By Fran Lavelle
The USCCB discerns a theme for the catechetical year which is kicked off the third week of September. Catechetical Sunday is significant as it marks the beginning of another academic year which most of our catechetical programs follow. It is also significant as it recognizes the men and women who serve the church in the single most important ministry of the church, the propagation of the faith. Without well formed, faithful Catholics we have no need for the other ministries of the church.
The theme this year is “Only Say the Word and My Soul Shall Be Healed.” The words are immediately recognizable to anyone who attends Mass. The importance of these poignant few words cannot be overstated. We all come up short in our daily effort to be present to and fully live the Gospel. The Sacramental life of the church, especially the Eucharist, provides the graces we need to stay on track. The bishops’ choice of such a Eucharist-centric theme is meaningful on so many levels. The Sacraments were instituted by Jesus and are signs of grace. As catechists one of our most difficult tasks is teaching about the Sacraments.
Further strengthening the role of the catechist, on May 10 Pope Francis promulgated an Apostolic Letter “Antiquum Ministerium” instituting the ministry of the catechist. In the letter, Pope Francis underscores the important role that the laity play in passing on the faith. Our work as lay catechetical leaders, in collaboration with the clergy and religious communities, is an essential and integral component in the evangelization and formation of Catholic Christians. Pope Francis put it this way, “To be sure, there has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the church. We can indeed count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 102) It follows that the reception of a lay ministry such as that of Catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must however be carried out in a fully “secular” manner, avoiding any form of clericalization.”
Shortly after the document was made public, I had a cup of coffee with a long-time catechist in our diocese. She jokingly remarked, “Catechisis is now a ministry of the church? What have we been doing all of these years.”
Her humor spoke to the truth. While the official recognition of the catechist as a vocation is important, the role of the catechist has always been essential, and it has always been a ministry. I think Pope Francis recognized that fact too. The elevation of catechist as a vocation/ministry of the church adds needed emphasis on the importance of well trained, well formed catechists. It seems like over the past few decades the church has placed less emphasis on training catechists and more emphasis on making the job of catechesis less of a “burden.”
I understand that many of our directors and coordinators of religious education at our parishes are volunteers and nearly all of our catechists are volunteers. Not wanting to add to the already busy schedules of our volunteer catechists may seem like a pastoral response. However, competency and confidence go hand in hand. I recall several years ago driving by my volunteer fire department thinking that if my house were on fire the volunteer firemen were trained to put out the fire and administer first aid in the event it is needed. I am reminded of the hours of training it takes to be a volunteer fireman. Proper training for important work such as firefighting or catechesis is necessary no matter if the individual is a paid professional or a volunteer.
Pope Francis went on to say:
Beginning with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the church has come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization. The Council Fathers repeatedly emphasized the great need for the lay faithful to be engaged directly, in the various ways their charism can be expressed, in the “plantatio ecclesiae” and the development of the Christian community. “Worthy of praise too is that army of catechists, both men and women, to whom missionary work among the nations is so indebted, who imbued with an apostolic spirit make an outstanding and absolutely necessary contribution to the spread of the faith and the church by their great work. In our days, when there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechists is of the highest importance.” (cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity Ad Gentes, 17)
As a diocese, we will be looking at ways to better equip catechists for their important ministry as well as look for opportunities to celebrate the many ways catechists add to the richness of our faith. We will keep you posted!
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)