By DENNIS JOHNSON JR., Commentary | Published September 18, 2008
Catechists are entrusted to help others develop on their faith journeys, collaborating closely with pastors, clergy, religious, lay ecclesial professionals, parents and others. Coming from varying backgrounds and specialties, catechists help build up the Catholic Church, forming disciples who are (or are becoming) full, conscious and active witnesses of faith.
In many ways, the catechist is a basic building block for faith formation.
In other parts of the world, catechists participate in very formalized roles. They assist with the daily operations of parishes in places without resident clergy or regular contact with a pastor. They work directly with bishops as animators of leadership and occupy positions within an episcopal conference on the provincial, regional or national level.
In other places (such as here in North Georgia), catechists are more commonly engaged in volunteer roles designed to enhance particular facets of the discipleship journey for individuals, families and parishes. Catechists also serve in schools (public or private), providing religious instruction and helping to establish or reinforce a Christian learning environment.
Regardless of where or in what capacity, the place and function of the catechist deserves respect and admiration.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta the majority of our catechists serve in parish-based catechetical ministry. We employ hundreds to assist with faith formation programming for adults, young adults, youth and children.
The magnitude of their influence is immense—catechists help form thousands of Catholics throughout the archdiocese, in numerous languages and a variety of cultures, year after year. Coupled with the catechetical formation efforts taking place in our Catholic schools, on university and college campuses and in other arenas, the future of our faith is expanding and growing.
The word catechist is derived from an ancient Greek term, meaning to echo or to resound. Christian antiquity has long understood the catechist as a witness: one who echoes or resounds the Gospel. Think of the image of the church bell clamoring and tolling with the vibrant message of Jesus Christ … this is the vocation of the catechist!
Catechists are fundamental agents within the Church’s pastoral agenda because of its mission to make disciples of everyone—an enormous undertaking mandated by Jesus at the end of the gospels.
In ecclesial vocabulary, the word evangelization (which means animating or making present the good news of Jesus Christ) describes this holistic discipleship-making process. Evangelization is the vocation of all the baptized but is more concretized in the life of the catechist. There are three ongoing ever-deepening stages: evangelization (proclaiming the gospel), initiation (incorporating into the life of the Church) and catechesis (ongoing maturing of the faith).
As our experience of Catholicism broadens and our relationship with Christ deepens, we hear the proclamation of the gospel in new ways, which call us to renewal and reentry into these never-ending ongoing stages of conversion. Catechists facilitate this process of evangelization, which is itself the motivator and basis for the Church’s entire catechetical heritage and pastoral outreach.
Catechists fulfill some primary tasks in the course of their ministry. They draw disciple-learners into a deeper knowledge of faith, an enhanced liturgical experience, a developed moral formation, a profound life of prayer, a sense of ecclesial community and a commitment to Christian mission. Together, these fundamental elements, incorporated into the person of the disciple, result in a truly holistic, fully engaged follower of Christ Jesus.
Make no mistake, the Church intends this reality for every single human person.
Clearly, the catechist cannot accomplish these works alone. They rightfully depend on full engagement and support from priests, religious, parish structures, the faithful and parents. We must not let them down.
On this weekend, the annual observance of Catechetical Sunday, Sept. 21, take a moment to thank the Lord for those catechists who have affected your life. Ask God to call more people forward to serve in this role and be open to responding to this invitation yourself.
No ministry is more important, influential, vital or necessary.
Consider ways that you and your parish can become more responsive to the mission of evangelization, to fostering discipleship. Look to expand our resources for catechetical ministry, by far the broadest agenda within the Church, the most influential in scope and number, the most essential theologically and pastorally.
Most importantly, encourage those already serving in the various faith formation apostolates in our parishes, schools and universities. Their investment of time, talent and treasure enables us to foster mature discipleship, promote vibrant communities of faith, and build up the Catholic Church in North Georgia.
Dennis Johnson Jr. is the director of the Office of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.