How do I respond to parents with a special request?
Q: A married couple has returned to the Church
after being distanced many years ago because of a falling-out with the pastor
at the time. Our current pastor is pastoral and welcoming, and so these people
have renewed their relationship with the parish. They are requesting a specific
catechist for their fourth-grade son. I want to do everything I can to be
pastoral and welcoming also, but honoring their request may set a precedent.
What would you suggest?
—Rita B., San Jose, CA
Dan Thomas’s Answer
A: My immediate
response is to take the pastoral direction without question. I believe that we
as a Church often are not pastoral enough. When faced with a challenge like
this, let us focus on the pastoral option.
I also find it wonderful that your pastor is “especially
pastoral and welcoming.” It is good to have that kind of pastoral leadership; we
need such support in situations like these. I truly believe that we, as Jesus
did, need to be welcoming to all.
Of course, this ignores the difficulties that can happen
when others hear of our decisions and loudly demand equal treatment—as often
happens in a fairness-oriented world. One way of dealing with this is to create
guidelines rather than policies. This can give us a bit more freedom in dealing
with various situations that call for good judgment rather than rules.
I recall how my spouse and I dealt with fairness issues in
parenting our children. We had to keep in mind that each child was different
and had different needs. That didn’t always make them happy with our decisions,
of course, and this is true in our parishes as well.
When our decisions are challenged, our first response needs
to be listening carefully to truly hear where others are coming from. One hopes
that such sensitivity will go a long way in healing grievances.
But there are times when we have to do what is right
(pastoral and welcoming) even if there are those who disagree. Although we risk
not being popular, we will have done the good thing.
Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over
30 years and remains involved in the national Conference for Catechetical
Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.
A: One of the
challenges of being a church worker is that everyone to whom we
minister is dealing with unique situations. Things come up: death in the
family, unemployment, divorce, and all manner of tragedies. At times, the people to whom we
minister have been hurt by the actions of Church ministers. On top of all this,
life happens: hockey games, band
concerts, dance recitals, job obligations, vacations, trips to Grandma’s house.
After so many special requests, it is easy for parish leaders to get anxious
about making exceptions. How do we flex with everyone else’s needs without
I am not sure that I know! Parish ministry is a difficult
balancing act between meeting people where they are and taking care of yourself
so that you have enough energy to minister. Not only that, but for every
decision you make to please one parishioner, there will be at least one other
parishioner who doesn’t like your decision.
Perhaps we can find some relief from these complexities by
making our best decision and leaving the rest to the Holy Spirit.
It is fine to place the child in the class of the family’s
choosing. Do what you can to make the family’s return to the Church a moment of
healing acceptance. Once the family is settled back into parish life, the best
thing you can do is make all family members feel part of the normal ebb and
flow of the parish. Placing the child with the fourth-grade catechist of the
parents’ choosing doesn’t mean that a year from now the boy has to be placed
with the fifth-grade catechist of his parents’ choosing. That should be simple
enough to handle down the road.
If placing kids in the classes of the parents’ choice is a
sensitive issue in your parish, encourage the family in question to be discreet
about the exception you have made for their specific situation.
Chris Weber has worked
in the field of catechesis for over 20 years as a catechist, a parish
catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of
the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.
What should I emphasize in an orientation meeting?
Q: The majority of catechists in our program
this year are new recruits; they have not been catechists in the past. What
should I emphasize in an orientation meeting?
—M.C., DRE for seven years
Kate Ristow’s Answer
A: Keep in mind
the words of Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I
understand.” In other words, make your session as hands-on as possible.
Explain procedures and policies by walking the catechists
through your catechist handbook. This might be a spiral notebook with tabbed
sections (Attendance; Classroom Discipline; Communicating with Parents, and so
forth) or a booklet printed on 8 ½” x 11” paper that has been folded in half.
Be sure to include a detailed table of contents and a distinctive cover that
will make it easy for catechists to find among their other resources.
