Five Things Every Catechist Should Know

The Catholic Church in America recently celebrated Catechetical Sunday, an annual celebration of the faithful catechists in our parishes who witness to the faith and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, here are five things that all catechists might reflect on about their role:

You are an indispensable tool in passing on the faith. While we are grateful for the variety of excellent textbooks, videos, activities, and other resources at our disposal, ultimately it is disciples that form new disciples. Catechesis occurs person-to-person as catechists model and witness faith in Jesus Christ. As such, the role of the catechist can never be reduced to “reading the book” or “pressing play on the video.”

You help parents in their role as primary evangelizers. While the catechist is indispensable, our mission is first and foremost to assist parents in passing on the faith they promised to share at their children’s baptism. Parents should never feel that they are outsourcing their child’s religious education to the parish or Catholic school. Conversely, we must see the formation of domestic Churches as an integral part of catechesis by giving families concrete resources and practical ways for living the faith in the home.

If your students see Christ’s love in you, you’re doing your job. The personal witness of a catechist is a powerful formation in the faith. Even more than a systematic knowledge of Church teaching (although that is important too!) catechists must pass on a faith that is lived and practiced in the day-to-day routine of our lives. Let Christ’s love shine through you and your students will learn to love and follow Christ.

You and your students are part of the story of salvation. This is one reason catechists must learn to love Sacred Scripture: not only does it reveal the history of salvation, culminating in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but it reminds us that we, too, continue that same history in our own lives. Knowing the stories of biblical figures, the saints, and our families helps us find our place in God’s Kingdom.

The life of a catechist must be rooted in prayer. It is a truism that you cannot give what you do not have. As such, catechists must have a deep, abiding, and joy-filled relationship with Jesus if we hope to pass the same to the young people in our charge. This relationship begins with prayer – especially through the Church’s liturgy – but also in the Rosary, lectio divina, novenas, and other means of fostering an ongoing conversation and living relationship with God.

This column originally appeared in the October 8, 2017, edition of The Catholic Moment.

How Do You Get to Heaven?

In an old joke, a visitor to New York City asks someone on the street if they know how to get to Carnegie Hall. After a moment’s thought comes the reply: “Practice, practice, practice.”

We might well give the same response when asked how we get to heaven. While we do not believe that we are saved by our works but by Jesus’ work on the Cross, we are also not Gnostics who believe that knowledge saves. Rather, the life of the disciple is one in which faith is not only known, but lived. Jesus does not call us to a life of isolated study, but to live in community with other disciples, as demonstrated by the early Christians: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

And yet many of our catechetical efforts stress knowledge of the faith over practice of the faith. I suspect that this is one reason during our recent parish visits so many DREs and principals told us, anecdotally, that only around 50% of participants in faith formation and students in Catholic schools are attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis.

In his book Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox, author Joe Paprocki gives the great advice that catechesis and faith formation “should be more like Mass than class.” By that he means the process of forming young people (and adults!) involves more than just reading a book or listening to a lecture. Instead, catechesis involves the whole person and should draw upon familiar rituals, prayers, gestures, the Works of Mercy, hymns, and stories so that connections are made between the content of the faith and the way in which we live the faith, especially in the Sunday Eucharist.

As you catechize this year, consider how your efforts are fostering specific and concrete practices in the life of the faithful. Some questions you might ask:

  • Are we simply teaching about faith practices, or are we giving children and adults the tools they need and encouraging them to enact those practices once they are off the parish grounds?
  • How are we helping families practice the faith in the home, especially through prayer?
  • How can we help members of our community encounter the person of Jesus Christ — to know him and not just know about him?

Finding Copyright-Free Images for Catechetical Use – Redux

In January of 2013 I created a video showing a couple of my favorite sites for finding free images to use in presentations, worships aids, and printed materials — without violating copyright laws. The video quickly became one of my most popular on YouTube. Four and a half years later, I’ve created an updated version of the video with more resources to share!

Creating Simple Mounted Icons for the Classroom

It would be great if every catechetical classroom could have multiple icons for use in prayer built to withstand regular use by small hands. Unfortunately, mounted icons can be quite pricey and outside the budget of many parishes. However there is an easy DIY solution that produces surprisingly beautiful results.

