By Frank Wessling
For students of all ages just getting started on a new school year, there is a simple formula for happiness anyone can follow. It’s known especially well by Catholics over the age of 55 who were raised in this country.
The formula comes from the old Baltimore Catechism, a teaching tool composed of questions and answers about Catholic faith and the Church. A product of the American bishops’ Third Council of Baltimore, Md., in 1884, it was to give a uniform sense of identity to Catholics swimming in what the bishops at that time felt was a sea of Protestantism.
That council also decreed that every parish have a school and every Catholic child be educated in a Catholic school. That goal was approached, thanks to heroic sacrifice and work by women religious, but never fully achieved. The catechism, though, small, flexible and easy to read, went everywhere.
One of its questions asked, “Who made you?” The answer was, “God made me.”
Next: “Why did God make you?” The answer: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this life and be happy with him forever in the next.”
What generations of Catholic children got from this answer was a firm grip on the idea of God as masculine and a general notion that good performance in the skin of this life was critical for reaching heaven, the “next” life.
We may not have understood exactly what it meant to know, love and serve God but we took in the lesson that satisfying “him” was life’s highest priority — on the order of satisfying our parents.
Looked at in another way, with emphasis on the actions, the answer becomes a formula for the pursuit of happiness, especially for students. It says our purpose in life is to know, and that means to be conscious, paying attention, learning everything possible about both the outer and inner world given to us.
It says our purpose in life further is to love, which means to embrace the other, to let ourselves be in-formed by it and, in a sense, become one with it in passion and delight. This can seem quite a stretch for beginning students in algebra trying to take in the elusive math god, but it’s true: only with love do we gain, or become good, with anything or anyone.
Then our purpose in life goes on to service, when our knowledge and love is turned out in action for the good of the world.
At the end of this road is eternal happiness — and a surprise for many who expect a God in the image of the bearded old man.
There was considerable wisdom in that little catechism — a distilling of the Gospel — if its answers are allowed to germinate and grow through life.