint of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) two years later. This was followed in 1931 with the first formal program of adult catechesis to educate parents in the formation of their children that included the use of The Parent-Educator textbook and discussion guide.

With the growing recognition among the bishops that the value of the Confraternity was not limited to rural Catholics, the CCD was made a separate national organization with an Episcopal committee and a central office in Washington, D.C. in 1934 and named Bishop O’Hara the committee’s first chairman. Bryce writes, “At its height the National CCD Center fostered such widely diversified programs such as adult discussion groups, parent educator programs, correspondence courses, radio programs, catechetical publications, Inter-American Relations, and street preaching” (Bryce, 1976, p. 152). The leadership of Bishop O’Hara brought national prominence to the apostolate. National CCD Congresses were held annually from 1935 to 1941. There were two other significant projects that owe their completion to O’Hara who by then was named bishop of Great Falls, Montana. In his new role as director of the National CCD, he led the latent project to revise the Baltimore Catechism that came to completion in 1941. Bryce observes that the fifty-year span between the two manuals witnessed “innovative catechesial theorists and thinkers in this country and in Europe” which the revised manual failed to incorporate.  She assesses the situation as partly attributable to “the lack of consultation with catechists actually engaged in the ministry of catechizing at the time” which might explain why more of these breakthroughs were absent from the new manual (Bryce, 1984, pp. 110-111). Among the perceived weaknesses of the 1941 manual, Bryce cites its departure from the theological sequence of the catechisms of Trent and Bellarmine that resulted in a less Christocentric focus to the text; its failure to incorporate any of the innovative theories of catechesis including the resurgence of the historical-narrative style and the contribution of the social sciences on child development and learning; and the total absence of the studies of American liturgist Virgil Michel on the integral role of liturgical and sacramental catechesis.  Bryce evaluates the drawbacks of the revised manual with an eye toward the new catechetical directories that would follow the Second Vatican Council when she states, “This leaves one with the realization that the question-and-answer catechism probably cannot carry the oversized burden which has been expected of it” (Bryce, 1982, p. 111).

The lukewarm reaction to the revised Baltimore Catechism under O’Hara’s watch was offset by a second project that met with universal success. O’Hara seized the initiative to respond to the growing interest in reading Scripture among adult Catholics fostered by the rising popularity of Bible study and discussion clubs.  He championed a new translation of the New Testament that appeared in 1941 and was known as, “The Confraternity New Testament” (Bryce, 1984, p. 112). O’Hara had organized a committee of scripture scholars and theologians to develop the new translation that later led to the establishment of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and in 1970, the publication of the New American Bible, an (Bryce, 1976, pp. 152-153). Bryce writes of O’Hara’s prophetic vision which decades before the opening of the Second Vatican Council envisioned  “that catechesis holds a legitimate “pride of place” among Episcopal responsibilities (Bryce, 1984, p. 114).

Catechetical Reform: An International Movement

Bryce places the forward thrust of the catechetical movement in the second-half of the twentieth century under the influence of Joseph Jungmann and his return to Scripture and liturgy as the font for catechesis and the Christian life.  His seminal work, The Good News Yesterday and Today (1936), would not reach the U.S. market until an English translation appears in 1964. In the meantime, his teachings reached this country through his summer visits to the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s and through the U.S. lectures of his student, Johannes Hofinger. Other milestones in the emerging catechetical renewal include the establishment of Lumen Vitae in 1946 as the first international catechetical study center and the growth in academic-year programs in catechesis at such places as the Catholic University of America. However, Bryce considers the enterprise that served as the greatest catalyst for the advance of catechesis as an academic discipline was the International Study Weeks under the leadership of Hofinger (Bryce, 1984, p. 132).

