How are people chosen to lead catechesis? Too often it is an appointment made without much forethought and typically a knee-jerk response by the parish priest when he realizes the First Holy Communion program is beginning shortly and he’s struggling to find anybody to lead the sessions.
So he might grab a “volunteer” as they step out of the church door after Sunday Mass, or maybe explain in a pleading phone call to a parishioner at home that there is an urgent need: “You’re a good Catholic; you come to Mass, you know your Faith; would you like to give it a go?”
Father seems pretty stressed, so the parishioner agrees, as long as there is enough time to look over the program guide, and in that instant becomes the lead catechist for First Holy Communion in that parish for the next twenty years.
Some might think such a circumstance an exaggeration, but it is a straightforward description of how many ended up as catechists. Certainly, my own introduction to catechesis was just as haphazard: some young adults in my parish were preparing for their Confirmation, but there was no one to catechize them, and so I stepped into the breach armed only with a copy of the Catechism and a vague optimism that nothing could go too badly wrong. Since that unpromising start, I have grown to genuinely love catechesis, and am immensely grateful to God for the opportunities He gives me to catechize His adopted sons and daughters. But I can’t pretend my initiation into this role was something organized and well-structured. I know I am not the only catechist in this position.
With the promulgation of the Holy Father’s motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium, which elevates the role of catechist to the level of ministry, the state of catechetical formation in the Church has become a pressing issue. Antiquum Ministerium roots the decision to create the ministry of catechist in “the history of evangelization over the past two millennia [which] clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of catechists” (AM 3), and, more recently, “the renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization” (AM 4). These are beautiful words, but if they are to ring true in our everyday Christian lives then there are certain parts of the Church – primarily in North America and Europe – where a deeper commitment to the formation of lay catechists is sorely needed. After all, it is a requirement of canon law that catechists be “duly prepared to fulfill their function properly” and that “continuing formation is made available to them” (CIC 780).
But how, exactly, are catechists to be formed? It might seem a daunting question, but fortunately the Church has a ready answer – one hidden within her inspiring yet underappreciated teaching on the nature of catechesis and the identity of the catechist. We find it set out in Chapter 4 of the new Directory for Catechesis, promulgated only last year by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.
If we are to understand how to form catechists, we first need to be clear about what they are. The Directory starts with the big picture, and its first chapter is on the very nature of Revelation itself, God’s self-communication in the person of Jesus Christ. Likewise, when it comes to the role of the catechist, the Directory focuses our attention on the fundamental fact of our Christian baptism, rather than simply the textbook the catechist is using, or whether we’re running RCIA or First Holy Communion. By baptism, we are incorporated into Christ and share in His mission, becoming “witnesses to the Gospel, proclaiming it by word and example of Christian life” (DC 110). It is from our baptismal share in Christ’s mission that our work as catechists flows. Catechesis, then, isn’t a job we do one hour a week on a Saturday afternoon. It is instead a calling and an identity, one rooted in our sacramental union with Christ Himself. When we catechize, we do so “by virtue of faith and baptismal anointing” (DC 113), and therefore our formation as catechists is intrinsically linked to our formation as disciples of Christ.
This explains something perhaps a little unexpected about the Directory‘s teaching on the formation of catechists. Of the three aspects of catechesis that the Directory identifies – witnessing, accompanying and teaching – many of us, particularly those in the Northern Hemisphere, would instinctively see the teaching aspect of catechesis as the most prominent and thus the first priority in formation. But in fact, the Directory asks catechists to first be formed not as teachers, but as witnesses to the Gospel.
“At the beginning of Christianity,” says the Directory, “formation… revolved around the vital encounter with Jesus Christ” (DC 130). This encounter with Christ, which for us today takes place in the Church and through the sacraments, remains the beating heart of a catechist’s formation – because it is the very goal of catechesis itself. We cannot introduce somebody to Christ if we have not taken the time to meet Him ourselves. Thus, the place where we are to access our catechetical formation is the same place where we are formed as Christians: our parish, “the ordinary environment in which one learns and lives the life of faith,” and “the womb in which for some of its members the specific vocation to the service of catechesis is born and grows” (DC 133).
Nevertheless, the Directory is clear that there’s more to being formed as a catechist than just having our Christian formation turned up to eleven. It identifies three areas of formation specific to the vocation of catechist: human and Christian maturity; knowledge of the Faith; and savoir-faire.
