Knowing Jesus as a Catechist

This weekend the Church in the United States observes Catechetical Sunday, an annual celebration during which we recognize and pray for those who pass on the Catholic faith. This includes parish catechists, RCIA team members, teachers in Catholic schools, and youth ministers.

In his 1979 encyclical letter Catechesi Tradendae, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.” (no. 5) That is, the role of the catechist is to pass on a relationship and love of Jesus Christ.

As such, it is of prime importance that catechists themselves know, love, and serve the Lord:  “Whoever is called ‘to teach Christ’ must first seek ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 428) But how can catechists come to this “surpassing worth?” How does one grow in the knowledge and love of the Jesus in order to share it with others?

The first way catechists can come to know Jesus is by reading and knowing the Sacred Scriptures, for in them we hear the Word of God echo through the centuries. Catechists should engage in regular reading of the Bible and reflect on God’s word. (The ancient practice of lectio divina is a wonderful tool in this regard.) Catechists should be especially attentive to the story of salvation – how God seeks to forgive our sins, heal the brokenness of our hearts, and reconcile us to him, culminating in Jesus’ sacrificial work on the Cross.

Second, catechists come to know Jesus through a life of prayer. This includes asking God to respond to our needs and the needs of those we catechize, but it also means simply spending time with God so that we can speak to him from our hearts and listen for his response. Whether in an adoration chapel or the quiet of our living rooms, prayer offers us an intimate connection to God without which a true relationship is impossible.

The liturgy is another way catechists grown in their love of Jesus, for it is in the liturgy that we gather as the Christian community to offer praise and worship of God. By participating regularly in the communal prayer of the Church and the sacraments – especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation – God’s grace penetrates our hearts, we are conformed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are commissioned for the work of evangelization.

Finally, it is in the life of the Church that we come to know Jesus, for the Church is the Body of Christ. The Christian life is never just “me and God”; to be a Christian is always to be in communion with other disciples, especially the successors of the apostles. By listening to their authoritative teaching and seeking to reflect it in our lives we draw closer to Jesus.

These four means do not exhaust the ways in which we come to know Jesus, but they do serve as foundations on which a life of Christian discipleship are built. I pray that all catechists and teachers of the faith will grow in their love of Jesus and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit for their ministry!

This column originally appeared in the September 15, 2019, edition of The Catholic Moment.

The Fruits and Challenges of Restoring the Order

Last fall I had the pleasure of submitting an article to Catechist magazine exploring the pros and cons of the movement to restore the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for Catholic youth. The article is now online:

At the same time, moving the sacrament of Confirmation to an earlier age is not a panacea for the Church’s evangelization of young people. Simply moving up the age of Confirmation doesn’t address the need to evangelize young people — to proclaim the kerygma, mentor them in a life of faith, and accompany them in their growing relationship with Jesus.

Read more at Catechist magazine…

The Tasks of Catechesis

On May 2 our diocesan Office of Catechesis hosted our biannual Parish Catechetical Leaders meeting. We host these gatherings twice a year as an opportunity for fellowship and ongoing formation for DREs, youth ministers, RCIA coordinators, and other parish leaders.

This spring the theme of our meeting was “Education, Formation, and Catechesis.” I gave a presentation on the tasks of catechesis (as found in the General Directory for Catechesis); I’m happy to share the audio and slides of that presentation here:

Question from the Field: Can Students Bless One Another?

A few years back I received a question about the appropriateness of students in catechetical programs signing one another on the forehead with holy water at the start of class. The catechist had been told that blessings can only be given by someone who has authority over the person receiving the blessing (e.g., a parent to a child or a bishop to a member of his flock) and wanted to know if this was true.

We need to make a distinction between liturgical blessings and devotional blessings. The former are defined by the Church and set out in ritual texts (such as the Roman Missal or Book of Blessings); the latter are not defined, but should support and and extend the liturgical practices of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1675).

The Catechism says of blessings:

Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless. Hence lay people may preside at certain blessings; the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1669)

There is nothing in that explanation that supports a hierarchical notion of blessings of persons over persons; the principle regards the nature of the blessing itself.

So the question then becomes: how concerned with “ecclesial and sacramental life” is a non-liturgical blessing on the forehead with holy water?

The Book of Blessings gives us some guidance. Generally, liturgical blessings over people (“Blessing of the Sick,” “Blessing of a Mother Before Childbirth, “Blessing of Students”) give the option of allowing a lay person to preside if no clergy are present. The text states that

[L]aymen and laywomen, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they posses because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings… Such laypersons exercise this ministry in virtue of their office (for example, parents on behalf of their children) or by reason of some special liturgical ministry or in fulfillment of a particular charge in the Church, as is the case in many places with religious or catechists appointed by decision of the local Ordinary. (Book of Blessings, no. 18; emphasis in the original)

Students signing one another with holy water seems in line with the “Blessing of Students.” Given the principles of the Book of Blessings, the ideal would be for the catechist to do the blessings. (And in fact, I think it would be a powerful ritual symbol for a catechist to sign the foreheads of students as they came into the classroom.) But since the signing in question isn’t a liturgical action, but a devotional one, I don’t think there’s anything stopping a catechist from delegating the act of signing to a student. (If it were a liturgical action, such as celebrating the “Blessing of Students” from the Book of Blessings, I’d say the catechist must preside, unless a member of the clergy is present, in which case he would be the proper minister.)

Book Review: Christ in the Classroom

Jared Dees’ new book, Christ in the Classroom: Lesson Planning for the Heart and Mind, beings with a simple premise: long lectures, busywork, and the “read and review” model of religious education are failing to pass on the faith in a meaningful way.

Dees advocates a different approach, beginning with the actual goal of catechesis. While much of modern religious education seeks to transmit theological information, Dees (citing Matthew 28) puts the focus squarely on “making disciples,” a very different task.

To facilitate this goal, Dees utilizes the steps of lectio divina — lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio — and adepts them to catechetical lesson planning. In preparing each lesson catechists are encouraged to lead students towards an encounter with Jesus through a multifaceted learning approach:

  1. Learn: What does this teaching mean?
  2. Meditate: What is Christ saying to me?
  3. Pray: What can I say to Christ in response?
  4. Contemplate: What conversion of mind, heart, and life is Christ asking of me?
  5. Act: How will I make my life a gift for others?

The main body of the book is guidance for each of these steps, with specific strategies and lesson ideas outlined. For instance, the contemplatio step suggests using the Jesus Prayer, icons, and Eucharistic Adoration, and music to help students experience a conversion of heart connected to the subject of the lesson.

Jared Dees continues to be one of the most innovative and practical catechetical leaders working today and, like his previous books, Christ in the Classroom is a treasury of advice for new and veteran religion teachers. I highly recommend it for catechists, religion teachers, and catechetical leaders.

NB: I received a free review copy of this book from Ave Maria Press.

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?

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!

Notes: Forming Disciples in the Digital Age

Last Thursday I had the joy of gathering with over 100 faith formation leaders and diocesan staff in the Diocese of Joliet. My presentation focused on the characteristics of the emerging digital culture and the promise and challenges it holds for the work of the Church in the 21st century.

The participants asked great questions and shared their own stories and ideas for how the Church can be both hyperlinked and human!

Slides

Notes