Among the most significant of these weeks was held in Eichstatt, Bavaria (July 21-28, 1960).  The Eichstatt study week identified the basic principles of catechesis and “approved the kerygmatic renewal and at the same time affirmed that worship, Eucharist, is the heart of Christian community and that catechesis embraces a four-fold presentation of the faith: through liturgy, Bible, systematic teaching and the testimony of Christian living” (Bryce, 1984, p. 134). Subsequent study weeks ensued over the next seven years. Bryce observes it was the 1968 study week at Medellin that broke additional new ground in catechesis by stressing the social justice dimension of catechesis. Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire addressed the assembly, “To educate is not to introduce someone to a ready-made world, but to help him to transform the world” (Bryce, 1984, p. 136). Although born out of the social oppression of the poor in Latin America, the Medellin message would resonate more broadly in calling all Christians to responsibility to change social systems that are inimical to the Christian message. The assembly concluded, “Theoretically and ideally the Christian message always takes into consideration the existential realities of peoples’ lives, but when these realities deliberately and pointedly militate against freedom and legitimate options, a third aspect of ministry must come into play, namely a grappling with these elements in the social order which obscure or prevent Christian truth from being experienced” (Bryce, 1984, p. 136). As Bryce observes, the conclusions reached at Medellin “addressed not only the situations and circumstances of Latin America but also those beyond its continental boundaries” (Bryce, 1984, p. 137).  From this point forward, the social justice dimension of catechesis that had in the past been “implied” in the principles of Christian living would now become a more explicit task of American catechesis.

The Catechetical Directory

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, theological and pedagogical progress had reached a threshold and set the stage for the change from traditional manuals to the new genre of directories. The idea that one master manual could prove effective within the context a pluralistic Church was a lesson already established by the history of the catechism and its multiple treatments, “The genre came to include a variety of works of different lengths, styles and needs of a particular place and time” (Marthaler, 1995, p. 5). Bryce notes that with the publication of the General Catechetical Directory (GCD) in 1971, the basic principles for catechesis were outlined, its primary orientation to adults confirmed and the task of applying these principles to concrete situations assigned to the bishops.  Importantly, the call to national directories was not intended to replace catechisms but to anticipate them (Marthaler, 1995, p. 133). When the Catechism of the Catholic Church is published 1992 (beyond the scope of Bryce’s study), it upholds the principles of adaptation in message and method as the province of the local Church and views its purpose as an instrument “to establish the parameters of pluriformity in practice and diversity of expression” (Marthaler, 1995, p. 148).

Bryce chronicles the enthusiastic response to the GCD that spilled over to the International Catechetical Conference in Rome (1971) where she was not only among the United States delegation but also made a formal intervention.  Mary Charles’ remarks were in response to the speech given by Mother Mary Elise Kranz, S.N.D. entitled “The Training of Religious Women for the Catechetical Apostolate.”  Mother Kranz argued that women religious by virtue of their exterior appearance were more effective in proclaiming the Gospel message, “All the proof available tells us that a sister in a religious habit, which in our culture usually includes the veil, is more effective in communicating the spiritual message of the Gospel than if she appears as a lay person” (National Center for Religious Education-CCD, 1971, p. 102).  Sister Mary Charles made the intervention out of religious habit and spoke to need for catechetics to be supported by research in collaboration with the human sciences, “Unless we take seriously this need for solid research, we may go along with the best intentions moving from one technique to another and running the risk of repeating errors which our predecessors made, or of becoming mere activists” (National Center for Religious Education –CCD, 1971, p. 110). The CCD Conference in Miami followed a few months later and both events would influence initial plans for a national directory for the United States. Bryce states, “One of the most significant events of the Miami meeting was an unscheduled off-the-record session called by Bishop McManus…to discuss the possibility and importance of initiating steps to produce a national catechetical directory for the United States” (Bryce, 1984, p. 145). Among the aims for the directory was to solicit the widest possible consultation in the development of the directory. A three-phased development ensued over the next six years to solicit reactions to an outline of the directory. The first and largest survey was fielded in 1974 among a broad representation of diocesan personnel and Catholic and non-Catholic national organizations concerned with religious education. The consultation drew 17,412 responses from 113 dioceses or an 83% response rate. The second two consultative phases produced similar strong response rates (Bryce, 1984, pp. 150-151).

Bryce tells us that other catechetical developments over the course of preparing the national directory influenced its final form. During this period, the U.S. bishops published two pastorals on catechesis.  In their 1972 pastoral, To Teach as Jesus Did: A Pastoral message on Catholic Education, they draw on the inspiration of the GCD (1971) in stating that adult catechesis “is situated not at the periphery of the church’s educational mission, but at its center” (n. 43). While To Teach continued to recognize the parochial school as the most effective locus for catechesis, its overview of the tasks of the catechetical ministry refers to the educational mission of the Church as a catechetical activity that is broadly pastoral and must involve the support of the entire Christian community (Bryce, 1973, pp. 262-263). A second pastoral, Basic Teachings (1973), provided a syllabus of doctrinal principles and was more akin to the hierarchy’s historical concern for orthodoxy of doctrine. Bryce draws the comparison between the 1972 pastoral and the first pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops, the 1792 letter of Bishop John Carroll, to underscore the full significance of To Teach. Bryce explains that Carroll’s letter treated themes of the educational ministry in its focus on the catechesis of children, the responsibility of parents and the importance of moral education, but it did so in the context of a range of pastoral concerns. It was not until the 1972 pastoral “that the bishops addressed themselves to catechesis as a whole, its scope, purpose and ideals” and gave “an entire pastoral letter over to catechetics or religious education” (Bryce, 1973, p. 257). 

