Acknowledging, Advocating, and Affirming the Vocation of Catechists
By Erin McGeever, Director of Christian Formation, Diocese of St. Augustine
On the 65th anniversary of the Vatican’s establishment of Catechetical Sunday, the bishops of the United States issued a statement, In Support of Catechetical Ministry. Now, twenty years after this publication, some of the key elements of this statement need to be recalled and reflected upon for another generation. While this statement reaffirms that catechesis is the responsibility of the entire faith community (General Directory for Catechesis #220), it also states that for catechesis to be effective, the Church “is bidden to offer catechesis her best resources in people and energy without sparing effort, toil, or material means in order to organize it better and to train qualified personnel.” Quoting from their earlier document, Guide for Catechists (1993), the bishops further encourage the nurturing of the vocation of the catechist and call for the appreciation and renumeration of those who fulfill this role.
In his 2013 address to catechists on pilgrimage at the International Congress on Catechesis, Pope Francis outlined the vocation of the catechist. One key element in this outline can be seen in his exhorting them to “be catechists,” not just “work as catechists.” To be a catechist is to live in such a way that the message is taught not only with words, but by the actions or witness of lives well lived. This is the vocation of all catechists, whether they serve in a parish, school, or other institution. This closely echoes a statement by St. Pope Paul VI in Evangelii nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than teachers, and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses.” (#67)
So, how do we acknowledge, advocate for, and affirm this essential vocation of the catechist?
First, we must acknowledge the continued need for the vocation and for solid witnesses to fill this need. This is made somewhat easy by the Scriptures, wherein we hear the Great Commission of all the baptized, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28: 19-20a) Secondly, there is always a need for someone more experienced to lead and instruct fellow disciples, as illustrated in Acts of the Apostles: “Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone instructs me?’ So, he invited Philip to get in and sit with him” (Acts 8:31).
In acknowledging the need for this essential vocation, we then must acknowledge that those who fill this role are of vital importance to the mission of the Church. While this acknowledgement rightly occurs in most of the United States on the third Sunday of September in the form of the celebration of Catechetical Sunday, this cannot be the only public recognition. In Redemptoris Missio, Pope St. John Paul II states that, “Among the laity who become evangelizers, catechists have a place of honor” (#73). Parishes, schools, and other institutions must strive to find other ways to recognize how valuable the catechist is to the mission of bringing all into relationship with Jesus Christ. Other ways that leaders could recognize this important ministry:
- highlighting throughout the year those who serve in the various parish and school catechetical programs through bulletin features or on the website.
- providing monthly displays of each of the catechetical ministries and those who provide service in that ministry
- celebrating prayer services with and providing blessings to the catechists throughout the year
What ways can you think of that you can further provide ways to acknowledge your catechists throughout academic year?
“The heart of a catechist always beats with this systolic and diastolic movement: union with Christ…encounter with others” (Pope Francis, International Congress on Catechesis, #2). The heart of the catechist receives the gift of knowledge of the kerygma and has no choice but to share it with others. Later in this document, the Holy Father quotes St. Paul, “For the love of Christ impels us,” to describe what motivates a catechist. Further, he offers an alternative translation to the word impel, “to possess.” Catechists have no choice but to share the great gift they themselves have received. They have been possessed by the love of God.
In order that catechists may fulfill this need, this compulsion, this desire to share the kerygma, we must advocate for them to have everything they need to successfully be able to do this. There are many ways that this advocacy can and should be provided. The creation of a safe, vibrant, and welcoming environment for them would be essential. This would include the materials, equipment, and space that they need to encounter, accompany, and engage others as they discover the person of Jesus Christ. This would also include opportunities that allow catechists to reflect upon and deepen their own relationship with the Lord.
Another important aspect of advocacy for catechists would be the providing of suitable formation as described in the General Directory for Catechesis (2005): “Formation seeks to enable catechists to transmit the Gospel to those who desire to entrust themselves to Jesus Christ” (#235). The GDC goes on to state that this formation has a three-pronged approach: knowledge, sensitivity to the situations of others, and savoir-faire, i.e., knowing how to transmit the message to others. (#238) In addition, solid formational models include the cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects found in basic educational principles. These formation opportunities, in compliance with local policies, must be varied with a wide range of options that can meet the schedules, personal choices, and learning styles of the catechist. An essential aspect of formation and continuing formation of catechists would focus on the centrality of the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church. It is through these avenues that the catechist can find strength and sustenance for their own deepening relationship with Jesus. Consideration should be given to providing formation for groups of catechists so that they can develop together as a collaborative team.
Other ways to advocate for catechists:
- providing access to all current primary sources, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the National Directory for Catechesis, a Catholic Study Bible.
- suggesting other supplemental materials or articles they can use in their class sessions
- arranging for days of recollection, prayer opportunities, lectio divina, liturgical celebrations
What ways can you provide additional advocacy for your catechists, particularly those who might be new or who might be struggling?
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. …For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor 3:6-8) The call to the ministry of a catechist is a vocation, an internal call of the voice of the Holy Spirit. Not all answer this voice, but for those who do, we must provide affirmation of them so that they are able to fulfill their role. Affirmation of the role of the catechist can take many forms and contains many components.
One way that affirmation is provided is by the setting of instructional and program goals. This provides structure and a road map for all to follow, which improves communication between all stakeholders in the catechetical process. This goal setting works best when it is a collaborative effort involving everyone with an interest in the programming, including clergy, staff, and volunteers.
Another important aspect in affirming the catechist is the providing of both formal and informal evaluations. Formal evaluations provide written critiques of both strengths and areas that need development. This are always done in the spirit of charity and provide springboards for future opportunities for continuing formation. Informal evaluations might even be more beneficial. These could include class session walk throughs or conversations with students. Much can be learned about a class by the sights and sounds a catechetical leader can observe within a few minutes of being in the room. The assigning of mentors, veteran catechists to work with new catechists, is another best practice for all formational programs and mirrors the relationship of Philip and the Ethiopian. (Acts 8:31)
It is also important to know the needs of the catechists. These needs can surface through formal evaluations, through observations, or through casual dialogue. While these needs may or may not be related to their role as a catechist, it is important in the affirmation process to know what it is that might better assist catechists in their role or what things might hamper them.
Some other forms of affirmation:
- providing public recognition of the completion of certification
- celebrating when the goals of the program are met or exceeded
- organizing small faith sharing groups among the catechists
What other ways can you practice principles of affirmation with your catechists?
Erin McGeever has served at the Diocesan Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of St. Augustine for the last 13 years. Prior to this position, she served 25 years in the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky in a variety of catechetical roles including: Catholic School Teacher, parish catechist, Director of Religious Education, and on the faculty at Thomas More University in the theology department. She holds undergraduate degrees in education and theology, both from Thomas More University, as well as an M.A. in theological studies from the University of Dayton and an M.Ed in Educational Leadership from Northern Kentucky University.