When the school year gets underway it is soon time to start up Religious Education programs throughout the diocese. By now most of the programs have their catechists in place, but many are still putting out that plaintive plea for help. September 18th is Catechetical Sunday, the traditional kick-off of Religious Education programs in the United States. In parishes throughout the country people will stand before the congregation and will ceremonially accept the responsibility of handing on the faith to the youth. The ritual signifies much more for the catechist than being at the other end of a hurried search among parishioners by a desperate catechetical leader. “Those whom the community has designated to be catechists will be called forth to be commissioned for their service.” The Church presumes that there is a pool of potential catechists within the community because all are called to hand down the faith by virtue of our Baptism, which makes us faithful followers and witnesses to the Gospel.

Catechists are often overlooked in the vigorous debate in the Church about the necessary components of catechesis. One camp espouses content while the other side advocates for better methodology. The religious textbooks are the battleground for the conflict, with some so filled with method that it is hard to find the content, and others so laden with doctrine that it could bore a dog off a meat wagon. Missing in this debate is the most important element of sound catechesis; that is, the catechists themselves. Pedagogy is the science of teaching, but it takes on a very different flavor when it comes to Religious Education. The role of the catechist is to bring to life the seeds of faith already planted by God. The pedagogy of God is more than the words in a textbook. God’s pedagogy is best depicted by the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father stands at the door looking for the son; waiting for his return. God’s pedagogy is the father running out to meet the son even before he has a chance to recite his rehearsed apology. 

Throughout the history of catechesis we have searched for ways to describe the unique relationship between the learner, the catechist and God. The learner is an open receptacle of God’s offer of faith. As St. Augustine explained, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The catechist and parish are the vehicles by which the message of God is inculturated. God assumes the character of the person who teaches, the community in which it is taught, and the conditions that shape the learner.

Even though we place emphasis on the Religious Education programs as the be all and end all of catechesis; just as much focus should be on the parish as catechist. St. Pope John Paul II described catechesis as “the whole effort within the Church to make disciples.” Catechists can be found presenting the systematically planned lessons that trained professionals put together, and in the mother who blesses her children at bedtime. Catechists are in the social justice committee that informs parishioners that the upcoming election involves issues that are aligned with Catholic social teaching, and in the prayer shawl ladies that knit the symbol of God’s embrace of the sick. 

We need catechists to come forth out of their profound desire to share their lives, not just because they feel obligated to volunteer. If catechesis is to be the pedagogy of God, then it must be perceived as an act of love. In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis placed before us the essence of God’s catechetical method. “If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day to day lives.” Quoting St. Gregory he said, “Love itself is a kind of knowledge possessed of its own logic.” Catechists teach the Word of God with their whole lives. Doctrine can neither replicate nor supplant this lesson. 

Every person who has brought their children to be baptized has promised to be the bearers of God’s love to their community. “You have asked to have your children baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training them in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring them up to keep God’s Commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor.” This is a good reminder for the people of the parish. Rather than beg them to teach, promise them a reward in Heaven, or appeal to their volunteerism, maybe they just need to be reminded, “I see how much you love your children, do you think God might want you to share your love with others?” 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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