All Catholics receive the call to live out their Baptism in various ways. When catechists respond to God’s call with their “yes,” they are responding in a specific way both to the movement of the Spirit within them and to the call of the Church. This can mark a new beginning in the deepening of their spiritual awareness.
It has been said that the life witness of the catechist is as important as the textbook used to catechize. Thus, in choosing catechists, look to those active or visible in the parish as well as in the community. Are they indeed living as faith-filled persons? In soliciting catechists, be cautious of casting too broad a net through parish advertising. Meet with the pastor and other parish staff to review with care the names of prospective catechists, as recommended in the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (see § 55.B [Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005]).
An interview of prospective catechists is recommended. In the interview, an important question is, “Why do you want to be a catechist?” The prospective catechist’s answer will tell an interviewer what motivates him or her, and much more. The ministry of catechesis is a participation in the mission of Christ and of the Church. Ideally a catechist will be open to, or even sense, a call to the vocation of catechist. This call can be rooted in a special care for children, loveof the Church and one’s own parish, or zeal for spreading the faith. With practice, these prospective catechists will become comfortable talking about and sharing their faith. Parishes will actively seek out volunteers who possess the appropriate gifts for this ministry. They will also provide volunteer catechists with written guidelines to identify expectations for catechist formation and catechetical practice. Catechists should review these guidelines and commit them to memory. Catechists may also renew their commitment annually in a public prayer service or commissioning rite.
Catholic school teachers also share in the Church’s ministry of catechesis. They “not only teach the Catholic faith as an academic subject but also bear witness to the truth of what they teach” (NDC, § 54.B). For that reason, besides their professional preparation and certification, they are required to meet diocesan standards for certification as a catechist.
Certification and Training
Catechists need adequate preparation and training. A person with a degree in education does not necessarily make a good catechist. The qualities listed above, particularly a sense of vocation, are in some ways more desirable than an academic degree alone. People who volunteer to be catechists often do so to support their children who are enrolled in the parish religious education program. Anyone who does so should also be expected to seek basic certification from the (arch)diocese, preferably completing that certification within three years of commencing service as a catechist. The parish catechetical leader will monitor new catechists’ growth during semi-annual or annual classroom observations. Catechists who feel called by God to this ministry will often voluntarily seek higher levels of certification—they want to be the very best at their ministry.
Catechists should possess sufficient training and understand the faith well enough to be able to use the textbook, to develop and follow a lesson plan, to be familiar with references to Scripture, to give concrete examples, and to make references to the students’ lived experience. Untrained catechists often have trouble using the textbook. They can find it overly complicated and might resort to ignoring the lesson plans and teaching from their own personal—and perhaps limited—faith formation.
Catholic school teachers, while professionally trained in education methods and teaching strategies, may also need to be exposed to a deeper understanding of the faith, Sacred Scripture, and proper liturgical practice. All who are engaged in the Church’s ministry of catechesis are called to seek ongoing spiritual growth.
Parents, as the primary educators of their children, may also choose to provide catechesis for their own children in the home. As catechists within a particular parish, they must follow diocesan and parish guidelines. They should receive the same assistance and resources provided to catechists who teach in the parish program. Parishes would do well to include them in all parish activities, particularly those pertaining to the religious formation of the children in the parish and preparation for sacraments in the appropriate grades. Parents who provide catechesis at home are also expected to seek the training and preparation needed to catechize their children effectively and fully in the authentic faith of the Church (see NDC, § 61.3).
Continued Growth for Catechists
During each annual review with your catechists, seek to help them address weaknesses identified during classroom observation and mutual evaluation of the experience of the past year. When possible, the parish catechetical leader can assist a catechist in creating an annual growth plan that promotes the catechist’s development through certification courses, adult faith formation programs in the parish or diocese, diocesan conferences (where the catechist might attend talks suggested by the parish catechetical leader), or resource books or videos from the library of the religious education office. With help, a catechist might identify and pursue, for example, one or two specific objectives in personal growth, knowledge of the faith, familiarity with Scripture, liturgical practices, or teaching techniques. In some parishes, experienced and effective Catholic school teachers have also been paired with willing volunteer catechists as mentors.