The first, human and Christian maturity, ensures that the “certain form of authority” the catechist holds is exercised with “absolute respect for the conscience and person of the other,” firstly as a safeguard against abuse—whether physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual—and secondly as a guarantee that this authority is lived out “solely as service of their brothers” (DC 142) rather than a means to a self-centered end.
Then there’s knowledge of the Faith. While witness is indeed the “main virtue” of a catechist, we must also remember we are “responsible for the transmission of the ecclesial faith” (DC 143) – which means, to put it bluntly, we’ve got to know what we’re talking about. As catechists, we need to know who Jesus is and how he has revealed Himself to us through Scripture and the Church.
But as well as knowing what to say, we need to know how to say it. That is where savoir-faire comes in, a quality that enables the catechist to be “an educator and communicator” who possesses “expertise in the communication and narration of the faith” and “the maturation of an educational mentality” (DC 149). After all, there’s little point in catechists having a profound knowledge of the Faith if they are incapable of effectively communicating it.
Admittedly, these more technical or intellectual aspects of catechetical formation are not always readily available to the individual parish catechist. Our parish, by its very nature, offers us abundant opportunities to receive the sacraments, to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and to strengthen bonds of charity with our fellow parishioners. But not every parish will have the time and resources to put on intensive courses to guide catechists into a deeper knowledge of their Faith or useful teaching techniques. As such, the Directory acknowledges that more specialist hubs of catechetical formation are also required. As well as the particular formation we receive in a parish, there should be the opportunity to seek an advanced level of formation at the diocesan level or through a higher institute of catechetical learning.
This section of the Directory may leave many of us a little unclear about how to match up what we read with what we see going on in our diocese. For others, even the notion that our parish should offer basic courses in catechetical formation is wildly optimistic: certainly, few parishes in my local area can offer specific training to their catechists. Our response to this should not be to dismiss the Directory as out of touch and idealist, but to switch from reactive to proactive. How can we, as engaged catechists and committed disciples of Christ, help create opportunities for the kind of faith formation which the Directory encourages? I’d like to suggest that our experience of the pandemic might provide an answer well-suited to our present moment.
Adjusting to life under multiple lockdowns has undoubtedly altered our lives on every level, including the way we practice our Faith. As an apostolic sister committed to the explicit preaching of the Gospel, I’ve had to adjust to giving a lot more teaching and preaching over Zoom and other web-based platforms. But I have found there is a great benefit to offering teaching online: its increased reach. People who would never think of going out on a chilly evening to their parish to learn more about their Catholic Faith have nevertheless come to Zoom courses on the Mass or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Others who live in more remote places have been able to easily connect online with my religious community and the formation we offer.
Could this provide a model for parish-based catechetical formation as we move into our new Catholic normal? The practice of the Faith by which we are formed as witnesses, and which takes place within the parish, can be supplemented by Zoom courses that break down the geographical barriers that might prevent catechists from accessing the intellectual formation they require. Of course, this would need to be done in a way that does not undermine the ecclesial nature of our Faith. The course leader would have a responsibility to emphasize that catechists are not formed as isolated individuals in front of their laptops at home, but within the community of the baptized: the online element is there to support, not replace, the parish’s mission to put people “in physical contact”—not digital contact!—“with the means of salvation” (DC 298).
Perhaps, for this formation to be fully and authentically ecclesial, the Zoom sessions could be viewed together in the parish hall as part of a day or a weekend structured around private prayer, the Mass, and fellowship. It may be that the solution to the dearth of catechetical formation in many of our parishes and dioceses is to make use of the opportunities for online learning that have flowered during the pandemic.
The Church’s teaching on the formation of catechists is an encouragement and an inspiration. But we must be honest that, for many of us, it is also a challenge and a call to reform. Antiquum Ministerium will prompt discussion about the formation of catechists as witnesses of the Gospel, which is the first step and comes well before proposing new programs and initiatives. For it is little use devising new catechetical formation if a parish is still appointing catechists without a solid plan for their formation and expecting them to learn the job while doing it. A culture change is needed in which the worth and importance of the call to catechize is more widely recognized. Dedicated catechists are called not only to transmit the Faith to others, but also to demonstrate their commitment and enthusiasm for catechesis itself, and thus help awaken such a calling in others.
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Sr. Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of St. Joseph, based in the New Forest, England. She is a First Holy Communion catechist and works regularly with teenagers and young adults. She is also a theology student at the Maryvale Institute.