For this project you’ll need

  • a computer and printer
  • Mod Podge craft glue (I find the glossy variety works best)
  • a sponge brush
  • scissors
  • a backing board (I cut down some scrap plywood, but you could use pre-sized canvas panels or even some study cardboard)

First, find the image you want to mount and print it out. I find a lot of public domain religious images on Wikipedia Commons; just search for a saint or Bible story. Cut the printed image out, leaving a slight border.

Next, cut your backing to size — you’ll want it a little smaller than the printed image.

Next, apply the Mod Podge to your backing. Don’t worry about using too much — it’s fine if it soaks through the paper.

Glue the image to the backing, then cut out some notches at the corners (see above). This will create four “flaps.”

Apply glue to the “flaps” and fold them over onto the backing.

Let the glue dry for 15-20 minutes, then apply some Mod Podge to the front of the image. This will give it a glossy protective coating.

Let the finished project dry for 1-2 hours and you’re done! I was able to produce three of these in about 30 minutes; cutting the plywood was the hardest part!

This is a simple project that can help catechists evangelize with beauty. It could also be adapted as an activity for families as part of an inter-generational catechetical event!

Free Webcast: 5 Things Parents Should Know About Keeping Their Kids Catholic

I’m really excited about a free webcast I’m hosting next week!

5 Things Parents Should Know About Keeping Their Kids Catholic is a free, 30 minute webcast for Catholic parents about the things they need to know if they want their kids to practice the faith for a lifetime!

Parents will learn

  • The most important factor in a child’s faith development
  • How faith in the home affects faith lived in the world
  • What they can do with their kids to pass on the faith

Watch the webcast live at 9p ET on Thursday, October 27, at bit.ly/5ThingsCatholicParentsShouldKnow or on this page:

Help Spread the Word!

If you’d like to share this webcast with a friend via Facebook, email, carrier pigeon, or Twitter, just use this link: http://eepurl.com/cc8ukz. Also, free free to put an announcement in your parish bulletin or other communication to parents!

On “Average” Catechesis

The latest episode of 99% Invisible (an incredible podcast about design and architecture) focuses on the notion of designing for the “average” person, focusing on how the U.S. military’s philosophy of crafting uniforms and equipment has evolved over the decades:

In his research measuring thousands of airmen on a set of ten critical physical dimensions, [Gilbert S.] Daniels realized that none of the pilots he measured was average on all ten dimensions. Not a single one. When he looked at just three dimensions, less than five percent were average. Daniels realized that by designing something for an average pilot, it was literally designed to fit nobody.

The result was an increased risk of injuries and fatal accidents, especially for Air Force pilots who literally didn’t fit in cockpits designed for the “average” pilot.

Today, we take for granted that equipment should fit a wide range of body sizes rather than being standardized around the “average person.” From this understanding has come the science of ergonomics: the study of how to match people’s physical capacity to the needs of the job.

Unfortunately our evangelization and catechesis is, in a lot of ways, still stuck in “average” thinking. Many parish programs are designed to attract as wide an audience as possible — that is, to be “one size fits all.” A good example is taking the RCIA and inviting any interested Catholic adult to participate. What should be a highly specialized process for those still seeking faith in Christ must now be adapted to fit the needs of a wide range of the baptized, resulting in a program designed for no one in particular.

What would a parish catechetical program designed outside the average look like? I believe it would

  • Center on more focused topical and needs-based formation, rather than “big box” overviews of the faith
  • Include input from persons with disabilities, ethnic and racial groups, and the poor
  • Seek to match people’s spiritual capacity with a range of formational option

There is no “average” spirituality or faith. The saints testify to the glorious diversity of individual responses to Christ invitation to “take up your Cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) The faithful in our parishes should be formed for that same diversity of holiness, even as we are united in the one Body of Christ.

Apprenticeship Activities Outside the Parish

Last week I wrote about viewing Christian apprenticeship as something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish. So what would non-parish based Christian apprenticeship look like? Broadly speaking there are few set characteristics. It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time. It may be sponsored by a religious community, or it may be a work of the lay apostolate.

