Being a Catechist Isn’t Just Something You Do — It’s Something You Are

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than teachers,” said Paul VI, “and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses.”

Unknown, “Portrait of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine,” ca. 1622
Unknown, “Portrait of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine,” ca. 1622 (photo: Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium)

Among important 2021 anniversaries, the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an Italian Jesuit, cardinal, Doctor of the Church, and patron saint of the catechists and catechumens, will probably make headlines.

For his immense work in teaching the faith, St. Robert Bellarmine is invoked as the patron saint of catechists. It is not coincidental that in May, Mary’s month — Mary is considered as a disciple, a teacher and a living Catechism — and on the feast day (May 10) of St. John of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, preacher, spiritual director, catechist, evangelizer and Doctor of the Church, Pope Francis promulgated the motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium, instituting the lay ministry of the catechist for both men and women alike.  

As the title indicates, the ministry of catechists, which includes men and women alike, has ancient roots in Church history and ministry. Who were the first catechists? The answer is straightforward: parents. Parents are the first catechists, the first preachers of the faith and those who introduce “good manners” of faith, educating their children by word and lived example. Parents are called to this unique responsibility as the first teachers and sowers of the seeds of faith.

Pope St. Paul VI, in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, explains the role of parents as catechists:

“In the family parents have the task of training their children from childhood on to recognize God's love for all men. By example especially they should teach them little by little to be solicitous for the material and spiritual needs of their neighbor. The whole family in its common life, then, should be a sort of apprenticeship for the apostolate.”

Who takes responsibility for this task after the parents? The catechists — who, like biological parents, take care of the spiritual wellbeing of their adopted children of God, assuming an important part in the faith education process. Throughout the history of the Church, relationships were forged between catechists and catechumens, teachers and students.

St. Paul put a lot of weight on the personal relationships and the value of the ministry of the catechist. In Galatians 6:6, he writes:

“One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor.” 

Although during Paul’s time, the Church had not formalized catechetical instruction, he insisted that all good things which will benefit people spiritually and morally are to be shared. There is a reciprocal system of giving and receiving — the example Paul is setting up for catechetical instruction. 

The system of formal training or catechetical schools developed later, mostly during the second and the third centuries. Training went hand in hand with evangelization and dissemination of the Christian faith with teachers like Origen of Alexandria (184-253) who began teaching at the school of Alexandria and was appointed head of the Didaskaleion (school) in 203 by Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, as Eusebius describes in Ecclesiastical History Book VI: 

“He was in his eighteenth year when he took charge of the catechetical school. He was prominent also at this time, during the persecution under Aquila, the governor of Alexandria, when his name became celebrated among the leaders in the faith, through the kindness and goodwill which he manifested toward all the holy martyrs, whether known to him or strangers.”

Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) in the Procatechesis (Prologue) gives a fascinating description of the methodology and pedagogy of sound catechetical instruction, comparing it to a building, and explaining how catechesis is to be presented:

“Catechizing is a kind of building: if we do not bind the house together by regular bonds in the building, lest some gap be found, and the building become unsound, even our former labor is of no use. But stone must follow stone by course, and corner match with corner, and by our smoothing off inequalities the building must thus rise evenly. In like manner we are bringing to you stones, as it were, of knowledge. You must hear concerning the living God, you must hear of Judgment, must hear of Christ, and of the Resurrection. And many things there are to be discussed in succession, which though now dropped one by one are afterwards to be presented in harmonious connection.”

Women have always been involved in catechesis, starting with Mary, mother and model disciple, whom John Paul II in his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (“Catechesis in Our Time”) calls the mother and model catechist. Mary formed Jesus in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God’s plan for his people, and in adoration of the Father. In turn, she was the first among Jesus’ disciples.

Women were the natural choice for educating the young in the faith (Guide for Catechists) from the women who witnessed Jesus, to the women of the early and medieval Church; from Mary Magdalen who was the eyewitness to the Resurrection and the first to testify before the Apostles, worthy to be called apostolorum apostola (apostle of the apostles), to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Women taught the word and acted on the word. They were integral to and integrated into the catechesis and evangelization of the Church.

The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis addresses the ministry of catechesis as a fundamental ecclesial service and the vocation of the catechist as a mediator who facilitates communication between the people and the mystery of God, among people, and between individual people and the community. The new evangelization requires well-trained catechists to bring the Gospel message to the people, as Canon 759 prescribes:

“By virtue of baptism and confirmation, lay members of the Christian faithful are witnesses of the gospel message by word and the example of a Christian life; they can also be called upon to cooperate with the bishop and presbyters in the exercise of the ministry of the word.” 

Recent popes, from John Paul II to Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, connect catechist and catechesis with the call to the New Evangelization. The New Evangelization asks for catechists — lay men and women, who have a vocation to be catechists — to prepare the faithful to faithfully communicate the Gospel. Pope St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis in Our Time, defines the goal of catechesis:

“The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity. This teaching is not a body of abstract truths. It is the communication of the living mystery of God.”

In his 2013 address to participants in the pilgrimage of catechists for the Year of Faith, Pope Francis outlined the vocation of the catechist, urging them not just to work as catechists but to be catechists:

Not to ‘work’ as catechists: this will not do. I work as a catechist because I like to teach. … But unless you ‘are’ a catechist, it is no good! You will not be successful … you will not bear fruit! Catechesis is a vocation: ‘being a catechist,’ this is the vocation, not working as a catechist. So, keep this in mind: I didn’t say to do the ‘work’ of catechists, but to ‘be’ catechists, because this is something that embraces our whole life. It means leading people to encounter Christ by our words and our lives, by giving witness.”

Catechists are called to give witness of faith, because witnessing is teaching and acting by example, and as Paul VI wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than teachers, and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses.”

This is, in a nutshell, what the Church has always taught about catechesis and the vocation of the catechist.

As with the recognition of lay ministry of acolyte promulgated Jan. 15 by Spiritus Domini, Antiquum Ministeriumrecognizes and values the role of the catechist, categorizing it as a lay ministry in the Church.

This formal recognition of the catechists as teachers of faith is beneficial to the Church and the laity. This lay ministry is not to be abused and considered on equal footing with the sacramental, priestly ordination, as there is no ordination involved with this ministry. And by no means can the ministry of the catechist be considered a steppingstone to the sacramental ordination of women to ministry. Keeping in mind the importance of accepting these teachings for what they are, what Pope Francis is doing to formally recognize the role of the laity and lay ministry in the Church is both laudable and applaudable.

During this year, the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Robert Bellarmine, the faithful will ever more fervently request the intercession of this patron saint of catechists, whose work and being underscore the dignity of the vocation of catechists.  

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