Advice from Master Catechists—September 2011

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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.


Chris Weber’s Answer

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 overworking ourselves?

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 hours).

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, and mentoring.

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

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