Project focuses on catechists martyred while teaching the Faith

To teach the Faith, in any era, is a great calling. To die for the Faith is a greater calling still. That makes it something of a wonder that so little attention has been paid to the Church’s catechetical martyrs — men and women killed for forming the faithful in truth and charity. 

That’s all changing, however, thanks to John Cavadini, director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, and Charles Gardner, of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Washington, D.C., who have begun cataloging the histories of the Church’s catechetical martyrs. 

Although the project is only in its inception, Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke to the men about what they’re discovering and why this work is so important. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What are you hoping to accomplish by spotlighting catechetical martyrs? 

John Cavadini: I have noticed a tendency in America to think of catechists as the lowest people on the ladder in terms of those who serve the Church. Pope John Paul II, however, said in Catechesis Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time) that there is no task more important than catechesis, which means the office of catechist is one of the most important there is in the Church. Our hope is to uplift the often unseen but heroic day-to-day witness of the “ordinary” catechist by uplifting examples of persons whose witness in life was marked in a special way by their witness in death. 

OSV: How would you define that mission? 

Cavadini: It’s to put people in communion with Jesus Christ. The basic aim of the catechist is to nurture an encounter with the mystery of that Person. That occurs through reading Scripture, learning Catholic doctrine, encountering Christ in the liturgy, helping people understand what the liturgy means and more. It’s a multi-faceted endeavor. People like to play one part off the other, stressing one aspect at the expense of the others. The reality, however, is that catechesis involves all these activities. They all help us understand more deeply the awesomeness of the mystery of Christ’s person, and that we meet him in intimate communion with his Church. 

OSV: Why do Catholics think of catechists as the low men on the totem pole? 

Cavadini: I’m not entirely sure why, but as the rhetoric about the importance of catechesis has gone up, the commitment on the ground seems to have gone down. Many dioceses are now closing Offices of Catechesis or merging them with other offices. Jobs for persons with master’s degrees are closing. There’s always another priority, especially when money is tight. I think in some ways, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, it comes down to faith. You’re acting purely on faith when you make the decision to prioritize catechesis over the paving of a parking lot or building a new school. It’s much more tempting to privilege those pragmatic needs and skimp on catechesis. But good catechists are crucial for the life of the parish and the Church, and to get good catechists we need to have a commitment to hiring theologically trained people — for well-paying, attractive jobs — who can both help form the faithful and “train the trainers” — namely, all those wonderful volunteers whose witness is essential but who, through no fault of their own, are sometimes not well formed catechetically themselves. 

OSV: What do you think it will take for parishes and dioceses to make catechesis a higher priority — to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak? 

Cavadini: I’ve been wracking my brain about that for years. In my experience, what I’ve found is that it’s the witness of expert catechists that inspires people. One problem with our contemporary situation is that we don’t see much variety in people who lead and perform catechetical ministry in the Church. Approximately 85 percent of DREs [directors of religious education] are women over the age of 55. These are heroic people doing heroic work, and their status should be more highly profiled, but it’s nevertheless a problem that you don’t have more young people or men in those positions — perhaps because most catechetical jobs offer what is considered a supplemental income rather than a primary income. But we’re all moved by different kinds of witnesses, so, we need more diversity in these positions. Overall, we need better support for people who approach the Faith with great zeal and knowledge. When people encounter witnesses like that, they’re inspired, and catechesis starts becoming more of a priority. 

OSV: Which brings us back to the project. In a way, you’re trying to put people in touch with history’s greatest catechetical witnesses, right? 

Cavadini: Exactly. And it’s important to note that it’s not just about how these catechists died, but also how they lived. It’s their manner of life that makes these martyrs great witnesses. Their manner of death just confirms that. 

OSV: I know the project is in the early stages, but who are some of the more outstanding witnesses you’ve come across? 

Charles Gardner: One of the most famous catechetical martyrs is St. Charles Lwanga. He lived in Uganda about 150 years ago and was one of the first converts to Christianity there. He got into trouble with the pagan king because he was instructing the catechumens in the Faith and urging them to refuse to worship the king. The catechumens listened to him, and as a result, they, along with St. Charles, were martyred. 

OSV: Are there any modern examples? 

Gardner: Yes, three Maryknoll sisters and a lay missionary were martyred in El Salvador about 30 years ago for instructing the faithful. Another missionary catechist, Sister Dorothy Stang, was also martyred not long ago in Brazil, for taking a stand against local businessmen who weren’t respecting Catholic social teaching. 

OSV: Is there anything that sets these newer martyrs apart from the older martyrs? 

Gardner: Well, the interesting thing about those newer martyrs is that the people who killed them were Christians, at least by baptism. They weren’t killed simply for professing the creed, but because of the love that motivated them to speak out against injustice and structures of sin. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.