Advice from Master Catechists – January 2013

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by Chris Weber, Janet Schaeffler, Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow

Can I make plaques for my First Communicants?

Q: I am a first-year catechist, teaching second grade. My students will be celebrating First Communion in early May. I want to make a special plaque for each child but the DRE has asked me not to do that because the woman who was the second-grade catechist for the past 18 years did not do that kind of thing, and so there might be some resentment from parents of previous First Communicants, especially in recent years. What do you think? Should I be defiant?

—New and Clueless

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: Change is often a difficult thing for all of us. One of the phrases that frequently is used to express this is “We’ve always done things that way.” Some feel that this describes the attitude of parish councils, some parishioners, and certain pastors.

This attitude certainly is a temptation for many of us because change always involves risk of some kind. We can never be sure how people are going to respond and how a change will impact the parish. But if our response to change is always to say “no,” then there truly will be “nothing new under the sun.”

In this kind of situation, it is important to consider how one reacts when a suggestion for change is rejected. The DRE seems to have some concerns about parent responses that may be the result of past reactions to change.

First, explore with the DRE why he/she feels this way. Trying to understand where the DRE is coming from is important.

Second, take time to flesh out your proposal with the why, what, and how involved in carrying it out. What is your purpose in making the plaques, and how will the plaques contribute to the celebration of First Communion?

Third, as part of the conversation with the DRE, you might suggest consulting with a few trusted parents. It is important that the conversation with parents take place after your conversation with the DRE, not before. Otherwise the impression may be that you are undermining his/her authority.

Another important point to consider is the “defiant” part of your response. There certainly can be situations and times when that response is appropriate. But defiance often is the first response that we make, and this seems to happen too frequently today.

As Catholic Christians, we should respond differently. We need to consider what impact our actions will have on the parish, the program, and, most important, the children.

A final thought: When I was new to a parish or program, one of the important rules I followed was “Do not change anything the first year unless it is absolutely necessary.” So you may want to spend your first year learning about the way the First Communion experience is celebrated—and then consider changes after that.

I hope that you will be a catechist for many years and that your experience will add several new ideas to enhance the First Communion celebration in your parish.

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.

Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: A suggestion: Never be defiant. That really won’t get you anywhere. It won’t get you where you sincerely want to be.

Perhaps a more important reflection for all of us in similar situations is to consider who we are in being defiant rather than collaborative. Is that who we are as followers of Jesus? Is that who we are as a community? Is that who we are as a team working together with and within the parish to pass on our rich heritage of unity to our younger members and their families?

Thus, my answer to your question is this: Never be defiant.

At the same time, the reality is that programs, processes, and procedures do grow and develop. As we—a faith formation leadership team and a parish community—learn the different approaches and additional ways of accomplishing our mission, things change, things are added, and things probably need to be let go of over the years.

You may wish to have a conversation with your DRE again, beginning with the statement that you will only do what the two of you decide together. You would never do something she/he did not consider a prudent decision or helpful practice. Ask if the two of you can consider all the pros and cons to your desire to make plaques for the children, perhaps writing down the pros and cons. When making a decision, seeing things in writing often helps clarify the advantages and disadvantages.

You may also suggest to the DRE that you’re not asking for a decision at this point. Rather, you’re simply asking for a conversation to explore the ramifications of adopting or not adopting this new procedure. People often need time to mull over suggestions for new approaches, as well as time to reflect on all the views that are expressed in a conversation. Both or all people in the conversation need this time, not just one of the parties.

As for responses from the parents, parents often realize that things change over the years; programs and procedures grow and develop. They have probably experienced changes in other areas of their children’s lives: school schedules, sports programs, and classes such as dance, music, etc.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: You have a privileged responsibility in your co-partnership with parents as they bring their children to the Eucharistic table for the first time—for a lifetime of Eucharistic living. There are so many ways of formation and there are so many practices and activities that can help children and their families appreciate the gift of Eucharist. These different ways of formation and various practices and activities can inspire parents and children to celebrate the Eucharist each week and challenge them to be Eucharist all week long. As catechists and DREs, we want to constantly review and renew all that we do to provide the best catechesis for Eucharistic living. 