1979 National Directory: Sharing the Light of Faith

In the weeks leading up to the final approval of Sharing the Light of Faith, U.S. bishops’ attendance at the Vatican synod of bishops, “Catechesis For Our Time” (1977), also proved to be formative for the National Directory, “For bishops who represented the U.S. Church in the synod it was a total immersion process that served them well in their final draft of the directory"(Bryce, 1984, p. 154). The early agenda for the synod was controversial for its stated emphasis on a catechesis directed to children which was inconsistent with both the previously published GCD and the about-to-be published U. S. National Directory. Bryce joined the chorus of those concerned with the proposed direction for the synod in an essay entitled, “Hopes for the Coming Synod,” that called attention to the trend in the Church to place greater emphasis on adult catechesis in such documents as the General Catechetical Directory (1971), the New Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972), and the latest draft (1977) of the proposed National Catechetical Directory. She observes astutely, “When the church pays more than lip service to adult catechesis, catechesis for children and adolescents will inevitably improve” (Bryce, October 8, 1977, p. 217). Among the various interventions made by U.S. bishops at the synod included the essential orientation of catechesis towards adults, the responsibility of the ecclesial community in catechesis, and the particular responsibility of catechesis towards ecumenism (Bryce, 1984, p. 155).

The publication of the National Catechetical Directory for Catholics in the United States: Sharing the Light of Faith (1979) signaled, “the Church in the United States has achieved a new threshold of self-realization in the ministry of catechizing” (Bryce, 1979, p. 407). Bryce describes it as a dialogical document in keeping with the fundamental spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the core thrust of its pastoral theology that perceives the integral relation between catechesis and revelation. Bryce found the principle of dialogue operative in the fundamental tasks of catechesis outlined in the Directory as proclamation, community, worship and service.  She contends, “Of larger significance is that the delineation of these tasks broadened the scope of catechesis from its more confining four centuries’ association with schools, children, and question-and-answer manuals to a more comprehensive concept of catechesis as being church wide, lifelong, and charged with keeping the Gospel message alive and vibrant” (Bryce, 1984, p. 163). The National Directory marked a new stage in the catechetical life of the Church in the United States that Bryce places in continuity (rather than rupture) with the history of the bishops and the development of catechesis in the American Church,  “From the days of John Carroll down to and through the publication of Sharing the Light of Faith, the bishops of this nation have sought to assist the faithful in realizing the vocation, the meaning, and the challenge of being Roman Catholic Christians in the particular, multi-diverse circumstances of life in the United States” (Bryce, 1984, p. 160).

  1. Catechesis in a Native American Context

Mary Charles held numerous memberships in her lifetime, but none more personal than her registry on the roles of the Cherokee tribe. In the eight year period between the publication of the General Catechetical Directory (1971) and Sharing the Light of Faith (1979) along with the innovative catechetical developments they helped to ferment, her writings turned to the catechesis of Native Americans. The question of the Church’s relationship to the Indian people and the history of Indian missions in North America were themes that Mary Charles placed within the larger context of the modern Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions. The Second Vatican Council documents, Nostra Aetate and Ad Gentes, expressed an appreciation for the “ray of truth” present in all religions, “The council fathers urged church members to dialogue and collaborate with others, listening and learning from them their ‘spiritual and moral goods…as well as the values in their society and culture’” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 113).

