By CATHY WEAVER BISCAN, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 19, 2019
ATLANTA—A capacity crowd of almost 1,500 filled the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center on Saturday, Aug. 17 as catechists from across the southeast gathered to continue their faith journeys as the theme exclaimed, “Jesus, Walk with Us.”
Tony Alonso was the keynote speaker for the 13th Annual Catechist Conference (ACC). Assistant professor of theology and culture at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, he also serves as director of Catholic studies. Alonso kicked off the day with a presentation of bilingual song and message woven together in a pattern of inspiration, formation and transformation of heart.
Calling catechists “echoers of the Word of God,” Alonso said, “the role of the catechist is creating and sustaining an encounter with Jesus Christ in our communities and churches.”
He spoke of the four ways to encounter Christ—as a ministry of presence to others, mercy toward all people, hospitality demonstrated as welcome and inclusion and finally, as an agent of healing. Quoting Pope Francis, Alonso called the church “a field hospital after a battle.”
Music added a powerful dimension to the morning program as Alonso and his ensemble sang “I Will Lift My Eyes.”
One “Christ encounter” happened within the walls of a workshop that day.
Darleine Arce, catechetical coordinator at St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, explained that “formation is oftentimes limited to sacramental and formal preparation, ending by the adolescent years.”
However, one of Arce’s catechists shared how a specific workshop changed the way that she understood her role in ministry and what it means to support families in lifelong learning through witness of the faith rather than just as instructors or catechists.
The catechist, Erika Lopez, was participating in a session with Father Pedro Poloche in Spanish titled “Walk with Jesus” when this paradigm shift occurred.
“I understood that my role as a catechist is to teach families to live our faith … we are to share with others the experiences that our Lord has given us. This is the best example of faith that we can give, which will also help us achieve the transformation we need as catechists. Followers do not turn away from the Lord,” she said.
Handing on the beauty of the faith
A variety of workshops were offered throughout the day. Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III presented a workshop in Spanish, while Kate Viets, director of Holy Family Church’s Preschool, gave a dynamic presentation on working with the very young.
Randy Raus, CEO and president of Life Teen International told of the history of the youth movement which has spread to 27 countries and is transforming parishes with its emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist and relational ministry, accompanying teens on their walk with Jesus.
Vendor coordinator Barb Garvin has been involved in the conference since the days when Atlanta deaneries would combine to offer catechist formation with 200 to 250 participants attending.
“We are very happy with the participation of over 30 vendors of religious items and Catholic publishers,” said Garvin. “The conference is a wonderful way for Catholics in the south to see vast numbers of Catholics in one place.”
New this year was a youth minister networking lunch as well as a larger number of schools participating. At least thirteen Catholic schools and more than eighty parishes were represented at the event. Several catechists also attended from the Diocese of Savannah as well as the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.
“We’re so thankful for all of our leaders and volunteers in catechetical ministry. The ACC is a great opportunity to support all those who work to hand on Jesus and the beauty of the faith to others,” said Andy Lichtenwalner, director of the office of formation and discipleship.
Bishop Joel Konzen, SM, celebrated the closing Mass.
“We can easily drift into a place of isolation,” Bishop Konzen told the catechists. “We want to be Jesus walking with them. Offer relationship, stay on course, illumine what’s been taught. Teach parents to teach their children.”
Joyce Guris, director of religious education and youth ministry at Transfiguration Church in Marietta, was one of the main coordinators of the conference. She worked throughout the year with a team of parish educational leaders to make the day a success.
“Many thanks to our amazing speakers, the support of publishers and vendors, the Archdiocese of Atlanta, especially Bishop Konzen and Bishop Shlesinger, Office of Formation and Discipleship and a dedicated planning team; most especially to the almost 1,500 catechists who gave up a Saturday in August to grow in faith and learn how to become more effective catechists,” said Guris. “They are a gift to this archdiocese. May God bless them over and over for their love, passion and generosity.”
Bishop Konzen also offered a word of appreciation to Cathy Marbury, the associate director of religious education for the archdiocese, who is retiring in early 2020.
“She has given over 26 years of excellent and faithful service to this archdiocese in both parishes and more recently in the Chancery,” said the bishop. “This is her final ACC event as the lead staff coordinator with the planning committee. Cathy, on behalf of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, thank you for your dedicated work and service, and we all express our appreciation to you.”