All these decades later, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore can recite from the small book he memorized in an elementary classroom. So can Carol Nevin "Sue" Abromaitis, a Loyola College English professor. So can thousands upon thousands of other Americans who attended Catholic schools or religious instruction:
"Why did God make you?" is a question in the Baltimore Catechism, as Abromaitis quoted yesterday. "To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy in the next" is the answer.
For decades, a Catholic school day began with a lesson or drill from the Baltimore Catechism, a soft-bound book, often with a blue cover.
As thousands of Catholic teachers and administrators convene in Baltimore this week, religious leaders took a moment to recognize the American text with local roots, the Baltimore Catechism, which came in several versions, from the first grade through high school.
At a reception yesterday morning, Keeler signed copies of the covers of the first two editions of the book, along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, and Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, the current Washington archbishop.
Wuerl is chairman of the board of directors of the National Catholic Educational Association and about 8,000 educators met this week at the Baltimore Convention Center for its annual meeting, which ends tomorrow.
As a practical guide to theology, the Baltimore Catechism ruled English-speaking Catholic religious education until the mid-1960s, when its question-and-answer approach to sacred belief was undermined by other teaching methods.
But the little book never disappeared completely from the minds and emotions of those who memorized its content.
"There was a real reverence that accompanied it," said Sister Bernice Feilinger, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism and later taught it at St. Michael Parochial School in East Baltimore. "We were proud we knew the catechism's answers. You will still hear people today recite its sentences."
Abromaitis, the Loyola English professor, said that she had kept her own prized copy of a 1950s Baltimore Catechism preserved by wrapping it in aluminum foil. She had the text from her days at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Roland Avenue.
"It doesn't get any more terse than this," she said yesterday from her Anneslie home, recalling a celebrated sentence within the catechism that poses the question, "Why did God make you?"
Baltimore is the oldest U.S. archdiocese. And American bishops at the third Plenary Council, which met in Baltimore in 1884, called for the creation of what became known as the Baltimore Catechism. The book, despite its name, was not actually printed in Baltimore.
The textbook, with its familiar question-and-answer format, was first published the next year. It was used through the early to mid-1960s, when other materials began to replace it, said officials with William H. Sadlier Inc., sponsors of yesterday's event and a longtime publisher of the book.
While the book disappeared largely by the 1970s, it still finds favor with home-schoolers and Catholics who favor its traditional teachings.
"The book is often reprinted by parents who are disturbed by the liberal bent of the catechizing of their children and are upset by the nontraditional approach that flighty religious educators have taken since the 1960s," said the Rev. Michael Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester.
Wuerl said the catechism "is a symbol of the great connectedness of the church in the United States."
"It's part of the passing of faith. ... It reminds us that we are part of a much bigger reality."
Keeler said the catechism was used throughout the English-speaking world.
He recalled studying the catechism from elementary school through high school "with the patience of the sisters who taught us many, many years ago" in Pennsylvania.
Though children memorized the catechism in earlier grades, "later on it was a question of understanding," he said.
Religion textbooks abandoned the question-and-answer format as methods of teaching evolved, said Carole Eipers, director of catechetics for William H. Sadlier Inc.
Today, religious textbooks draw on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other documents produced since the 1990s, said company President William Dinger Sadlier.