As the year came to an end, many catechists and Catholic school teachers dialogued about the current changes in the US Church landscape. One of the most interesting conversations happened around the topic of the priority of systematic formation for catechists. Some commented on the “importance of living our faith,” to which others added the priority of knowing the faith and the art of sharing it with our children and youth in our religious education programs and in Catholic schools.
What does the Church teach us about catechesis? What is the difference between evangelization and catechesis? In 1977, the synod of bishops met in Rome to discuss these very same questions. (This synod was a follow-up to the Synod on Evangelization that had taken place three years earlier and its ensuing document on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which was to spark new zeal in the spread of the Christian message). Due to the work of the synods, the terms evangelization and catechesis were clearly defined.
Evangelization is the first encounter with the living Christ, a transforming on-going experience that changes the way that we perceive life, the world and humanity; a paradigm shift, a complete turnaround that impels us to live our lives as disciples of Christ. Catechesis is what ideally follows, the systematic formation that seeks to bring about growth, maturity and understanding of our encounter with Christ. In other words, the goal of catechesis is to put people into a dynamic intimacy, into communion with Christ (Catechesi Tradendae, 5).
How do people come into communion with Christ? Through deepening their knowledge of the doctrine once the faith decision has been made. Catechesis forms informed disciples (General Directory for Catechesis, 56) in a systematic way to carry out the Church’s missionary call to transform the world. For the disciple, faith must be “known, celebrated, lived and expressed in prayer” (National Directory for Catechesis, p. 60).
“Catechesis is the responsibility of the entire Christian community” (GDC, #220) Through Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit fills us with a variety of gifts to be used in service to others. A catechist responds to the call of the Holy Spirit. The faith community discerns which of its members possess this gift and calls them to exercise the ministry of catechesis to empower others with the truths and mysteries of the faith.
“If the work of catechesis is to be carried out rigorously and seriously, it is today more difficult and tiring than ever before, because of the obstacles and difficulties of all kinds that it meets; but it is also more consoling, because of the kind of depth of the response it receives from children and young people. This is a treasure which the Church can and should count on in the years ahead.” [Catechesi Tradendae, 40.]
The catechetical ministry is an art, the art of handing on the faith. Artists have materials that enable them to express inner realities. Some use ink, paint, musical scales or fabrics to convey meaning. We, as catechists, do the same when we use sacred Scripture with all its beauty and style; when we use sacred liturgy with its richness, symbols and rituals; when we use the tradition of our Church with the stories of Jesus’ faithful disciples as courageous witnesses who have faithfully and joyfully carried on his mission; and when we faithfully use the teaching of the magisterium despite the challenging landscapes, times and contexts.