In one month, the Church will be officially launching its Year of Faith. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, this will be an opportunity to reflect on our call to be “joy-filled witnesses to Christ” who “open the door of faith” to everyone we meet.
This extraordinary appeal for all of us to rediscover what should be part of our ordinary Catholic DNA is also an opportunity for us to appreciate the catechists and religious educators who “open the door of faith” week in and week out.
The vocation of catechist is one that goes back to the very birth of the Church at Pentecost.
Theirs is a vocation, what the U.S. bishops have called an “essential ministry,” which goes far beyond handing on the truths of our faith to the next generation. Indeed, our catechists not only teach the faith, but model the faith. “This task is a sacred trust and a serious responsibility,” the bishops have written, “that we must always fulfill with utmost care and dedication.” Unfortunately, many of us think about catechists only during the annual appeals for volunteers to teach a parish religious education class. We are less likely to think of the role of catechist as a vocation than as a difficult-to-fill volunteer position for parents whose children are in the program.
Yet the vocation of catechist is one that goes back to the very birth of the Church at Pentecost, when the descent of the Holy Spirit drove the apostles to begin speaking publicly “of the mighty acts of God.” It is one of the most essential acts of being a Christian. It is also a vocation that even to this day has exacted the ultimate price. Catechists — whether in Central and Latin America, in Africa or in Asia — have been imprisoned and even martyred for their work.
Pope Benedict has sounded the alarm about what he describes as an “educational emergency” in the Church. A proper and complete instruction in the faith — in the home, in the parish, in the school — is critical if that which we have been given is to be handed on to the next generation. To do this essential work well, however, calls for three urgent actions.
First, it is essential that we rekindle an appreciation for the role and dignity of the catechist. Those who are responsible for this task do much more than simply hand a catechism to every student. The catechist is called to be well instructed, but also to adopt the most up-to-date and effective strategies for teaching the faith so that it is effectively understood in the modern context. We must “speak in our own tongues” these truths so that they can be understood by all. This means that a priority for the Church in the next decade should be the training and support of catechists. Since this task today falls mainly to laypeople, the resources should be made available to provide solid and ongoing education.
Second, catechesis is about more than teaching children, noble as that task is. The U.S. bishops have said that “adult faith formation benefits children and youth. An adult community whose faith is well-formed and lively will more effectively pass that faith on to the next generation.” Only when adult faith formation is not just a platitude but a priority will we begin to see a Church that is filled with “joy-filled witnesses.”
Third, we must understand that in a certain sense we are all catechists. The National Directory of Catechesis says, “All members of the community of believers in Jesus Christ participate in the Church’s catechetical mission.” It isn’t about who can be persuaded to volunteer as a teacher. For catechesis to be successful, it has to be about all of us.
Sept. 16 is Catechetical Sunday. This year, let’s honor those who are serving our parishes and communities as catechists, paying full tribute to the dignity of their vocation.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.