By Mary Mirrione, MAPS CGS
“What I received from the Lord I have handed on to you.” 1 Cor 11:23
Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me (John 7:16).” Saint Paul did this when he was dealing with a question of prime importance: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.” CT6
Earlier this year, as the world was entering into a global quarantine, the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization presented the Church with a great gift, the Directory for Catechesis. This document sheds new light on the work of catechesis and, even more importantly, on being a catechist. Much attention is given to the formation of catechists because it “seems urgent to recover their ministry in the Christian community … only catechists who live out their ministry as a vocation can contribute to the efficacy of catechesis.”iThis new document offers a reinterpretation of the nature, goals, criteria of the person, role, and formation of catechists.
Catechesis is not a “job” or a task that is external to the person who is a catechist; because one “is” a catechist and all of life revolves around this mission. In fact, being a catechist is a vocation of service to the Church; what was received as a gift from the Lord should be transmitted in turn. Thus, catechists must constantly return to that first announcement of kerygma which is the gift that changed their life. It is the fundamental proclamation that must continuously resound in the life of Christians, even more so in those who are called to proclaim and teach the faith.ii
Being a catechist requires “a firm trust in the Holy Spirit, who is present and active in the Church, the world and the human heart.”iii The Holy Spirit gives the catechist “joy, serenity and responsibility.”iv Catechesis is, after all, a spiritual encounter that calls catechists to be true “evangelizers with the Spirit.v” In this, our moment in the history of salvation, the Holy Spirit calls the Church to a new stage of evangelization to reconceive the essential link between evangelization and catechesis found in the centrality of covenantal encounter between the Creator and his beloved creatures.
With this firm trust, catechists find the freedom to be guided by the Holy Spirit, “renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us whereever he wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every space and time.”vi This profound truth, this has led us to recognize that catechists must “enter more deeply into the kerygma.”vii The kerygma, the fire of the Spirit, is essential to every moment of catechesis and is both an act of proclamation and the content of the proclamation itself, which unveils the Gospel and makes it present.viii Catechists can be confident in this firm trust in the Holy Spirit, which enables them to joyfully renounce all other forms of security, in the spirit of poverty which is the fundamental virtue of the catechist.
This firm trust, this particular joy, this fire of the Holy Spirit, has been our experience in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Dr. Sofia Cavallettiix wrote of this:
We had followed the method that departs from the sign to arrive at the theology, and the message, without losing any of its greatness, was received with wonder and joy. Great was our joy when we catechists realized that in working in this way we did not invent anything at all; but rather that the children had conducted us to nothing less than the catechetical methods of the great catechesis of the fourth century, of which Enrico Mazza writes: ‘In the second half of the fourth century the great Mystagogical catechesis constructed the theology of the salvific event, commenting on the rite enacted in the sacramental celebration and transmitting it to the faithful as catechesis.x We had just discovered riches that were always present in the life of the Church. Great was the joy of feeling ourselves inserted, together with these children, into the great river of faith and hope of the most authentic tradition of the Church, receiving within her, and from her — as a marvelous gift — the kerygma, the Christian message.xi
We must ask ourselves: how can those of us responsible for catechesis seek, find, invite and offer a transformative formation for the baptized so that they realize Christ’s desire for us to be, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The Holy Spirit is the true and inner Master of all catechesis, who nurtures every person called to catechetical ministry. As servants of and evangelizers with the Holy Spirit, by virtue of faith and baptismal anointing and in collaboration with the Church, the catechist is a “witness of faith and keeper of the memory of God … a teacher and a mystagogue … an accompanier and educator.”xii
Therefore, we are called to develop a catechist formation that seeks and sees the gifts present in the life of our community and recognizes those missionary disciples among us. Only then can we offer suitable, on-going, lifelong formation for catechists. We need to intentionally, habitually keep our eyes and hearts open for those who actively live their Catholic faith, those who manifest the essential virtues of a catechist: “prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit,”xiii who have a receptive attitude to how God speaks through Sacred Scripture, Liturgy, and Mother Church, and who know how to be with children and adults and accompany them as they more deeply live out this vocation. Only when we habitually seek and discover the gifts in our community, can we offer ways for people to move toward being Spirit-filled evangelizers who are “fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit.”xiv This might begin with a short term parish project or production, with supporting the catechetical ministry through hospitality, or with being an assistant to a catechist or joining a in a formation group. Letting people know that you have recognized a gift in them helps them to recognize and appreciate that gift more deeply. It builds relationships. Then can we authentically invite them to prayerfully discern this call to be a catechist and to develop it more fully, then to enter more fully into a formation process.
