June 2, 2023

Parish ministry leads archdiocesan priest to head national Institute on the Catechism

Father Daniel Mahan, priest in solidum in the four parishes in Dearborn County, preaches a homily during an April 27 Mass at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Aurora. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father Daniel Mahan, priest in solidum in the four parishes in Dearborn County, preaches a homily during an April 27 Mass at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Aurora. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

AURORA—Father Daniel Mahan remembers the day he heard the news.

He was a seminarian a year into priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome in 1985.

Creating a new universal catechism for the Church had been suggested in a speech (called an “intervention”) given at the Vatican during an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

“The discussions at the college were relatively negative, not being able to imagine what such a universal catechism would be,” recalled Father Mahan in a recent interview with The Criterion.

But St. John Paul II had a vision of such a catechism and assembled a commission of Church leaders to formulate one. It was promulgated in 1992 as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which soon became a worldwide best-seller.

“I don’t think that anyone could have imagined that [success] when the intervention was made at the Extraordinary Synod in 1985,” Father Mahan said. “It surpassed all expectations.”

The catechism has shaped much of Father Mahan’s priestly life and ministry for more than 30 years.

Beginning in July, he will begin service in Washington, D.C., as the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Institute on the Catechism in which he will take a lead role in helping the Church in the U.S. develop ways of passing on the faith effectively in a secular cultural climate filled with challenges for people of faith. (Related story: ‘Evangelizing catechesis’ helps people build a relationship with Christ)

‘A real source of life in my priesthood’

Ordained in 1988, Father Mahan had just been appointed for the first time to lead a parish when the catechism was promulgated in 1992. He purchased a copy in French when the production of an English translation was delayed.

During the past 31 years, he has led parishes across central and southern Indiana: St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington; St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Spencer; St. Louis Parish in Batesville; St. Rose of Lima Parish in Franklin; and the Indianapolis parishes of St. Barnabas and St. Luke the Evangelist.

For the past two years, he and Father Jonathan Meyer have led as priests in solidum the four parishes in Dearborn County in the southeastern corner of the state. Priests who serve in solidum minister together to serve the pastoral needs of multiple parishes in an arrangement provided for in the Church’s Code of Canon Law.

In all these faith communities, Father Mahan has regularly turned to the catechism for adult faith formation presentations and homilies.

“It’s been a real source of life in my priesthood,” Father Mahan said.

That life flowed from him to the people of the parishes he has served.

Deacon Mark Henry, ordained in 2022 and now serving at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis, was a member of St. Luke nearly 30 years ago when Father Mahan first developed a series of 36 presentations on the catechism.

“I attended the full course,” Deacon Henry recalled. “I found it very interesting and engaging. It opened up for me the richness of the Catholic faith.”

So did Father Mahan’s preaching, often shaped by the catechism.

“Father Mahan has a commanding understanding of the faith,” Deacon Henry said. “His homilies offered something for those new to the faith or those advanced in it. Both segments were challenged to grow more in the understanding of the faith.”

Deacon Henry is glad to see that the ministry of his former pastor has been brought to a “national stage.”

“He is an ideal person for this position,” he said.

Monica Clouser agrees. She serves as the secretary for St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington and as secretary and administrator of religious education at St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Spencer.

She collaborated with Father Mahan at both faith communities when he served as pastor of both from 2013-19.

“He was very much into teaching people the faith,” Clouser said. “People really craved his knowledge. They thought they knew their faith, but then they learned so much more.”

Continuing a legacy

In teaching the faith in parishes across the archdiocese, Father Mahan has built on the formation he received as a college seminarian in the early 1980s under the leadership of then-Benedictine Father Daniel Buechlein, serving at the time as the rector of the former Saint Meinrad College in St. Meinrad.

St. John Paul II appointed Father Daniel as bishop of Memphis, Tenn., in 1987. Father Mahan recalled how the pope gave the new bishop “a special directive … to emphasize his teaching mission.”

“The pope recognized that he was a teacher and St. John Paul wanted Archbishop Buechlein to be a bishop who was a good teacher,” Father Mahan said.

Five years later, Bishop Buechlein continued his teaching mission in central and southern Indiana after being appointed archbishop of Indianapolis.

In 1996, he was appointed chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Use of the Catechism. Archbishop Buechlein and the committee developed a process by which religion textbooks used in Catholic schools and catechetical programs could be evaluated for their conformity to the catechism.

He soon asked Father Mahan to be a textbook reviewer.

“It was helpful as a priest knowing that I could have something to do with the way in which textbooks were presented before our students across the country,” noted Father Mahan, who said he “was honored” by Archbishop Buechlein asking him to be a reviewer.

He said reviewing textbooks early on was challenging because of their shortcomings in presenting the faith. Through the years, though, he said they have improved markedly.

Now, in preparing to lead the institute, he feels he is in a position to carry on Archbishop Buechlein’s legacy by helping to move catechesis in the U.S. forward to answer the cultural challenges that have emerged since the 1990s.

“I’m very grateful that Archbishop Buechlein thought enough of me to ask me to review textbooks, having no idea then where it might lead,” said Father Mahan. “I see now, through his vision, a process that began as a corrective measure is now taking shape as a proactive endeavor to teach about the faith, to teach about the Lord in a way that evangelizes.”

‘Perfectly poised’

Father Mahan sees his ministry in leading parishes in central and southern Indiana as good preparation for the national reach of leading the Institute on the Catechism.

“In every single parish where I’ve been assigned, I’ve found a great openness to learning more about the faith, a great desire that people have to go deeper into the faith,” he said. “There’s a hunger and desire to learn, not just for the sake of knowing more things, but to be able to pass the faith on.”

Alissa Thorell, who will work with Father Mahan at the institute, has collaborated with him for nearly 10 years in reviewing religion textbooks. She said his experience in leading parishes makes him “perfectly poised” for leading the institute.

“Father Mahan … is someone who can really help guide this work so that it remains faithful to magisterial teaching, but also integrates the real lived experience that people are facing and will help them to find ways to bring their faith into their daily lives,” Thorell said. “He has such a gift for that.”

In working with Father Mahan in preparing for the launch of the institute, Thorell has seen a “mark of humility” and a “servant’s heart” that will serve him well in leading the institute’s efforts to develop and promote a way of passing on the faith that also helps people grow in relationship with Christ at the same time.

“He’s keenly sensitive to the need of listening to other voices and taking them into consideration as a true learning experience,” said Thorell of Father Mahan. “His quick readiness to ask for someone else’s opinion on something really enables people to collaborate better.

“You need to be welcoming to listening when you have bishops, diocesan staff and publishing staff all trying to work on a bigger project together from different perspectives.”

Father Mahan looks forward to meeting with Church, catechetical and publishing leaders to “listen to the Holy Spirit together and pray together. From an experience like that, plans can be made for moving forward.”

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But we do trust that bringing key players together in an atmosphere of prayer and reflection will bring about the discussions that will then be translated into exceptional catechetical efforts on the part of those who publish textbooks, those who spread the word digitally and those who are in the classrooms.”

(For more information on the Institute on the Catechism, visit evangelizingcatechesis.com.)

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