Who Will Reap the Seeds You Sow?


Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Matthew 9:35-38

In catechesis we often say that we sow seeds that may not bear fruit for many years — long after the young people in our programs have passed from the parish or school. And this is true. We don’t know what value a kind word or lesson may have or what fruit it may bear in the future.

But too often I think we fail to recognize that, even if we don’t reap those seeds, someone will. At some point someone will have to help guide those young people into a deep, mature, intentional faith in Jesus Christ. But are we training people to reap that harvest?

I don’t see a lot of evidence that we are. I see a lot of catechetical training emphasizing the sowing of seeds, but not so many giving practical skills and resources for walking with people — once they’ve heard the kerygma proclaimed — into a fully lived Christian faith.

The business world has long known this. Handing off work is one of the major points of inefficiency in production and services. When I worked in Catholic healthcare there was a major effort to make sure that patients were only transported for a procedure in another department when that department was ready. If you transport the patient and no one is there to receive them, it results in frustration for everyone.

If the workers are few — so few that there are not enough to gather what has been sown — is it any surprise that the fruit turns bad, rotting in the fields? Perhaps we need to think of two types of catechists necessary for the flourishing of the Christian community: the sowers and the harvesters. Perhaps we need to be intentional about how we put each type to work in our programs. And maybe we need to give each some specialized training so that, once called, they can perform their ministry appropriately.

How can we ensure that the workers will be there when it is time for the harvest? How are you planning for and supporting the workers?

7 Ways to Get More Out of a Catechetical Conference


As I mentioned on Twitter the other day my conference season is just around the corner. This year I’m attending both the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) conventions. After five years I think I’m finally getting the hang of attending a conference and getting the most out of it; here are a few tips if you’ll be attending these or one of the other fine conferences coming up!

  1. Pack light… Don’t try to take everything and the kitchen sink, especially if you’re flying. Take the bare necessities. This will both lighten your load and make it easier to spend several days on your feet. I was able to attend my first NCCL conference — five days — with just a back pack. (The secret: rolling your clothes.)
  2. …and leave room for goodies. The downside of that first NCCL conference was that I didn’t have any room for the free books, materials, and assorted goodies I got from various publishers and vendors. Fortunately my associate director drove to the conference, so I was able to give them to her to take back to Illinois. If not for her I might have had to explain to my wife why I left some shirts and pants behind.
  3. Make the most of your time between sessions. Don’t get me wrong: I love attending breakout sessions, whether to hear a new speaker or find out how other dioceses are approaching particular challenges. But the real value of a conference is the connections made with other people. Don’t be afraid to approach a speaker or other attendee and engage with them; they are great resources that can be tapped after the conference is over! (Three years ago I even created an “audio postcard” by recording interviews with attendees at NCCL!)
  4. Volunteer. Conferences are always in need of people to help with registrations, plan liturgies, escort speakers, hang signage, or just act as gofers. Volunteering is a great way to network and meet other dedicated catechists.
  5. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Did you go to a breakout speaker only to discover that the topic was vastly different from what you expected? Feel free to walk out and go to a different session. After all, your time is valuable and there is no sense in attending a session that you find uninteresting or unhelpful. Personally I operate on a five minute rule: if a breakout speaker or session hasn’t grabbed my attention within five minutes, I’ll generally try to find another to attend.
  6. Stop by the exhibitors. If the conference you’re attending has an exhibitor’s hall, make sure to walk through it at least once. Lots of publishers have demos of new programs, special rates for attendees, and other “perks” that make it worth while. Perusing their booths also helps the conference: organizers rely on exhibitors purchasing booth space to cover some of the costs of the conference, but exhibitors won’t return if attendees don’t stop by.
  7. Participate in the back channel. Twitter is one of the greatest conference attendance tools I know of. Through the use of hashtags it’s easy to find other attendees and have a conversation about what you’re seeing and hearing — even if they are sitting on the other side of a 1000-person ballroom!Even if you can’t attend a conference, following hashtags can give you a virtual convention experience. (The hashtags to follow for NCEA and NCCL are #NCEA14 and #NCCL2014, respectively.)

What advice do you have for people attending a conference this year?

New Resource: Sacred Scripture and the Christian Life (A Short Study)

A few weeks ago, while our local Lumen Veritas youth group was gathering, I offered a faith study opportunity for any parents willing to hang around and listen to me drone on for a hour or so.

