Q: Archbishop J, with all the changes in the Church, what is the role of the catechists?
From the earliest times, the catechist has been vital to the life and health of the Church. Nothing here has changed. The greatest challenge for the Church in every age is in passing on the faith to the next generation. In our time, this challenge is greater than ever before.
The rise of secularism has created doubts in the hearts of our people from very early. In addition, the availability of information from the internet has meant each person has an opinion and can find opposing views to the Church’s position. Or more excitingly, they can fact-check the catechists to see if they are teaching in orthodox ways.
September is Catechetical Month. Catechists – Companions on the journey, the theme chosen by the AEC bishops, signals a shift in the way many see the catechetical ministry, but it recaptures an earlier understanding we lost along the way.
The catechist accompanies
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) is instructive. Philip was in prayer when the Lord spoke to him: “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). In obedience, he got up and followed the instructions and found the travelling Ethiopian reading the prophet Isaiah.
First, we can learn the person called to be a catechist is a person of prayer, obedient to the Holy Spirit. Next, Philip conversed with the eunuch and accompanied him for the first part of the journey. Note that Philip did not go back to Ethiopia with him; nor did he leave before this stage of the journey was complete.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis puts accompaniment on the agenda for all ministers of the Church. He says: “The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf Ex 3:5)”, 169.
This is a profoundly human act that requires vulnerability and humility. Philip did not take over the conversation with his latest thoughts or reflections. He began from the point of the eunuch’s enquiry, and only after did he talk about the Good News about Jesus. Out of this conversation came a desire, and the eunuch was baptised.
Vital to accompaniment is that God is the focus and the end. Pope Francis says: “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father” (EG, 170).
As catechists, our role is not that of a therapist who points the person inwards. Our role is to point the person to Christ and, with Christ, to be on pilgrimage with the person to God. This needs patience and humility. It requires a deep active listening and a desire for the salvation of the person as they are being configured to Christ.
Kerygma and Mystagogy
The new Directory for Catechesis makes two very important departures from the old. The first is the notion of kerygmatic catechesis. The second is catechesis as mystagogical initiation. We need to understand these concepts if we are to understand our role.
The Directory states: “All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats” (Preface).
The kerygma is what Philip would have proclaimed to the Ethiopian. The Directory states that it is the principal proclamation that we must hear again and again. This means that catechesis is always an evangelisation leading to deeper conversion and submission to Jesus Christ.
Catechesis as mystagogical, initiates the person both into the mysteries of faith and into the living experience of the Christian community. The Directory states: “In the light of these features that characterise catechesis from the missionary perspective, the goal of the catechetical process is also reinterpreted. The present understanding of the formative dynamics of the person requires that intimate communion with Christ, already indicated in the existing Magisterium as the ultimate end of the catechetical initiative, should not only be identified as a goal but also brought about through a process of accompaniment” (#3).
From these new perspectives it is vital that catechists see their role as both what Philip did for the eunuch and what St Paul did for the communities he founded. This is a lifelong process for both the catechist and the disciple, and one marked by a missionary dimension, as we see in both St Philip and St Paul. For a consideration of the kerygma look at the speech of St Peter after Pentecost and St Paul in Antioch (Acts 2:14–39; 13:16–47).
Each disciple of Christ has responsibility for ongoing formation. The catechist has a more serious responsibility (Jas 3:1). For this reason, we have made the platform formed.org available to every Catholic in our Archdiocese, for free.
Visit the platform and look at the different courses and choose one that excites you and pursue it. I also strongly suggest you get the Directory for Catechesis (2020) and read it.
A formation programme specifically to assist the catechist in the understanding of synodality is coming. This is a significant dimension of catechesis as envisioned by Pope Francis.
To be a catechist is not simply to teach people about the doctrine of the Faith. More importantly, the catechist must accompany people through the key proclamation of faith towards discipleship and then to holiness of life. We all need to be on that journey.
Thanks to all who have journeyed with so many over the years. You give your time, talent, and treasure to ensure all our people receive the faith. This is a tremendous gift to the Church: we could never thank you enough for what you do. We all need to equip ourselves, not for a programme, but for the whole church.
The catechist’s role is to proclaim the first message of faith and to initiate the person into the sacred mysteries and the community of faith. This means we need to be people of prayer who can initiate others.
Choose a course from formed.org, read the new Directory and avail yourself of all the ongoing formation we offer.