How could I forget Ms. Mary Walsh, my third-grade teacher, who, I am confident, suffered a martyrdom not only trying patiently to teach me math, but also to convince me that I was not a bad math student? Or my music teacher, Ms. Cindy Hall, who tried valiantly, and in vain, to convince me to play the trumpet rather than the baritone (a small tuba that was bigger than I was at the time), and yet supported my decision and patiently sat with me year after year, helping me to improve as a musician? Then there was Mr. Robert Stackman, my sophomore Humanities teacher, whose creative and engaging presentations and personal stories about history and literature inspired me to become a teacher myself.
Most of us probably have a Ms. Walsh, a Ms. Hall, or a Mr. Stackman of our own: teachers who have walked with us, shaped us, formed us and informed us, and helped to make us the people we are today. If this is true for teachers of subjects like math, history and science, how much more is this true for the men and women who have instructed us in the faith?
In his May 2021 apostolic letter, Antiquum Ministerium, Pope Francis raised the ministry of catechist (one who teaches the Catholic faith) to the dignity and stature of the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte. In doing so, he was building not only on a solid foundation of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, he was acknowledging the power of an experience common to nearly everyone who has enjoyed the blessing of an education: teachers have a tremendous impact on our lives.
According to the pope, the instituted catechist is a special vocation, one that differs from a person teaching the faith in a parish in that this catechist is chosen by, and at disposal of, the local bishop, who is the chief catechist of his diocese. In this letter, the Holy Father asserts that the ministry of catechist is one of service that demands Spiritual maturity, adequate formation, and expertise in creatively transmitting the faith in various stages, beginning with the initial proclamation of the Gospel (often referred to as the kerygma or core message of Salvation in Jesus Christ).
While these qualities and qualifications are of course an essential part of the ministry of the instituted catechist, for me the most compelling line of this letter was the observation (n. 6) of the qualities of the catechist. Among these, the Holy Father cited that “every catechist must be a witness to the faith… a companion and pedagogue (or teacher), who teaches for the Church.”
In my experience, the most influential teachers were those who cared not only about communicating their subject, but who also cared about me as a person: men and women who showed compassion, patience, joy, and love, not only for their subject, but also for their craft and, most of all, for their students. They have a personal interest in the success of those they teach.
I believe that this is what the Holy Father is driving at in his description of the good catechist. Catechists are most effective when they are not simply communicating facts about the faith, but are also witnessing to Jesus Christ (Who is Himself the source and content of all catechesis), not only by their words, but also by the manner in which they live. Good catechists accompany those under their care as companions on the journey, like Ms. Walsh, Ms. Hall, and Mr. Stackman did for me in my formative years. It truly is as Pope St. Paul VI famously wrote in his 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (n. 41).
This may be the most important by-product of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, which was issued motu proprio (”Church speak” for “of his own accord” rather than in collaboration with, or at the prompting of, other leaders in the Church). Namely, that as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stipulated in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (n. 40). While some in the Church are called to teach, and some are called by their bishop to the instituted ministry of catechist, every baptized person is called to preach the Gospel in word and by the witness of their lives. And, in the modern world, witness is often the most effective way not only to teach others about Jesus Christ but to introduce them to Him personally.
The pope’s decision to elevate the ministry of catechist underscores the need for every baptized person to embrace the universal call to holiness, the fullness of life in Christ, and the missionary nature of the Church. If nothing else, this motu proprio is a reminder for all Catholics everywhere that, “the Church exists to evangelize” (Pope St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14). All of us are called to share in this ministry. While most of us have had a Ms. Walsh, Ms. Hall, or Mr. Stackman in our lives, all of us are called to be those best of teachers for all of the people the Lord places in our path: accompanying them; ministering to them patiently with joy and with love; and leading them into deeper knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Deacon Paul is the Director of Adult and Child Discipleship for the diocesan Secretariat for the New Evangelization.