With the end of the Year of Faith close at hand we thought it would be good to take a look at the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church through the lens of Vatican Council II. To that end I created a “short study” guide with excerpts from Sacrosanctum concilium and Dei Verbum, as well as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Verbum Domini, and some reflection questions to facilitate the conversation:

I’ve released the study guide under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to print it out, make copies, and adapt it for your own use. Just make sure to credit the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois for its original creation.

Our plan is for me to do similar events for the parents once a month or so; if I create more resources like the one above I’ll be sure to share them here.

A Journey Concluded

pathThis past Saturday our diocesan Department for Catechetical Services completed a one-year pilot project. Entitled “Journey of Discipleship,” we partnered with Ss. James and Patrick parish in Decatur, Illinois, and offered monthly adult formation sessions on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The project began in the summer of 2012 when, in the course of a discussion at one of our department meetings, one of my colleagues wondered aloud what it would be like if the members of our various offices took over a parish for one year, bringing to bear our knowledge, skills, and expertise in a concerted way across our various responsibilities.

That eventually lead us to the determination to partner with a parish for one year and help them to better understand how to grow in holiness and as disciples. Following a “Come and See” event last December, each month we offered a five-hour session on a different aspect of holiness:

  • The Four Pillars of the Christian Life
  • Regular Appointments with God
  • Full, Conscious and Active Participation in the Liturgy
  • Active Participation in Ongoing Faith Formation
  • A Missionary Mindset
  • A Simple and Sacrificial Lifestyle
  • Building Common Ground
  • Chaste Living
  • Commitment to Life, Charity and Justice
  • Following the Precepts of the Church
  • Discerning the Movement of the Holy Spirit

It has been a wonderful, Spirit-inspired journey with the people of Ss. James and Patrick. It is rare for diocesan staff to have the opportunity to forge such relationships with a parish and we are already looking for ways in which to replicate the success of this program with other parishes in our diocese.

The handouts, slides, and select videos of the sessions are available online at journeyofdiscipleship.tumblr.com.

Thoughts on the Day: Feast of St. Charles Borromeo

cborromeoToday the Church celebrates the heroic sanctity of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (d. 1584). St. Borromeo is one of the patron saints of catechists, owing in large part to his role in the writing of the Roman Catechism during the Council of Trent. This was the first universal catechism of the Church and held a place of preeminence within catechesis that only ended with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

It may be tempting to characterize the time of the Counter-Reformation by an austere and humorless defense against Protestantism (and St. Borromeo was certainly known for those qualities!) but even in the Roman Catechism we see a focus on the encounter with Jesus Christ as the ultimate end of evangelization and catechesis:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (Roman Catechism, no. 10)

As we remember St. Charles Borromeo we ask for his intercession as catechists and for the strength, wisdom, patience, and love to bring those in our care to a full and lasting encounter with our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Notes and Resources – Evangelizing and Catechizing Digital Natives

photo by Steve Woods/stock.xchng

Today I led a workshop for the Catechetical Leadership Association for the Diocese of Des Moines (CLADD). These parish catechetical leaders and I explored how to engage the “net generation” in their faith through the tools of the new media. Below are my slides and notes for the event as well as additional resources and recommendations for further reading.

Thanks again to John Gaffney of the Diocese of Des Moines for the invitation and to the great catechetical leaders I met today — thank you for your participation and for making me feel welcome among you!



My notes from today’s presentation are available as a PDF file.

Web Resources




photo by Steve Woods/stock.xchng

Can Catechists Be Too Reliant on the Catechism? (Bosco RoundUp Part 3)


My experience attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville did leave me with one lingering question prompted both by the content and methodology employed in some of the presentations. Namely, I went home wondering if there isn’t a danger in becoming overly reliant on the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a source of the Church’s teachings.

To give an example: I attended a session on liturgy and catechesis given by a well-respected catechist. He outlined the Church’s understanding of liturgy, beginning with the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi. But in his presentation and handouts, every reference was to what the Catechism had to say about liturgy. He did not reference the Roman MissalSacrosanctum concilium, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, or any of the Church’s many documents on the nature and practice of the liturgy. The implication — intentional or not — was that everything we need to know about liturgy can be found in the Catechism. There was little “liturgy” to be found in the presentation.

