By Fr Donald Chambers
The spirit and guidelines of the Synodal journey (2021–2023) is without doubt a gift to all, including catechists – teachers or formators of the faith.
Located on one end of the seesaw, there is catechesis that is defined as “…an education in the faith of children, young people, and adults…” (Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae 1:2).
Faith, a gift or spark from God at Baptism, is fanned into flame (1 Tim 1: 6) by an ongoing organic and systematic pedagogy or teaching method called catechesis. It is born with innumerable potentials who need a formal or informal education system of formation to unearth those potentials.
Catechesis, therefore, packages the Church’s faith in in the mystery of God revealed in the person and mission of Jesus Christ (scriptures) and the Church’s practice throughout the centuries (tradition) and passes it on in a contemporary and relevant package.
This is a lived faith, demonstrated by countless witnesses throughout the centuries as they negotiate and manage religious persecution, social injustices, suffering and socioeconomic hardships.
On the other end of the seesaw, we have the current synodal journey, and the handbook that serves as a roadmap for the People of God who together listen to each other and the Holy Spirit, as they discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today.
On this faith journey, discernment consists of everyone boldly speaking and attentively listening to each other’s raw faith experiences.
At the fulcrum or pivotal point between the catechesis and synodal journey are the catechists – persons formally and informally formed and tasked with passing on the faith.
In the ministry of faith formation, they play a central role in developing the unique relationship between teaching of the faith and the synod journey. In order to aid catechists to further understand their pivotal role, I use the narrative of the Emmaus disciples as a model of faith formation (Lk 24: 13–35).
First, catechists take the initiative and insert themselves in the centre of the raw and messy lives of the people, as Jesus did with the distraught, confused and fed up disciples.
Parents, clergy, and faith formators spend time in formation to enquire, ‘What’s happening?’; ‘How are you feeling?’; ‘What are your thoughts?’. Questions such as these create safe, secure, and trustworthy spaces for the participants to speak freely and courageously about their life experiences and how they perceive their stories in relation to their faith.
Catechists may need to persist gently in asking these questions because participants may not speak immediately. Some may be fearful, lacking trust and/or confidence.
Second, when participants speak, catechists listen attentively to their stories of sadness and joy, failures and successes, frustrations and satisfactions, despair, and hope.
Catechists listen non-judgementally without yielding to the temptation to analyse, but simply to receive what is being spoken, as Jesus did with the Emmaus disciples.
Third, having listened deeply with the “ear of the heart”, catechists can now relate the spoken stories to the rich tradition of the Christian faith as unfolded in the scriptures and the Church’s tradition.
In this vein, it is essential that catechists have knowledge of the rich biblical stories and the wealth of the Church’s tradition from which to pull, in order to help participants discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in their current life circumstances.
Fourth, the Emmaus model demonstrates the importance of community and hospitality in faith formation. Catechesis is a ministry that is executed in the context of community because at the outset of His ministry, Jesus chooses the Twelve to live in communion with Him (cf Mk 3:14), and “faith releases us from the isolation of the ‘Me’, because it leads us to communion” (§156, Aparecida).
It is in communion that participants discover not only solidarity, but also that the faith tradition offers them meaning for the current circumstances. Hence, in Luke’s narrative, the Risen Jesus stays with them and celebrates a meal, at the end of which they proclaimed, “Did not our hearts burn within us. . .”
At the end of the narrative, we see that the catechetical approach of the Risen Lord was not primarily about teaching doctrine or preparing the disciples for the sacraments, but about journeying with them, helping them to grow in faith, in preparation for mission.
That growth in faith consists of conversion, changing the direction of their lives from seeing with the eyes of their emotions and thoughts, to seeing with the eyes of faith in preparation for mission.
Through communion and participation, catechists have the awesome responsibility of preparing children, young people, and adults for Mission.
They must have intimate knowledge of the synodal journey and experience their own personal conversion in preparation to journey with others towards conversion and mission.
In the end, therefore, this synodal journey and the handbook is a welcome gift to all, and in particular catechists.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.