However influential the documents of the Second Vatican Council in fostering an awareness and deepened respect for religious diversity, the more immediate catalyst for Bryce’s work in this area appears to be the 1977, “Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on American Indians.” That same year, Mary Charles began a period of intensive research, writing and activism for improving the Church’s relations with American Indians. The bishops’ statement helped to advance this dialogue somewhat in its call for the inculturation of the Christian message, “The Christian faith should celebrate and strengthen the many diverse cultures which are the product of human hope and aspiration. The Gospel message must take root and grow within each culture and each community” (USCC, 1977, p. 3). Her concern was to support and strengthen these “new beginnings” between the American Church and Native Americans by educating Catholics for a more nuanced understanding of their common religious moral values and practices. As part of this education, she was committed to bring to life the history of exemplary Catholic missionaries to the Native Americans. The “enlightened missioner” was the exception rather than the rule of the day, although Bryce finds it important to stress “continuity in the church’s efforts to evangelize and catechize the Indians – a work that continues today” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 117). In “Lessons from History: Missionaries to the Native Americans,” Bryce attempts to “demythologize” the Christian perception that Native Americans possess one monochromatic religion, “Each tribe of American Indians is unique. Each has its own language, tribal customs, moral code, priorities, and each has its own religious life” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 114). Bryce contends that there is much that pastorally minded Christians might envy about the Native American concept of religion. What tribal religions share in common – the idea of a Supreme Being as all-pervasive, the spiritual attachment to the land, the emphasis on community, and the importance placed on ritual – are characteristics which “could make contributions to the believing, worshipping communities of Christian churches” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 117). Bryce was keenly attuned to the Church’s theology of non-Christian religions. One might speculate that as a religious educator, she understood the value of the encounter with the other as a means of enriching one’s own religious identity.

Bryce draws a connection between the modern spirit of Vatican II – its embrace of the dignity of all persons and the spiritual and moral integrity of other cultures and societies – and the historical and prophetic missionary activity of four Roman Catholic priests; Andrew White, S,J., John Schoenmakers, S.J., Martin Marty, O.S.B., and William H. Ketcham. Their work spanned a vast geographic range among different tribes in the United States between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.  What they held in common, says Bryce, was an eagerness to understand the Native American’s own religion, “Each came to a specific tribe (or tribes) with an evangelizing motive but quickly discovered that they had encountered an already deeply religious people” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 130). In their respect for the religious other, these ministers immersed themselves in Native American culture, learned the language of the tribes, and placed dialogue before proselytizing. As a model for contemporary catechesis to Native Americans, these men “were living witnesses to the Christian message and ideals” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 131). What we do with this encouraging lesson from history is another thing Bryce soberly concludes, “Whether or not these endeavors have any lasting effect on church work among the Native Americans is unclear at this time” (Bryce, 1977b, p. 113).

Mary Charles’ activism in the area of Native American catechesis also included her role as a consultant to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions between 1978 and 1979.  Also in 1978, she attended the Conference on Catechesis of Native Americans held on the Papago Indian Reservation in Arizona sponsored by the Department of Education of the United States Catholic Conference.  Her essay recording the hopeful tilt of the Conference pointed to the more than fifty pastoral and catechetical leaders representing thirteen tribes in attendance.  Bryce describes the Conference as “a step in the direction of improved relations, self-appreciation and determination for the tribal participants” (Bryce 1979, p. 63). Among the Conference sessions,  one dedicated to the review of religious textbooks was meant to respond to the “Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on American Indians (1977),” which urged, “Catholic educational institutions to examine their textbooks and curriculums and to promote programs and activities that will enable students at all levels to appreciate American Indian history, cultures and spirituality” (Bryce 1979, p. 62). The Conference evaluation of catechetical texts in use among Native Americans proved that “the search for suitable materials still goes on” (Bryce, 1979, p. 64). A second session explored the hardships common to all tribes in matters of discrimination, poverty and other injustices. Bryce assessed that the Conference did not yield any major breakthroughs in Native American catechesis.  It did, however, help to elevate the continuing need for the principles of adaptation, inculturation and subsidiarity in the Church’s relations with Native Americans. As a platform for open and respectful dialogue, “the Papago conference raised confidence in their [Native American] own potential to help themselves” (Bryce, 1979, p. 65).