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

Am I a hypocrite if I haven’t gone to Confession in ten years?

Q: As I prepare my students for their First Reconciliation each year, I get torn up inside because I haven’t gone to Confession in nearly ten years. I am just too uncomfortable with this Sacrament—and so I’m a hypocrite. Should I admit this to the DRE and make this my last year as a catechist?

—Second-grade Catechist

Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: I do not think for a minute that you are a hypocrite! Instead, I suspect that somewhere along the line, you had a bad experience that led you to avoid celebrating the Sacrament of Penance. As a DRE, I cannot begin to tell you how many potential catechists have told me that they could not teach if they had to teach about Reconciliation!

Hopefully, as you’ve taught your kids about Reconciliation, you’ve garnered new insights about the Sacrament, and you now understand more fully that God always forgives us when we express sorrow for our sins. You’ve also developed a deeper appreciation for God’s limitless love for us, his children. It’s impossible to do a good job teaching about this Sacrament convincingly if we don’t personally believe in God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness.

Call a priest you know and explain your situation. If you would rather celebrate with a confessor who does not know you, call a neighboring parish. Tell the priest that you’d like to set up an appointment to discuss your reluctance to celebrate Reconciliation and how it is affecting your ministry.

Having a scheduled appointment helps you avoid nervously pacing in church while others celebrate the Sacrament during the regular confession hours. It also gives the priest some warning that you have a problem you want to work through with him before you celebrate Reconciliation.

The long process that men go through before they are ordained priests includes very careful training in helping people understand sin and seek forgiveness for their sins. They want to be pastorally present to people in need, and you are in need! They want to help you grow closer to the Lord.

You’ll have to trust me on this, but there is nothing you can say or confess that will shock a priest in confession. Nor will a priest be surprised at whatever your reasons were for turning away from this opportunity for celebrating God’s forgiveness.

Your DRE does not want your past experience to deprive your students of a great catechist. The only way you are going to get past this (and you clearly do want to get past it) is to talk about it with a priest and then celebrate the Sacrament. Take a deep breath and just do it!

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.

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: It is wonderful that you have stopped to examine your conscience over the issue of being an authentic catechist. While none of us ever lives the faith perfectly, it is important to make every effort to align our practices with what we preach.

Before you give up on being a catechist, however, take another step back. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you examine your conscience about taking part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Do you know any priests in whom you could confide about your discomfort? I would look for someone known to be a solid spiritual director, keenly interested above all else in helping believers grow in faith. It might be best to consult with someone who has no connection to the parish, but perhaps your pastor is such a man.

Make an appointment to see him. Before you go, spend time praying, reflecting, and writing. Start by inviting the Holy Spirit into your discernment with a favorite Bible reading and spontaneous prayer. The prayer can be as simple as “Come, Holy Spirit!” Then write down everything that makes you uncomfortable about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Brainstorm what you understand to be the benefits and disadvantages of going to Reconciliation. Finally, reflect upon your experience of being a catechist. Write about what being a catechist means to you and what you would miss about being a catechist if you quit.

When you meet with the priest, ask him to help you sift through your reflections. Invite him to share his perspective on the Sacrament and its benefits. Then prayerfully ask yourself: Do the benefits of taking part in the Sacrament outweigh my discomfort? Is my discomfort with the Sacrament so insurmountable that I am willing to give up the joys of being a catechist?

No matter what the outcome, I am certain that the Holy Spirit will bless this prayerful exercise in discernment.

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 the author of Jesus-Style Recruiting: A Fresh Look at Recruiting and Forming Parish Volunteers, published by Visual Dynamics Publishing. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, December 2012.

Image Credit: MIA Studio/Shutter Stock 557176453

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