Contrast this approach with that taken by Bishop Richard Malone at the start of his Saturday keynote. His topic, God the Father, was not explicitly tied to the liturgy. Indeed, one might have expected him to use as his starting point the Catechism‘s teaching on the first person of the Trinity. Instead Bishop Malone turned to the Roman Missal and the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers to show what they teach us, through our common prayer, about the Father. He didn’t talk about lex orandi, lex credendi — he practiced it by showing how our prayer leads to and informs our doctrine.

Reflecting on these contrasting approaches led me to wonder if focusing too intently on the Catechism leads to didacticism — a tendency towards excessive teaching (narrowly defined) that fails to reflect the fullness of catechesis (c.f. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults no. 75). In its most extreme form this didacticism elevates the Catechism to a status it neither claims nor was designed for. As Bl. Pope John Paul II states in his apostolic constitution promulgating the Catechism,

The Catechism of the Catholic Church… is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illuminated by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradtition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and this a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.

In other words the Catechism is not the last word on the content and expression of the Catholic faith. It is a statement and a norm, not the sole source. That is one reason John Paul II stresses the continued importance and prominence of local catechisms such as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and the YouCat. These local catechisms enculturate the content of the Catechism by giving it new expression in local language and form.

This isn’t to say (it should go without saying) that the Catechism isn’t helpful or shouldn’t be used in catechesis. Indeed, a universal catechism should have a place of prominence in the handing on of the faith. But there does seem to be an overly didactic tendency in some catechists that a fixation on the Catechism feeds into. This tendency manifests in claims that the Catechism is the only authentic source of Catholic teaching, rather than a summary of it, and an insistence that the language used in the Catechism is the only authentic expression of the Catholic faith (an insistence that neglects both Church history and the rich tradition of the Eastern churches).

That this question was prompted by the conference is ironic since on at least two occasions I heard different speakers warn against didacticism in catechesis. Indeed, I don’t want to give the impression that the conference or any presenter specifically endorsed sole reliance on the Catechism. But the fact that the only document quoted by a good number of presenters was the Catechism does give me pause and makes me think that we are not giving our catechists the full range of tools they need to pass on the faith.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts in the comments. Do you sense this same creeping didacticism? How can we help catechists embrace a wide range of sources of Catholic teaching?

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The Baptismal Catechumenate and Adult Faith Formation (Bosco RoundUp Part 2)


On the second day of the St. John Bosco Conference I attended a workshop by Martha Drennan on the centrality of adult faith formation in the Church’s understanding of catechesis. Martha did a great job unpacking the Church’s teaching on the importance of adult faith formation in the life of a parish — an importance that is not always appreciated by catechetical leaders or pastors!

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Martha’s presentation was a lengthy aside on the baptismal catechumenate and its implications for meeting adults at different stages of their journey of discipleship. Martha used the periods of the RCIA to explore how baptized adult Catholics may nevertheless have different needs and questions depending on how well they have been evangelized and catechized. She also pointed out those places where the Church has an opportunity to reach out to these people.

For instance, we all know Catholics who, for what ever reason, received little catechetical instruction and no longer practice the faith. However, they still appear at weddings and funerals. Here the church has an opportunity to witness to them, proclaim the Gospel, and invite them back into the regular practice of the faith through listening to them and offering healing and reconciliation.

In her presentation Martha also gave a passionate plea that parishes should “give their best” to adult faith formation. This doesn’t necessarily mean the bulk of the catechetical budget; youth programs, by their very nature, will normally require more in the way of a financial investment. But it does mean that adult faith formation should not be given short shrift. For instance, Martha challenged those present to call catechists specifically to the vocation of adult faith formation. Very few parishes consider the particular need for catechists who can speak well before an adult audience. This is too bad since there are many people who, while uncomfortable with working in youth catechesis, would be much more at home in an adult learning environment.

Does your parish give its best to adult faith formation? How can we promote good adult faith formation in the life of the Church?

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Building a Better Parish Catechetical Leader (Bosco RoundUp Part 1)

Last week I had the privilege of attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. This was my first time attending the conference and I was very pleased at both the scope and the quality of the presentations by various catechetical experts. Over the next two weeks I will share some of the insights and inspirations I received from the conference.

The very first workshop I attended was by Gloria “Gigi” Zapiain of the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Catechetical Center. In it she outlined the characteristics and gifts possessed by successful parish catechetical leaders (PCLs). She centered her talk on four characteristics:

  • person of faith and prayer
  • master catechist with a vocation to leadership
  • an ability to work with people
  • filled with ardor and joy (and, I would add, hope!)

