26th September, 2013  Maryvale Acting Director addresses
Vatican Catechesis Conference

Dr Petroc Willey meets Pope Francis at the Vativcan Catechesis Conference
Acting Director of Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, Dr Petroc Willey gave the first key-note speech at the International Conference of Catechesis which took place on 26th - 28th September. The complete speech - with full references - is reproduced below.

International Congress on Catechesis

26-28 September 2013

God Searches for Man and Reveals Himself to him

Petroc Willey, BD, STL, PhD, PhD (Lateran)

God searches for us in order to reveal himself to us. Revelation is communication; it is God’s communication of himself to us. This revelation is the source of our catechesis. Catechesis is the echo of this communication. Catechesis is the Church’s precious work of handing on this revelation. In this talk we will focus upon one word that can help us understand both what revelation is and also how we can speak faithfully about this revelation. The word is from the New Testament. In Greek it is parrhesia

Let us begin by looking at why God has revealed himself. This is explained in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.  This great document says: “Following…in the steps of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, this Synod wishes to set forth the true doctrine on divine Revelation and its transmission. For it wants the whole world to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love.”[1]  These sentences present us clearly and simply with the ultimate purpose of revelation: to bring the whole world to share in God’s eternal love.

These lines from the Council’s document also express the unbreakable connection between God’s Revelation and catechesis. Catechesis is the “summons to salvation” for the whole world.  Through this summons, those who learn of God’s Revelation of himself can come to believe in him. Those who believe receive a new hope for their lives; and from this living hope they can come to share in God’s eternal life of love.

God’s Revelation, then, is the utterly trustworthy foundation for our catechesis. God has freely chosen to make himself known, to make his life available to us. And he wants his Church, therefore, to be bold and confident in her proclamation of the truth so that she can indeed “summon” the world to salvation by announcing and explaining the Good News of Christ.


Let us turn now to look at the word parrhēsia. [2]This word from the Scriptures describes both the confidence we are to have in our merciful Father who has made himself known to us and also the boldness that is to characterise our catechesis. The term is found especially in the writings of St John[3], St Paul[4] and St Luke.[5]

Parrhēsia is a highly significant word for all who hand on the faith of the Church – for parents, for priests and religious, for catechists in parishes, for teachers in schools. Itsums up for us how we should learn to catechise for the new evangelisation. Parrhēsia is a word with a rich range of meanings. It means to speak plainly, not ambiguously. It means to speak simply, with no evasion. It means to speak boldly, without hesitation. And it means to speak fully, without omitting difficulties. The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses a range of phrases to express the central meaning of this wonderful term: “straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved”.[6] These phrases capture well the secure attitudes and convictions we can have as catechists. We can speak with “straightforward simplicity” because of the certainty we have of “being loved”. We can speak with “humble boldness” because of our “filial trust”.

Originally the word came from ancient Greek politics and it referred then to the freedom of speech given to those who were full citizens. They were free to say everything, to speak without reserve. But because in reality this manner of speaking can be difficult at times, parrhēsia also came to mean to speak with a certain boldness, a certain daring.[7]

In the New Testament parrhēsia is now associated with the daring that every Christian can have. For we know that God has made us full citizens of his heavenly kingdom. And he has given us a new dignity in Christ – he has made us his children and has told us that we can ask him for anything. Our ability to be able to speak with parrhēsia flows from the Father’s revelation of himself to us and of our certain knowledge that we have been united with God the Son as sons and daughters in the Father’s love.

Revelation and Parrhēsia

Let us look at how parrhēsia characterizes God’s revelation of himself to us. Parrhēsia describes God the Father’s way of speaking. Jesus is everything that the Father wants to say to us. The Father speaks his divine Word to us, addressing us fully and completely, keeping nothing back. The Catechism, in its section on revelation, teaches that the Father “spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say…because what he spoke to the prophets before in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son”.[8] The Letter to the Hebrews says that God has spoken to us in “many and various ways”.[9] But his complete and definitive Word to us is his Son.[10] The Father, the Source of all Being, has revealed the fullness of truth to us. The Son is the Father’s parrhēsia, his full revelation.

Parrhēsia not only describes the Father’s way of speaking to us. It also describes the Son’s relationship with his Father. The Son is certain of his being loved by his Father and he has a “filial trust” in him. The Son encourages us to share in his unique relationship with his Father, whom he calls “Abba!” The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we can have “confidence” before the Father – that is, parrhēsia – because we are in Christ[11]and have been given the privilege of sharing in the Son’s own relationship to his Father.

Parrhēsia also describes the Son’s way of speaking with us.  Jesus calls us his “friends”. He  says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”[12]  “All” that the Son has received from the Father he has made known to us. Jesus speaks with us openly, plainly, straightforwardly, saying everything. He teaches us everything by revealing to us the face of the Father.[13] Jesus said that he is the Son who chooses to reveal the Father.[14] The Son chooses – it is always God’s initiative, God’s free act to reveal himself.