Summary of Contributions to Christian Education

Mary Charles Bryce holds her own “pride of place” in the history of religious education in the United States. Her work “vindicated the position of religious education/catechetics as an academic discipline” (Marthaler, 2002, p. 72). The expansiveness of the areas of her scholarship, including catechesis in relation to the liturgy, the history of catechism in the United States and multicultural religious education in relation to Native Americans, mirrors the breadth and depth of the American catechetical endeavor as it evolved from the Baltimore Catechism (1885, 1941) to Sharing the Light of Faith (1979).  Rev. Berard L. Marthaler, O.F.M.Conv. reflects on his loyal friend and colleague, “She moved with the Church through the phases of growth leading up to and in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and she never wavered in her conviction of the importance of catechesis in the life of the Church” (Marthaler, 2002, p. 72). But Mary Charles’ work captured more than the intellectual history of American catechetics, it gave the enterprise a face and a personality.  She was acutely interested in the people behind the progress. A favorite expression of hers for describing the transparency of an issue was “warts and all.” This is precisely the degree of transparency we find in her research and writing on American catechetical history.  In her depiction of the catechizing ministry of the bishops of the early U.S. Church, we encounter three-dimensional figures that struggled openly in their firm commitment to minister to a diverse Catholic community at a formative and complex time in the American Catholic history. As important, her interest in persons who helped to shape the catechetical mission of the American Church was not restricted to the hierarchy.  Her 1986 essay, “Pioneer Women in Catechetics,” included well-published leaders like Mary Perkins Ryan, but also women whose identity and contributions might have gone unnoticed due to the scarcity of source material. Bryce discovered some of these figures in her research for Pride of Place (1984) and also relied on the help of archivists and friends from around the county “to rescue some of the pioneering, farsighted women from obscurity and bring them to the attention of the church at large and the catechetical world in particular” (Bryce, 1986, p. 313). In addition to the titles of scholar, educator and writer, Mary Charles was also a mentor.  She raised the profile of the work of women religious educators who though they may have lacked a scholarly pedigree, served training catechists, publishing, and promoting the development of the CCD.  Bryce’s influence was extraordinary for its range.  She inspired students and practitioners along with the most outstanding catechetical scholars of her day including Catholic University  colleague Berard Marthaler who recalls, “She convinced me as she did a generation of students that catechesis is a form of ministry of the Word, closely linked to the liturgy, and inseparable from the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of all peoples” (Marthaler, 1995, p. 6).

Mary Charles’ research and writing in catechetical history was consistently animated by the vision of a different but promising future for American catechesis and religious education. This spirit was evident in her first work and in a final one that bears her name. In 1991 the Dalai Lama issued “The Universal Declaration of Nonviolence” along with members of the North American Benedictine and Cistercian Monasteries in support of East-West dialogue, including Sr. Mary Charles Bryce among its signatures.  A condemnation of violence in the name of religion, the declaration calls for the role of world religions in advancing peace through dialogue and greater understanding (Dali Lama, 1991, p. 1).  One can only speculate that had Mary Charles’ work continued, if she might have emerged as a leading voice in educating for interreligious dialogue; both as a social justice issue and an expression of the maturity of the Christian faith and witness towards which all catechesis aspires. What we can say with certainty and with gratitude is that her contributions to religious education in the United States provide a firm foundation upon which new scholarship and new thresholds in the catechetical enterprise are possible.

Works Cited

  • Abbott, W.M. (Ed.). (1966). The documents of Vatican II. New York: Herder and Herder.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1964a). Come let us eat: Preparing for first communion. New York: Herder and Herder.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1964b). First communion: A parent-teacher manual for “come let us eat.” New York: Herder and Herder.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1969). The catechumenate – past, present and future. American Ecclesiastical Review, 160, 262-273.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1970). The influence of the catechism of the third plenary council of Baltimore on widely used elementary religion textbooks from its composition in 1885 to its 1941 revision. (Doctoral dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1970).  
  • Bryce, M.C. (1973). Religious education in the pastoral letters and the national meetings of the U.S. hierarchy. The Living Light, 19, 249-263.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1976). The confraternity of Christian doctrine.  In R. Trisco (Ed.), Catholics in America: 1776-1976 (pp. 149-153). Washington, DC:  United States Catholic Conference.
  • Bryce, M.C. (October 8, 1977a). Hopes for the coming synod. America, 137, 215-217.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1977, Spring). Lessons from history: Missionaries to the Native Americans. The Living Light, 14, 112-131.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1978). Four decades of Roman Catholic innovators.  Religious Education. 73(5), S36-S57.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1979). Sharing the light of faith: Catechetical threshold for the U.S. church. Lumen Vitae, 34, 393-407.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1979b, Spring). Native American conference on catechesis. The Living Light, 16, 62-66.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1983). The Baltimore catechism – origin and reception. In M. Warren  (Ed.), Source book for modern catechetics: volume 1 (pp. 140-145). Winona, MM: St. Mary’s Press.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1984). Pride of place: The role of the bishops in the development of catechesis in the United States. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
  • Bryce, M.C. (1986, Summer). Pioneer women in catechetics. The Living Light, 22, 313-324.
  • Lama, D. (1991). Universal declaration of non-violence. Retrieved February 3, 2010, from Monastic Interreligious Dialogue database.
  • Marthaler, B.L. (1995). The catechism yesterday and today: An evolution of a genre. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
  • Marthaler, B.L. (2002, Summer). In memoriam: Mary Charles Bryce, OSM. The Living Light, 38(4), 68-79.
  • Statement of the U.S. Bishops on American Indians. (1977). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.
  • The International Catechetical Congress: Selected Documentation. (1971). Washington DC: National Center of Religious Education – CCD. 