During this discernment process, we must be clear and honest about who is actually calling them and what they are being called to. The depth of the love the Lord has for them must be experienced, and a response of transformation and conversion manifested. The expectations for their work in the catechetical ministry of the parish should be made evident. If this preparation process is not given enough time and care, the person who with the best of intentions initially said “yes” to a particular ministry can feel overwhelmed, uninformed, and possibly exploited. When the proper time and care is taken, when we accompany people through this discernment, we often end up with a catechist for life.
As a catechist and formation leader in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I have experienced and witnessed countless others who have experienced the ongoing process of transformation and conversion described in the new Directory’s fourth chapter. It is important to understand the nature, goals, criteria, and dimensions of catechist formation as laid out in this chapter. The rhythm of any formation experience needs to be slow and meditative and to allow participants to internalize all that is needed for their transformation. The dimensions of being, of being with, of knowledge, and of savior-faire should be presented in a balanced way throughout the formation.
Of primary importance is a formation in being and knowing how to be with. Formation ought to include time for human and Christian maturity along with a missionary awareness of the other. Then one must always go deeper into the Christian message through knowledge of the biblical and liturgical sources; the ongoing living Tradition of the Church, including the theological, ecclesial, social, and ecumenical movements; and the human sciences of psychology, sociology, education, formation, and communication.
Only in coming to know how to be can we effectively learn what to do. Formation in the savoir-faire of pedagogy and methodology is necessary so that the catechist can assist the Holy Spirit with the growth and transformation in faith of those being catechized. Gianna Gobbi, the other co-founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, once said: “The most important thing about how we do this is that our attitude be one of respect and discretion, a delicacy. This delicacy on our part, this respect for the child … ensures and also protects the independence within the child and the autonomy that is within the very being of the child. It is our attitude of respect and delicacy that protects them. The child, like every living being, is a person in process of growth and development. To us as adults, is given the privilege and honor of participating in this process, to take conscious part in a creative act. But that is a condition that we do not forget: that only a part of this is given to us, to share in, and this is also not the principal part of this creative act…The child should be helped to reveal the person who their Creator meant them to be, the person their Creator loves.”xv
Dr. Cavalletti often used a helpful image from the Gospel to express this way of being and being with in the formation of catechists: “Il Servo Inutile.” “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do”(Luke 17:10). This was Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request to increase their faith. He reminds them that disciples can make no claim on God’s generosity; in undertaking the responsibilities of discipleship, they are only doing their duty. She indicated that although the catechist has an essential work to do: being committed to prayer and study, preparing a place of encounter between God and the child with simple beauty, taking into consideration the tools that will assist the child’s reflection, none of this surpasses the proper attitude of the catechist as servant: servant of the Word and servant of the child. This image holds our way of being and being with. We proclaim the kerygma and listen with the children, guided by the Holy Spirit who is the true and inner Teacher of us all.
This year, with all the changes brought on by the pandemic, let us take some time to “consider earnestly the importance of catechist formation.”xvi Let us offer a catechist formation that provides an experience of being so as to grow in missionary discipleship and thus empower catechists to, in turn, accompany children and adults in their faith journey with a humble disposition. They will be able to listen to and ponder the kerygma with those they catechize and journey with them as companions without “establishing the route in advance, without demanding to see the fruits and without holding anything back.”xvii In this way, our Church will see that every well-formed catechist will be able to say with Saint Paul: “What I received from the Lord I have handed on to you.” 1 Cor 11:23
Questions for Discussion:
- How do we structure our catechist formation courses so that we are aware of the needs of our participants and at the same time give them a new vision of faith formation for children and adults?
- Catechists must enter more deeply into the kerygma. How can we prepare those in formation to do so?
- What is Paul speaking of when he says, “What I received from the Lord I have handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23)?
Mary Mirrione, MAPS CGS, is national director of the United States Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGSUSA). She serves as an adjunct faculty member of Kino Catechetical Institute in the Diocese of Phoenix and is a consultant for the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catechism. She has worked extensively as an advocate for the religious life of children, as catechist, a Director of Religious Education, and formation leader for catechists for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as well as diocesan catechetical leaders. For more information on this approach to religious formation please go to www.cgsusa.org.