By CATHY WEAVER BISCAN, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 20, 2018
ATLANTA—A rainy morning did not deter 1,500 catechists from filling the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel and Convention Center on Aug. 18 for the 12th annual Atlanta Catechist Conference, hosted by the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the metro deaneries.
The theme for the day was “Witnesses for Jesus Christ” with the large turnout itself serving as a witness.
“The faithful are still faithful. Despite the recent happenings of abuse and scandal, they (the catechists) come to learn and grow. They remain faithful,” said one attendee.
What began in 2006 with three parishes and a keynote address has grown into the biggest and best catechist conference yet. Joyce Guris, director of religious education and youth ministry at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, was instrumental in the planning and execution of the first conference.
“We were all doing catechist training in our parishes and thought it would be a good idea to pool our resources so catechists could benefit from more choices, different speakers and being part of the larger community of catechists. It originally started with Transfiguration, St. Peter Chanel and St. Catherine of Siena. The next year we invited our deaneries and began the monthly planning meetings, invited the Northeast Deanery and this year the South,” said Guris.
She added, “I love that we can give our catechists access to national speakers, feed them spiritually, theologically and physically. Obviously, I’m biased, but catechetical ministry is huge—weekly planning, weekly teaching and praying—for almost nine months out of the year. They deserve our best support possible.”
The root word, “catechesis” is from a Greek word meaning “to echo, or resound.” Catechesis is the act of resounding or bringing the church’s teachings to the world, and a catechist is one who teaches in the name of the church.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomed catechists and led a morning prayer service.
This year marked the first time the conference drew participants from outside the archdiocesan borders. Seventy-one parishes and 10 schools were represented from the archdiocese this year. Attendees also included 30 people from the Diocese of Savannah for the day of workshops, networking and prayer. The day concluded with Mass celebrated by Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III.
Several clergy were present to assist with Mass and also to attend workshops.
Father Timothy Gadziala, pastor of St. Peter Church, LaGrange, was engaged in the workshops and mingled with the participants during lunch.
“I had someone come up to me the other day and ask ‘what do I need to do to join the Church?’ I needed that,” he said, alluding to the recent crisis of clerical sexual abuse.
Andy Lichtenwalner, the new director of the Office of Formation and Discipleship for the archdiocese, expressed his gratitude for catechists.
“Jesus never stops inviting us to a deeper knowledge of and relationship with him. Catechesis and ongoing formation serve a vital role here,” said Lichtenwalner. “The 2018 Atlanta Catechist Conference—the biggest to date thus far—was a great opportunity to recognize and support so many of our ministry and catechetical leaders in the archdiocese and beyond, especially our many volunteer catechists, who act as witnesses for Jesus Christ.”
Author and biblical scholar Stephen Binz offered the keynote address that kicked off the morning.
“We have a call to holiness and mission, said Binz. “It is the vocation of us all, not just the ordained or those called to foreign lands,” he said. “The first proclamation of the catechist should be, ‘Jesus Christ loves you,’” he said, quoting Pope Francis.
Binz continued to challenge the catechists to look at the heart of their mission in Christ. “Teach them to fall in love instead of convincing them to fall in line,” he said.
Binz also stressed the importance of personal spiritual growth as he spoke of the Bible.
“We are not to just study the Bible, but reflect, meditate and form a biblical imagination as we are transformed,” he said.
Other featured speakers included Nancy Bird of the publisher RCL Benziger; Kathy McCormick, director of faith formation and evangelization at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta; Andy Otto, author and retreat director at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center; and Dr. Phillip Thompson, former executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
Father Tan Robert Pham delivered a keynote address, as did Andrés Garcia and Father Roberto Suarez, who presented workshops in Spanish.
Thirty-six workshops, offered in Spanish and English, as well as Vietnamese, covered a variety of topics including faith and technology, Ignatian spirituality, alternative models to catechesis, storytelling, care of teen leaders and RCIA tools.
Vendors displayed goods at tables throughout the day, including Catholic publishers; The Quest AM 1160, Atlanta’s newest Catholic radio station; Ignatius House; Holy Family Counseling Center; and others.
The majority of those attending were adults of a variety of ages and nationalities. There were, however, a handful of teenagers participating. Emily Dim, Margaret Niang and Regina Ciin came from Holy Cross Church, Atlanta. The 16-year-old girls, who attend Norcross and Tucker High Schools, are originally from Myanmar and came to the conference to learn to be catechists for the elementary age children at the parish.
The girls volunteer in the classroom and want to be lead teachers of the faith.
“We love teaching. We learn from them (the young children),” the girls said.