So parrhēsia describes God’s speech, his Revelation. It describes the way in which the Father speaks the divine Word of his Son. It also describes the Son’s relationship with his Father. And it describes the Son’s relationship with us, his way of speaking to those whom he calls his friends.

When we are united with Christ and are taught by him through the Church, we too learn to speak with parrhēsia. It is from Christ that we gain our simplicity of speech, our boldness and our confidence. In order to make this possible, the Holy Spirit has to make us “like children”.[15]  St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, reassures us that this is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in us. He says, “You have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.[16]

So we find that this quality of parrhēsia in prominent in the catechesis of the apostles. We are told that boldness was characteristic of St Paul’s speech.[17] To the Thessalonians St Paul says, “As you know, we had courage (i.e. parrhēsia ) in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition”.[18]  In fact, the Acts of the Apostles concludes with St Paul in Rome “teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered”.[19]  “Openly” here is a translation of parrhēsia. We have a vivid picture here of St Paul boldly catechizing and proclaiming the Good News at the heart of the pagan empire.

St Paul’s boldness flowed from his confidence in God’s Revelation. He knew that what he taught was not his own creation, but was something given to him. He says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”.[20] St Paul tells the Christian community at Thessalonica that he thanks God for them because they received his teaching “not as the word of men but as what it really is – the word of God”.[21]

St Paul shows us that, as catechists, we can have the confidence to teach boldly what we have received “from the Lord”. God has revealed himself fully in the Person of his divine Son. He has made himself known, out of his great love, to his Bride, the Church. The Church transmits this precious Revelation. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Church has made available to every one of us a pearl of great price so that in our catechesis we might summon every person to the knowledge of God’s saving truth.

Stages of revelation on “the Way”

For this Congress we have been offered for our contemplation St Luke’s account of how the risen Lord came to his disciples. On the road to Emmaus he revealed himself to them and taught them. On this way, walking with Jesus, they learned to speak openly and boldly of him to others. We see in this account how, in the words of Dei Verbum, “the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company”.[22] Let us look at how this passage illustrates these central truths about catechesis.

The Emmaus passage begins with a difficulty: the disciples are unable to recognize the risen Jesus. We know from the Scriptures that the Father who reveals himself in his fullness dwells in “unapproachable light”.[23] How can anyone look upon the fullness of truth when it is not possible to look directly even at the created sun? The Gospels tells us that, at his transfiguration, Jesus’ face “shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” and the disciples fell upon their faces.[24]

God must make our eyes capable of seeing him. In his graciousness, the Father provides an interior light, the light of faith, so that we are able to see and to respond to the revelation of the God of light on the face of his divine Son. St Paul says, “The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’…has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.[25] It is this light, he says, that enables us to be “very bold”[26] – and here the word is parrhēsia and he is speaking of the bold confidence with which we can approach God’s revelation. It is as though a veil lies over our minds, St Paul says, but when the Lord comes and we turn towards him he lifts the veil so that we can see him and recognize him.[27]

In this story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, St Luke explains how the eyes of the disciples were gradually opened, by stages, so that they could recognize Jesus. Human eyes cannot see God and so God has to accustom us to bear his glory; he helps us by degrees to see him.[28]  St Irenaeus of Lyons taught that “The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of Man in order to accustom man to perceive God”.[29] On the road to Emmaus Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to perceive his reality so that they could speak boldly of this to others.

First of all he walks beside them on “the Way”. The term “the Way” indicates that it is not only a physical journey that is being spoken of but also the normal spiritual path of the Christian life: in the Acts of the Apostles we find that an early description of the disciples of the risen Lord was as followers of “the Way”.[30] This account at the end of the Gospel of St Luke, therefore, is not an isolated story that concerns only these two disciples; rather, it describes how Christ reveals himself to all of us who are on the Christian “Way”. On this way he reveals himself to us gradually and by degrees to receive the brightness of his glory.

We also see that, while walking with them, Jesus teaches them.[31] The disciples want to provide their own account of what happened. But they can speak only of a Christ who died. They are speaking without faith.[32] Jesus calls them “foolish men”.[33] The disciples have to learn to be receptive to his teaching. They have to hear his words so that they can deliver his Good News to others. Otherwise they have only their own experience, their own story. Christ reveals himself to his Bride, the Church, so that she can speak with parrhēsia. As catechists we have to receive the Lord’s teaching through the Church in order to be teachers in our turn. Blessed John Paul II, in his great Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, says, “it is Christ alone who teaches – anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ’s spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips…Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me’”.[34]

As catechists on “the Way” we need to first become learners, to study God’s revelation of himself with the light of faith. We need to receive what Christ wants to teach us in his Church. An ongoing study of the Scriptures and of the Catechism is essential to our ability to be catechists after the Lord’s own heart. Then we will be able to transmit faithfully and fully what the Lord wants to teach us. St Luke emphasizes the “all” that the Lord teaches them– it is Moses and “all” the prophets; he explains how “all”the Scriptures point to him. Christ’s teaching is characterised by this “all”: it is full and complete. It is parrhēsia.