Books and Chapters in Books

Bryce, M.C. (1984). Pride of place: The role of the bishops in the development of catechesis in the United States, Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Bryce, M.C. (1976). The confraternity of Christian doctrine. In R. Trisco (Ed.), Catholics in America: 1776-1976 (pp. 149-153). Washington DC: National Catholic Conference of Bishops.

Bryce, M.C. (1964a). Come let us eat: Preparing for first communion. New York: Herder and Herder.

Bryce, M.C. (1964b). First communion: A parent-teacher manual for “come let us eat.” New York: Herder and Herder.


Bryce, M.C. (1986, Summer). Pioneer women in catechetics. The Living Light, 22, 313-324.

Bryce, M.C. (1979). Sharing the light of faith: Catechetical threshold for the U.S. church. Lumen Vitae, 34, 393-407.

Bryce, M.C. (1979, Spring). Native American conference on catechesis. The Living Light, 16, 62-66.

Bryce, M.C. (1978, September-October). Four decades of Roman Catholic innovators. Religious Education, 73(5), S36-S57.

Bryce, M.C. (1977, Spring). Lessons from history: Missionaries to Native Americans. The Living Light, 14, 112-131.

Bryce, M.C. (1977, October 8). Hopes for the coming synod. America, 137, 215-217.

Bryce, M.C. (1973). Religious education in the pastoral letters and the national meetings of the U. S. hierarchy. The Living Light, 10, 249-263.

Bryce, M.C. (1969). The catechumenate – past, present and future. American Ecclesiastical Review, 160, 262-273. 

Excerpts from Publications

Bryce, M.C. (1984). Pride of place: The role of the bishops in the development of catechesis in the United States. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

“Putting all available factors in perspective, one concludes that the Church in the United States has achieved a new threshold of self-realization in the ministry of catechizing. From the days of John Carroll down to and through the publication of Sharing the Light of Faith, the bishops of this nation have sought to assist the faithful (including themselves) in realizing the vocation, the meaning, and the challenge of being Roman Catholic Christians in the particular, multi-diverse circumstances of life in the United States.” (p. 160)

Bryce, M.C. (1979). Sharing the light of faith: Catechetical threshold for the U.S. church. Lumen Vitae, 34, 393-407.

“The United States is marked by a great diversity of culture, national origins, religious adherence, racial distinctions, and life experiences. In the light of that, there can be little wonder that ecumenism is upheld and included in the directory. “Religious pluralism of the United States offers an important opportunity to advance ecumenism,” the document observes (no. 75). It inclusion is consistent with themes of respect for the human person (no. 170), for religious freedom (nos. 58, 80, 101, etc.), social justice (nos. 14, 76, 160), and the quest for unity (nos. 73, 80, 95).” (p. 270)

Bryce, M.C. (1978). Four decades of Roman Catholic innovators. Religious Education, 73(5), S36-S57. 

“One element that Pace, Shields and Yorke considered important to religious education was that of worship. The didactic quality of Christian worship as essential to the shaping of young Christians was variously treated by all three. It was however, their contemporary, Virgil Michel, who perceived the comprehensive richness of the liturgy in relation to Christian formation. He realized that catechesis cannot be only a school subject but must be a key element in the whole of Christian life. As such the liturgy is a life-long catechesial value.” (S46-S47)

Bryce, M.C. (1977). Lessons from history: Missionaries to the Native Americans. The Living Light, 14, 112-131.

“The Indian concept of religion is all-pervasive. The white person may tend to categorize it, associating it with going to church, praying before meals and the like. Not so the red people. Their lives were integrated and whole, centered on the conviction of the ever-present power of the supernatural one. One can say quite truthfully that religion is their way of life. For them, the presence, the spirit of the Supreme Power is everything.” (p. 115).

