In a previous post, we looked at the institution of the new ministry of catechist by Pope Francis and why that is important for RCIA teams. In the press conference announcing the new ministry, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization said, “It is obvious that not everyone who is a catechist today will have access to the ministry of Catechist” (Press Conference, May 5, 2021).
Since many of us who serve in catechumenate ministry, including myself, refer to ourselves as “catechist,” I want to look at what the church means by the ministry of catechist. In this post, we’ll dig into the general ministry of catechist, and in a later post, we’ll talk more specifically of the role of the catechist in catechumenate ministry.
RCIA catechists don’t work alone
To find the most up-to-date teaching on the ministry of catechist, we turn to the Directory for Catechesis, which was issued on June 25, 2020. In describing the identity and vocation of the catechist, the Directory says:
This ministry provides an introduction to the faith and, together with the liturgical ministry, begets children of God in the womb of the Church. The specific vocation of the catechist therefore has its root in the common vocation of the people of God. (110)
This is a theme that will appear over and over in the Directory. The catechist is never a lone ranger. We can’t go off to graduate school or a master catechist program and get certified and consider that alone as sufficient formation for this ministry. The vocation of catechist is always rooted in and flows from our baptismal vocation and our membership in the Christian community. “The whole Christian community,” says the Directory, “is responsible for the ministry of catechesis….” This is an echo from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, “The initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized” (9).
If that is the case, a catechist must first of all identify as a member of the body of Christ:
The catechist belongs to a Christian community and is an expression of it. [Their] service is lived within a community that is the main provider of accompaniment in faith. (111)
Accompaniment is another prevalent theme in describing the ministry of catechist. As I was reading the Directory’s description of this ministry, I was reminded of Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Catechetical ministry is mostly walking along the road with believers as we are led forward by the Holy Spirit. “The true protagonist of all authentic catechesis,” says the Directory, “is however the Holy Spirit, who by means of the profound union with Jesus Christ which is nurtured by every catechist, gives efficacy to human efforts in catechetical activity” (112).
The Directory lists three characteristics of a catechist. A catechist is:
- A witness of faith and keeper of the memory of God
- A teacher and a mystagogue
- An accompanier and educator (113)
Witness of faith and keeper of the memory of God
As a witness and keeper of memory, I again think of the Emmaus walk. A lot of what Jesus did in that story was simply remind of the disciples of how God had acted in the past. Our faith isn’t based on some great unknown. It’s based on actual stories of that actually happened in history. And you don’t have to go all the way back to the Old Testament to find these stories. We can also witness to our personal history of faith and how God has shown us mercy and healed us. “Keeping his memory, reawakening it in others, and placing it at the service of the proclamation is the specific vocation of the catechist” (113 a).
Teacher and a mystagogue
As a teacher and mystagogue, “the catechist has the two-fold task of transmitting the content of the faith and leading others into the mystery of the faith itself” (113 b). This is also an echo of the RCIA. We provide the catechumens not only with “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate” (75.1). To accomplish this, we have to draw upon the liturgy of the church. The Directory says we are to “[unveil] the mysteries of salvation contained in the deposit of faith and renewed in the Church’s liturgy” (113 b).
Accompanier and educator
The Directory says that “the catechist is an expert in the art of accompaniment” (113 c; emphasis in original). The concept of the “art of accompaniment” comes from Pope Francis’s letter, Joy of the Gospel. He says there:
The Church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life. (169)
Pope Francis identifies the ability to listen, which is more than just hearing, as an essential skill for accompanying others.
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives. (171)
The ability to accompany others on the journey of faith is perhaps the gift the world most needs today. When Pope Francis says the church is a field hospital, he means that disciples go out into the world to deeply listen and uncover the wounds of others so that we can offer them God’s mercy and healing. “The catechist, as an expert in humanity,” says the Directory for Catechesis, “knows the joys an hopes of human beings, their sadness and distress, and is able to situate them in relation to the Gospel of Jesus” (113 c).
As we said earlier, all catechists need to develop these three characteristics, and that is especially true for those of us who serve in catechumenate ministry. In the next post, we’ll look at how the church is supposed to form catechists so that they can live more fully as witnesses, mystagogues, and accompaniers.
How would you describe your ministry of catechist? Would the words witness, mystagogue, and accompanier fit in to your experience? If so, why? If not, could they in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.