Reading the Catechism 101

So you’ve read about how amazing The Catechism of the Catholic Church is. But are you ready to use it in real life?

Hundreds of pages. Numbers everywhere. And very few pictures. How does this book work, exactly?

Fidei Depositum

After the table of contents, some of the first words you’ll encounter is the Apostolic Constitution (a solemn pronouncement from a Pope) Fidei Depositum, written just for you (yes, you) by St. John Paul II. In these pages, St. John Paul II explains just why the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published: so that we can perceive that “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in the sacraments; he is the source of our faith, the model of Christian conduct and the Teacher of our prayer” (Fidei Depositum, #2).

The Prologue

After Fidei Depositum, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with a prologue that explains how this resources exists to help all encounter Christ. “At every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength…” (CCC #1). The content of the Catechism is all directed towards helping us respond to this call from God.

The Four Pillars

The Catechism presents the Deposit of Faith in four parts or “pillars”: the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments and prayer. In The Love that Never Ends, a commentary on the Catechism, Dominican authors DiNoia, O’Donnell, Cessario, and Cameron explain that the order of these four parts perfectly accompany our journey of faith: first, the creed, because “We would have nothing to say as Christians if the Father had not spoken through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, calling us into communion with them” (15). Next, the explanation of the Sacraments — beginning with the Liturgy — explain how we can respond to this invitation to communion with God. Only after being empowered by the Sacraments are we instructed in the moral life “the life of faith” — the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments. Finally, we are instructed in the meaning and importance of prayer — “the goal of Christian life -— easy communication and communion with the Father, through Christ in the Spirit” (16).

So Many Numbers

Flip to any page of the Catechism and you will see numbers. So many numbers. This was the most intimidating part of reading the Catechism for me, but once I understood how they all worked, I felt like a Catholic ninja.

First, there are the four parts or pillars: The Profession of Faith, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ and Christian Prayer. However, each of these parts contain numerous sections, chapters and articles that divide and categorize the content. In quoting The Catechism, these sections, chapters and articles are rarely used. To be a Catechism ninja, you just need to understand that each paragraph is numbered (in bold, to the left). Starting with #1 (in the prologue) all the way to #2865- the last paragraph on prayer.

These numbers are really helpful because in addition to finding specific content quickly, they unlock what Saint John Paul described as “an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety” (CCC #18).


The secret to really understanding and using this “organic presentation” is all in the cross-references. If you’ve got a Catechism handy, flip to paragraph #1831- which list the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and how they help us live our Life in Christ. If you look to the left of the paragraph number in bold, you’ll see two more numbers in italics: #1266 and #1299. Behold: the awesomeness of cross-references. What does this mean? If you flip to #1266, it explains (among other things) how the Sacrament of Baptism gives the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paragraph #1299 describes how the prayers of the Sacrament of Confirmation give the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Almost every paragraph is accompanied by cross-references that we can look up to see how one topic (like the Gifts of the Holy Spirit) can be found throughout the four pillars of our faith.

The “In Brief” Sections

Think of them as Catechism cliff notes, these paragraphs at the end of each article summarize what was just explained. If you’re reading a section of the Catechism or attempting to understand a certain topic, often flipping to the In Brief explanations first can be very helpful — giving an outline of how everything is connected before diving into the particulars.

Indexes, Glossaries and Abbrevs (that’s short for Abbreviations, of course)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains an index and glossary that would be very similar to what you’d find in any reference book (except remember — use the paragraph, not the page numbers). However, to really geek out, check out the Index of Citations.

You’ll notice, as you flip through the Catechism, that it references not just Sacred Scripture, but also the best of everything that’s been said on the topic by Councils, Popes, Saints and other holy writers in over 2000 years of Catholic tradition.

So if you’re reading scripture and wanted to see where it’s quoted in the Catechism, there’s a way to do that without the internet! All you do is flip to the Index of Citations and find the exact verse you’re reading. For example, if I’m reading the Gospel of John and I want to see where John 6:56 is quoted in the Catechism, I can look under Sacred Scripture -> New Testament -> John -> 6:56 and see that it is cited in paragraph #787 (explaining how the Church offers us communion with Jesus), #1391 (explaining how the Sacrament of Holy Communion unites us to Christ) and #1406 (the first paragraph in the “In Brief” about Article 3: The Sacrament of the Eucharist).

You could also use the Index of Citations to see where your favorite Saints or parts of the liturgy are quoted. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi – the whole squad is there.

And, as you’re maneuvering the footnotes and encounter abbreviations you don’t understand, there’s a chart of Abbreviations following the index that will clarify that GS stands for “Gaudium et Spes,” not the book of Genesis (that would be Gen).

Guard The Deposit

The Catechism of the Catholic Church can be intimidating. While reading it cover to cover is certainly an option, the best way to get into it is simply starting with a question or topic you’d like to learn more about. Look it up in the index and then venture into the cross-references. It may feel awkward at first, but treat it like you’d treat your Bible: underline, highlight, dog-ear and bookmark the passages that speak to you. This is our faith. Study it, pray with it and like St. Timothy, “guard what has been entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20).