Gigi did an excellent job opening up each of these characteristics and their implications for PCLs. I especially liked her focus on the second characteristic: it’s not enough for a PCL to be a good catchist, but they must also be a good leader at the service of the parish, the pastor, and the catechists. Likewise, in her discussion on enthusiasm and joy she emphasized that a good PCL does not settle for “maintenance ministry” but actively seeks ways to grow catechesis within the community.

The workshop inspired me to tackle an issue that crops up regularly in our diocese – pastors requesting help in hiring good catechetical leaders. Unfortunately some parishes are either unwilling or feel they are unable to discern and call persons for these vital roles. As a result some parishes fall into a “warm body” mentality and wind up choosing catechetical leaders who may be good organizers but do not possess the characteristics identified by Gigi.

As a response to these issues I’m currently in the process of creating a “Guide to Hiring Parish Catechetical Leaders” for our diocese. The guide will contain an overview of the Church’s teachings on the qualities necessary in an effective catechetical leader; a look at the types of parish catechetical leaders in our diocese and their roles in catechesis; a discernment process for calling volunteer leaders; a simple outline of a thorough hiring process for professional leaders; and resources including sample job descriptions and contracts.

What gifts and characteristics do you see in successful catechetical leaders?

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More Than Just Teaching: A Response to Barbara Nicolosi


One of the dangers of taking a break from the blog is the potential for missing something really juicy to write about. Unfortunately this reality befell me when, shortly after my self-imposed blogging hiatus, Barbara Nicolosi posted a long-form piece on Patheos about the state of parish-based catechesis in the Catholic Church. With apologies for being a month late, here are some thoughts about that essay.

In broad strokes, Ms. Nicolosi laments the number of misinformed and seemingly uncatechized Catholics in our pews. She outlines a proposed solution in three steps:

  1. A commitment to “content and rigor”
  2. Paying Catholic school teachers to staff parish-based catechetical programs
  3. Recruiting theology students as tutors

I won’t disagree with Ms. Nicolosi’s view of the situation. She’s pretty spot on about the fact that most Catholics these days couldn’t name the 10 Commandments, let alone the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the precepts of the Church. But I would propose that she is seeking to treat the symptoms and not the illness. Where she sees a deficiency in catechetical knowledge I see a lack of discipleship.

Fundamentally I think Ms. Nicolosi overemphasizes the doctrinal dimension of catechesis to the exclusion of all else. This clashes with the fullness of the Church’s understanding of catechesis. As paragraph 75 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults reminds us, a complete catechesis consists of not only the doctrines of the Church but also an apprenticeship in prayer, participation in the liturgical life of the Church, and doing the works of mercy. No one of these is singled out as more important than the rest; the assumption seems to be that they are equal pillars of a curriculum designed to lead one to an intimate encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that sound doctrine and knowledge of the Church’s teachings aren’t important. A commitment to the Church’s full understanding of catechesis doesn’t preclude content and rigor. Indeed, I believe it assumes it. But seeking to replicate the modern school model in parish catechesis is not a recipe for discipleship. As Joe Paprocki states so well in his recent book Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox, catechesis should be more like Mass than class.

Beyond this dilution of catechesis to mere information transferal, Ms. Nicolosi dismisses the role of parents in raising young men and women as disciples of Jesus Christ. This not only flies in the face of the Church’s consistent teaching that parents are the first and primary teachers of their children, but I would also argue that a failure to integrate catechesis into family life and focusing on maintaining a once-a-week, 30-weeks-a-year model of catechesis will only perpetuate a failed system that cannot create, grow, or sustain discipleship. Helping parents to catechize their children — especially parents who were themselves the recipients of poor catechesis — may be challenging. But taking the harder path will, I believe, lead to stronger and more dedicated disciples in the long run.

Focusing on discipleship and helping Catholics to deepen their relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ will address the issues Ms. Nicolosi rightly voices. As Matthew Kelly describes in his book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, believers who take their journey of discipleship seriously will naturally want to learn more about the Church, the saints, the Eucharist, and other aspects of our Catholic faith. They will not need to be goaded or prodded. Instead they will see life-long faith formation as a natural extension of their desire for closer union with Christ. As catechists it is our duty and privilege to guide people into that relationship and help the fire of faith grow in their lives.

The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.

Image by Michael 1952/flickrCC