In a similar way, the school principal or the parish catechetical leader can assist Catholic school teachers in developing an ongoing growth plan. All resources given to volunteers and teachers should also be provided, together with pastoral encouragement, to parents of home-schooling families.
It is important to be aware of the resources offered by appropriate national organizations as well as offices within the (arch)diocese, such as the offices for family life, social justice, stewardship, Catholic Charities, worship, and lay ministry formation. These resources can offer positive assistance for deepening catechists’ knowledge of church teaching and for honing their teaching techniques. Several Catholic universities and colleges offer online courses for credit, certificate, or audit. The (arch)diocesan catechetical officemay have information about these programs and may provide direction in approving their use for certification purposes.
Catechists should be helped to understand the relationship between evangelization and catechesis and to appreciate their need for lifelong formation in their faith as taught in church documents on catechesis. They are part of an ancient and necessary ministry of the Church. Even a brief in-service on the history of catechetical structures, approaches, and methods is valuable.
Spiritual Growth and Prayer Leadership
An effective catechist is one who has already encountered Christ, follows Christ, and has a desire to help others know Christ. Such service demands that a catechist cultivate a life of public worship and private prayer. Like all Christians, catechists are called to continued spiritual growth. If possible, the parish can assist their growth by giving them experience with a variety of prayer styles through days of recollection, prayers at meetings, and in-services on Catholic prayer traditions. After they have experienced various kinds of prayer, catechists might be asked to take turns preparing and leading a different kind of prayer at each catechist meeting. In this way, catechists may get some practice and receive constructive feedback from the catechetical leader on preparing and leading prayer. The parish religious education library should be full of resources that provide examples of various prayer styles and sample prayer services.
Catechists are often called to be leaders of prayer for various age groups and in different settings. Catechists need to be encouraged and shown how to use the simple gestures and rituals of the Mass in prayer times with their learners. Rituals such as enthroning the Scriptures or lighting candles (if building codes and parish policies allow), or the practice of setting aside a prayer space, draw upon the Catholic imagination to reach into the very mystery of God in ways that become tangible even if they cannot be verbalized. Making use of Catholic rituals on multiple occasions connects the meaning of the Mass with weekly parish events.
Sometimes catechists are called upon to plan a Eucharistic Liturgy. They should therefore be tutored in proper liturgical practice according to the principles elaborated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of the Second Vatican Council and in other approved resources (see NDC, § 35.C). An in-service on liturgical and ritual catechesis would always benefit catechists of any age group. Often the diocesan worship office or other knowledgeable persons in the diocese can provide resources for learning about liturgical practice. Finally, remember to take advantage of local Catholic college theology departments when looking for resource persons.
Pastors and parish staff may encourage and support parish catechists in many ways, including words of affirmation or appreciation for a particular service rendered. Even more importantly, all catechists and Catholic school teachers deserve to be provided with necessary supplies, as well as formation opportunities and retreats that give them direction for fulfilling their ministry goals. And although catechists do need adequate supplies, they also need the support of yourpresence and a listening ear from time to time.
Parish catechetical leaders should make efforts to build community among the parish’s catechists. Part of these efforts involve listening to catechists’ needs and recognizing the sacrifices their families make in allowing them to serve the Church through this ministry. Special community prayer and social celebrations built into periodic in-services and meetings are good ways to build community. Show support for catechists with a full and vibrant parish celebration of Catechetical Sunday. In recognition of current catechists, and as an encouragement to other prospective catechists, take this opportunity to publish the names of catechists who serve the parish, including their respective levels of catechist certification and years of service. At a minimum, provide information about parish catechists to the parents of children enrolled in the religious education program.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). These familiar words remind catechists that they have been commissioned by Jesus to continue his mission. The Lord’s mandate issues from the eternal love of God, which reaches out to humanity to bring all into communion with God and with one another. After a period of apprenticeship, the Apostles were sent out in all directions. They were empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of salvation, God’s merciful and healing love. Catechists help to carry on that mission.