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Cardinal Timothy Dolan: Catechist in Chief
by Kate Ristow

[CLICK HERE] for a worksheet to help older students learn about the mission and ministry of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Shortly after his elevation to Cardinal last spring, I wrote the Archbishop of New York asking His Eminence if he would be willing to participate in an email interview for our readers. I explained that the interview would be an opportunity for him to speak directly to catechists and catechetical leaders in every diocese about their ministry and to encourage them in their work. Cardinal Dolan, who Time magazine named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” graciously agreed.

Let the Cardinal’s inspiring words serve as a source of ongoing affirmation as you continue to share your faith with your students in the weeks and months ahead.  

CATECHIST: What do you feel are the most important factors in forming children in faith today?

CARDINAL DOLAN: First of all, it’s not just about forming children. It’s about forming entire families, entire parishes—enabling them to form lifelong relationships with Jesus Christ in his Church. Everything flows from that. Think of it this way. If you fall deeply in love with someone, you want to know all about that person. You want to be in that person’s company as much as you can. You want others to know how wonderful that person is. You want to give your life to that person. 

So I would say that the most important factor in forming Catholics of all ages in faith, and especially the children, is to help them fall in love with Jesus and make him the center of their lives, so that they will want to learn all about him and, as disciples, share that knowledge through the Catholic Church with the world.

CATECHIST: Why is the ministry of catechesis important?

CARDINAL DOLAN: This ministry is the Church’s response to Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. It’s a mandate, really, and it’s in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Of course, all baptized persons are called to be catechists by example. However, the ministry of catechesis enables the Church to fulfill Jesus’ mandate by preparing or forming those who will hand on the faith, not only by providing the content and teaching methodology but also, even more importantly, by nurturing their souls. People cannot give what they do not have themselves. You cannot foster a relationship with Jesus unless you have that relationship yourself. As the Archbishop of New York, I am the chief catechist of the archdiocese. Pastors are the chief catechists of their parishes. The men and women who dedicate their lives to the ministry are our colleagues.

CATECHIST: How would you assess the state of child religious education in our country today?

CARDINAL DOLAN: First of all, I would not presume to judge the way other dioceses are taking care of this. However, in general, it is good, and like all good things, can always be improved. For example, in many parishes, religious education—which is really lifelong formation—is limited to sacramental preparation. What happens to the children between First Eucharist and Confirmation? Confirmation looks like graduation. That’s a worry for me.

Another concern is being able to provide catechesis to immigrants in their languages. We certainly can’t wait for them to learn English. That would be unfair.

Perhaps the most worrisome thing is in finding, training, and justly compensating the lay women and men who lead parish religious education programs. We wouldn’t put an unprepared principal in a Catholic school or fail to compensate him or her. If we did, we’d destroy the school. The same standards of professionalism and justice should apply to parish directors and coordinators of religious education.

CATECHIST: What is/are a catechist’s greatest challenge/s today?

CARDINAL DOLAN: It’s the Church’s challenge: competing with the culture for the hearts and minds of our people. Mind you, not everything in our culture is bad; it’s just that there are so many things going on.

Take technology. It is difficult to focus people in a society that demands multi-tasking. For example, 20 years ago, you didn’t have to worry about phones ringing and youngsters texting during a catechetical session. If a youngster actually had a mobile phone 20 years ago, that was all it was. I am not putting down technology. What I am saying is that it is overtaking the message.

Another challenge is that many parents are not comfortable talking about Jesus and the faith with their children. Probably, they are not well-catechized themselves. They don’t have the relationship with Jesus so they cannot model it for their children or reinforce at home what a child learns in a catechetical session.

You also have growing numbers of broken families, with children going to Mom on one weekend and Dad on the other. Where does the child attend Mass…or does the child worship at all? And in this economy, parents are holding down several jobs and just do not have the time or energy to spend time with their children.

Parents are supposed to be the prime catechists of their children, but our culture doesn’t make it easy for them to do this. Responsibility for handing on the faith falls largely on the catechist and the parish.

CATECHIST: As you know, the Catechetical Sunday theme this year is “Catechists and Teachers as Agents of the New Evangelization.” What is the “the New Evangelization” and how can catechists put this into practice throughout the year?

CARDINAL DOLAN: As I described it to my brothers in the College of Cardinals on February 17, the New Evangelization is the rekindling of faith in persons and cultures where it has grown lackluster. Of course, lackluster faith is not peculiar to our times. The generation that actually heard Jesus’ voice had to be reminded by Paul “to stir into flame” the gift of faith they had been given. However, today we face an enormous challenge: secularism, which is invading every aspect of life and developing a mentality in which God is absent from human life and awareness. This is happening not only outside the Church but in the Church as well.

Now how can catechists put this into practice? By extending to the children and to entire families real opportunities to enter into a loving relationship with the person of Jesus. I would hope our catechists will develop creative ways to engage families. In my archdiocese, we already require every parish religious education program to offer at least two family catechesis gatherings a year. We know this works. Parents tell us that they are more at ease talking about the person of Jesus with their children.

We need to make sure that religious education doesn’t stop with Confirmation or high school graduation. And, perhaps most importantly, catechists should recruit new catechists to the ministry. We can never have enough of them.

CATECHIST: What words of encouragement can you give catechists?

CARDINAL DOLAN: The first words I would say are “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I would tell catechists that the Church knows and appreciates that they are on the front lines of the New Evangelization. They are the ones who, day after day, year after year, are fulfilling Jesus’ last directive to his disciples.

I know it is not easy; the conditions are not always the best. Someone turns off the heat. The rooms are poorly equipped, or it’s a school classroom and no one can touch anything. There’s competition with sports programs. I am aware of the challenges, but no words of mine would compare to what Jesus said at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Getting to Know Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Early Years

* Born in Maplewood, Missouri, in 1950

* Oldest of five children

* Attended high school at St. Louis Preparatory Seminary South

Priestly Formation

* Earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Cardinal Glennon College in St. Louis

* Completed his formation as a priest at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he received a license in sacred theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas

* Earned his doctorate in American Church history from Catholic University in 1983

Assignments and Appointments

* Ordained in 1976 and served as an associate pastor at Immacolata Parish in Richmond Heights, Missouri

* Appointed to a five-year term as secretary to the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., in 1987

* Named vice rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis in 1992, where he also served as director of spiritual formation and professor of Church history.

* Served as rector of the Pontifical American College in Rome 1994-2001

* Named auxiliary bishop of St. Louis in 2001; named the Archbishop of Milwaukee a year later

* Installed as Archbishop of New York in 2009

* Elected to a three-year term as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2010

* Elevated to the College of Cardinals in February 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI

Words to Live By

* Cardinal Dolan’s official motto echoes the words of St. Peter in John 6:68: Ad quem ibimus, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” This quotation underscores the belief that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life of eternal happiness. It is a motto that is joyfully imbued in the daily life and ministry of Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

* Read Cardinal Dolan’s blog and homilies at archny.org.

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.


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