What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith. By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but does reflect some of the activities I have seen build Christian fellowship and discipleship. in such a way as to be true apprenticeship:

  1. Rosary Potlucks: I first encountered these gatherings in a homeschooling community our family participated in some years back. The idea was simple: once a month families would gather at a home on a Sunday evening for a shared meal, fellowship, and the praying of the Rosary. The participants varied from month to month, with people coming and going as their schedules permitted, but the practice of hospitality and common prayer was impressive.
  2. Pilgrimages: It’s a shame that so many Catholics assume a pilgrimage has to involve a trip to Europe or the Holy Land (making them prohibitively expensive or difficult for many). There are a variety of opportunities for local pilgrimages to shrines, historical religious landmarks, and beautiful basilicas that are just a day trip away. Especially during the Year of Mercy, a special trip to the diocesan Holy Door with a group of friends or fellow parishioners would be a great way to grow together in faith.
  3. Small Faith Communities: Admittedly, as an introvert, I tend to have a hard time in small faith sharing groups (as I’m sure the Why Catholic? group I led a while back can attest!). But having a committed group of people coming together as part of a book club, parish-based program, or sharing based on the Sunday readings is an excellent example of Christian apprenticeship in action. By sharing their own joys and struggles as a disciples, the members support each other and build up the Body of Christ.
  4. Service Groups and Activities: The Works of Mercy and other apostolic activities are a vital part of Christian apprenticeship (cf Rite of Christian Initiation no. 75). Catholic Worker houses, crisis pregnancy centers, volunteer organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and local food pantries can serve as places both where the faithful come together to practice solidarity with and service to the poor and neglected, but also where they can be inspired by the faith and example of those they serve. My own encounters with Shalom House in Kansas City when I was young impressed on me just how vibrant these types of communities can be.

What types of apprenticeship activities outside the parish have you experienced?

Christian Apprenticeship Beyond the Parish

At the recent Notre Dame Center for Liturgy symposium on “Liturgy and the New Evangelization”, Dr. James Pauley of Franciscan University of Steubenville gave a talk on the importance of apprenticeship in the Christian life for evangelization in the 21st century. Dr. Pauley took as his starting point this passage from Vatican II’s Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes):

The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship duty drawn out, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher. (no. 14)

Using that image of apprenticeship — and his own experience learning from a friend how to write an icon — he went on to expound on how apprenticeship and accompaniment (to use a favored phrase of Pope Francis) can be applied to a variety of catechetical settings.

While Dr. Pauley’s talked centered on apprenticeship in a parish context, I was left with a nagging question:

Are we putting too much emphasis on the parish as the locus of Christian living?

As I see it there are two good reasons for thinking of Christian apprenticeship as more than something that happens in the parish.

First, if accompaniment is an intrinsic element of evangelization and catechesis, we have to recognize that the burden cannot be born solely — or even primarily — by pastors and lay pastoral ministers. There are only so many hours in a day, and unless a parish consists of only a few hundred individuals (admittedly a reality in many rural communities) then pastors and their staffs cannot accompany every parishioner while at the same time preparing liturgies, directing formation programs, practicing with choirs, and engaging in other duties of their particular ministries.

Secondly, the Christian community is larger than the parish. At the most subsidiary level, the family is the smallest unit of Christian community. Indeed, in recent years we have come to recognize more and more how the family is a “domestic church,” mirroring and containing elements of the Church universal. Beyond the family, the Christian community includes the many apostolates, parachurch organizations, Catholic universities and college ministries, and informal fellowship gatherings of the faithful.

How might our conception of apprenticeship change if we took all these myriad forms of the Church into account? What tools and mindsets would parish leaders need to cultivate see see apprenticeship flourish in our communities? And what steps could ordinary believers take to make Christian apprenticeship a part of our daily lives?

In the next couple weeks I’ll expand on these questions in additional blog posts; please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Joyce Donahue and Liturgical Catechesis

Yesterday I hosted a wonderful conversation with Joyce Donahue. This past summer Joyce wrote an 8-part blog series on “Forming Children and Youth for the Mass”; in our conversation we talked about liturgical catechesis, and how to help young Catholics embrace the liturgy, helping families participate more fully in the liturgy, and more:

In our conversation we referenced the following resources:

I’m hoping to host more conversations like this in the future; let me know if you have a topic or guest you’d like to see featured!