Bryce, M.C. (1976). The confraternity of Christian doctrine. In R. Trisco (Ed.), Catholics in America: 1776-1976. (pp. 149-153). Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Bishops.

“With the activities of the center and the national Episcopal backing, the CCD assumed new life. National CCD Congresses convened annually from 1935-1941 and periodically thereafter to share ideas and experiences. At its height the National CCD Center fostered such widely diversified programs as adult discussion groups, parent educator programs, correspondence courses, radio programs, catechetical publications, Inter-American Relations and street preaching.” (p. 152)

Bryce, M.C. (1969). The catechumenate – past, present and future. American Ecclesiastical Review, 160, 262-273.   

“A measure of the importance with which the Council Fathers regarded an adult catechumenate may be found in the fact that in five official pronouncements Vatican II specifically calls for a restoration of the practice and makes distinct references to its value. “The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps,” declares the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “is to be restore and to be put into use at the discretion of the local ordinary.” Later, especially in the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, this statement is spelled out in some detail. “Those who, through the Church, have accepted from God a belief in Christ should be admitted to the catechumenate by liturgical rites.” Surely there can be no question of a carte blanche transplantation of primitive Church practice but neither can these repeated statements go unheeded.” (p. 262)

Bryce, M.C. (1964a). First communion: A parent-teacher manual for “come let us eat.” New York: Herder and Herder.

“With the presentation of these elementary and skeletal points about the very small child, we turn now to the environment in which the tiny child of God finds himself.  God is real to children to the extent that he is real to the adults with whom children live. Children imbibe, so to speak, the life of faith which their parents possess. It is in the religious warmth of the home that the roots of love and faith are first planted and nurtured. Strong and reassuring in this world of his are his parents, older brothers and sisters, and those who make up his home life. In the security of love and peace in the home, with his parent’s own lives as testimony to the faith which he will come to define as well as experience, he “awakens” to an awareness. At the risk of excessive repetition or of restating what is already a firmly accepted fact, I must write that it is the father and mother, not the sister or priest, who have the first responsibility of the religious instruction and formation of children.” (pp. 116-117)

Bryce, M.C. (1986). Pioneer women in catechetics. The Living Light, 22, 313-324.

An important essay for appreciating Mary’s role as a mentor to women in catechetics. Her profile is an effort to “rescue from obscurity” those women who did not hold an advanced academic degree or a history of publication, but were responsible for laying the foundations of the catechetical renewal in the United States, in particular as leaders of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

Bryce, M.C. (1984). Pride of place: The role of the bishops in the development of catechesis in the United States. New York: Herder and Herder

The study offers the most comprehensive and fully developed account of the history of the bishops and the development of catechesis in the United States. It provides an intimate picture of the “Americanization” of the Church from the vantage point of the role of the hierarchy in serving a multi-ethnic and multi-national country. Bryce locates a hermeneutic of continuity in the pluralism of the catechizing ministry of the early Church in America and follows its trajectory up to the publication of the national directory, Sharing the Light of Faith (1979).

Bryce, M.C. (1979). Sharing the light of faith: Catechetical threshold for the U.S. church. Lumen Vitae, 34, 393-407.

Bryce chronicles the development of the national directory over an eight-year consultative process that followed the method used in the newly published General Catechetical Directory. Bryce writes that Sharing the Light of Faith is distinctly American in that it addresses the catechetical needs of the church in concrete terms. It adapts the best of modern catechetical theories to the culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse life that has defined the Church in America from its beginning.   

Bryce, M.C. (1978). Four decades of Roman Catholic innovators. Religious Education, 73(5), S36-S57.

Bryce champions four innovators of modern Roman Catholic catechetics in the United States. These men were contemporaries that Bryce concedes sometimes collaborated but often collided. Each one led modern movements in religious education that charted new directions for the field itself. Bryce’s prolife includes leaders and their contributions in the areas of improved religion textbooks and methodology (Peter Yorke, Thomas E. Shields, and Edward A. Pace), the return to the role of worship in religious education (Virgil Michel), and the move toward providing catechesis for children outside the parochial school establishment (Edwin O’Hara). 

Author Information

Ann Morrow Heekin

Ann M. Heekin, Ph.D. (Fordham University, 2006) is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT. Her interests are also in religious education, including educating for understanding and dialogue between Christians and Jews.