Don’t attempt to explain all program procedures during this
first session. Simply point out the items that are covered in the handbook and
encourage everyone to read it carefully before classes begin.
Successful sessions depend on volunteers knowing how to use
the catechist guides that accompany the text, so plan to point out and explain
the different sections (front matter, lesson plans, liturgical year lessons,
etc.). Ask catechists to find specific elements in their guides (for example,
family pages) and give a small prize to the first person to successfully locate
the feature you want to highlight. Demonstrate how to teach a complete
chapter—from the catechist background pages to the closing prayer.
Remember, this is all second nature to you, but the majority
of your volunteers have never even seen a catechist guide. They have no idea
what a “wrap-around” lesson plan is. You’ll also want to show them a student
text—you’d be surprised how many new catechists think the kids’ books are the
same size as the reduced student pages in their guides. After reviewing how to
use the catechist guides, give each catechist a syllabus that clearly shows the
schedule for the year and the chapter that is to be taught each week.
Visit the religious education center with the catechists.
Show them where their supply boxes are and where they can find other resources to
which they’ll have access on a regular basis. Point out where weekly
announcements are posted. If possible, have Confirmation candidates escort
catechists to their classrooms, and allow catechists about ten minutes to check
out their teaching spaces.
When everyone returns to your meeting space, invite
questions. Assure catechists that you are always available to assist them.
Point out the different ways they can reach you (phone, e-mail, and office
Conclude the formal part of your meeting with a blessing
prayer, either by extending your arms over the group or calling the catechists
forward by name and tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Using
your own words, ask the Lord to bless and keep them as they continue Jesus’
work in the world. After the prayer, encourage catechists to use a variation of
this simple blessing format with their class. Conclude the session with
hospitality and an opportunity for everyone to socialize.
Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has
worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and
writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of
children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.
Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
A: A catechist is an echo of God’s Word in today’s hurting world.
A catechist is Paul as well as Mary
Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, in modern disguise.
A catechist is a connector who
helps people see the link between everyday experience and the Good News.
A catechist calls people forth, as
Jesus did, to be people for others.
These statements remind us of what is perhaps the most
important thing to emphasize in our orientation meetings: “Who you are as a catechist.” Books (as important as they are) don’t
teach people; people teach people.
In your orientation meeting, thank the catechists for their
ministry and their willingness to serve. Affirm them for who they are in their
faith. Challenge them to continual growth as witnesses and disciples. “Modern [people]
listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if [they do] listen to
teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 41).
As we look at some other things to accentuate, here is a
reminder for us as catechetical leaders: Everything that needs to be emphasized
cannot be emphasized in one gathering. Arrange your catechetical schedule to
allow for frequent meetings with catechists, ideally in grade-level groups.
These meetings create opportunities for planning, formation, sharing, questioning,
Here are other things to emphasize during the orientation
meeting and throughout the year:
1. You are not alone. Impress
on catechists that their ministry is a ministry of the Church. They are passing
on the faith of the universal Church. At the same time, within their local
church, they are immensely supported. Point out all the ways you and your
parish are available to assist them.
2. You don’t have to
do it all. Review each grade-level text and help catechists of that grade
level see the full scope of all the years. Help them realize the importance of
their piece—yet they don’t have to “do it all.”
3. You have reliable
guidelines and procedures to support you. Distribute catechist handbooks—written
by catechists, parents, parish staff, the Education Commission, etc.—which state
the guidelines and procedures for your parish program, the organization of the
program, and the necessary information and training that provide for the safety
and protection of all.
4. Pray. In every
gathering, stress the importance of prayer. As crucial and necessary as it is
to pass on our beliefs as a Catholic people, catechesis aims “to put people not
only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (General Directory for Catechesis, n. 80).
Prayer develops that intimacy. In the joys and challenges of life, the children
will turn to God in prayer—and will do so as adults as well.
After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical
ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult
faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats,
and teaching. Her website is janetschaeffler.com.