Finally, we see that Jesus’ teaching is united to the liturgy. It is united to his sacramental presence in the “breaking of the bread”.[35] It is through the recognition of him here that the disciples’ “eyes were opened”[36] so that they were able to tell the other disciples what happened “on the Way”.[37] Blessed John Paul II teaches us that “Catechesis is intrinsically linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity, for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness”[38] for our transformation. Our catechesis always leads to the sacraments, and especially to the Mass, for this is “the sum and summary of our faith”[39] and the fount of the transforming work of grace. Here we find the risen life of Christ, present to us and available for us in our lives.

We noted earlier that the term parrhēsia is taken originally from ancient Greek politics, referring to the freedom of speech given to full citizens in the public assembly. Here, it was thought, one might learn to speak the truth without reserve, without holding anything back. The full truth that has been revealed to us is the divine Word, spoken by the Father; for the Church, God has provided a public place of assembly where this Word is spoken to us and made fully present for us, day after day: the divine liturgy.

Here it is that the Father’s parrhēsia, the fullness of his loving plan, is made present to us. And it is from this fullness of revealed speech that the People of God learn parrhēsia: for it is in the liturgy that the creed is proclaimed, the full expression of the faith; and it is in the liturgy that we learn to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to pray to our heavenly Father with “filial trust”.  It is in the liturgy, most of all, that we find the fullness of God’s gift to us – himself, made present in his work for our redemption. The liturgy, therefore, is the place of parrhēsia where we can lead others to recognize Christ so that eyes are opened and disciples can become catechists, going out to proclaim the Good News with the “humble boldness” of the children of God.


Petroc Willey, BD, STL, PhD, PhD (Lateran)

[1] Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 18 November 1965, 1

[2] The word is drawn from the Greek words pan, all, and rhēsis, speech. For a general discussion of the concept see P.Joüon, “Divers sens de parrhēsia dans le Nouveau Testament”, Recherches de Science Religieuse 30, 1940, 239ff

[3] It is found 13 times in all: Jn 7:4, 13, 26; 10:24; 11:14, 54; 16:25, 29; 18:20; 1 Jn 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14

[4] Pauline uses of parrhēsia include Phil 1:20; 1 Thess 2:2; Eph 3:12; 6:19-20; Col 2:15

[5] References to parrhēsia  are especially prominent in Acts; for example, 2:29; 4:13, 29, 31; 9:27f; 13:46, and so on

[6] CCC 2778

[7] See H.Schlier, ‘Parrhēsia, parrēsiazomai’, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, V, pp.871-886.

[8] CCC 65, quoting here from St John of the Cross, ‘The Ascent of Mount Carmel’ 2, 22, 3f in The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, tr. K.Kavanaugh OCD and O.Rodriguez OCD, Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979, 179f

[9] Heb 1:1

[10] Heb 1:2

[11] Eph 3:12

[12] Jn 15:15

[13] John 14:8

[14] See Matt 11:27

[15] See Matt 18:1-4

[16] Rom 8:15-16.

[17] See Acts 18:26; 19:8

[18] 1 Th.2:2

[19] Acts 28:31

[20] 1 Cor 11:23

[21] 1 Thess 2:13

[22][22] Dei Verbum 2.

[23] 1 Tim 6:16

[24] Matt 17:1-8

[25] 2 Cor 4:6

[26] 2 Cor 3:12

[27] See 2 Cor 3:15ff

[28] See CCC 53

[29] St Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3, 20, 2: Patrologia graeca 7/1, 944

[30] See Acts 9:2. Jesus, of course, is the Way: John 14:6.

[31] See Lk 24:25-27

[32] See here the insightful remarks in the Instrumentum Laboris for the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to the “New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”, Vatican City 2012, no.38: “The story of the disciples of Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35) is emblematic of the fact that knowledge of Christ can fail. The two disciples from Emmaus speak of a dead man (cf. Lk 24:21-24) and relate their disappointment and hopelessness. These disciples demonstrate the possibility for the Church in every age to be the bearer of a message that does not give life, but stops short in the death of the Christ who is proclaimed, in the announcers themselves, and, consequently, in the recipients of the announcement also.”

[33] Lk 24:25

[34]  John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, 16 October 1979, 6; cf Jn 7:16

[35] Lk 24:29-30

[36] 24:31

[37] Lk 24:35

[38] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, 16 October 1979, 23

[39] CCC 1327