Discerning the path of growth into a new role
Every so often during a major snowstorm here in the Northeast, we hear on the news that all but “essential personnel” are asked to stay at home and off the roads so that road crews can work unimpeded. Dictionaries define the word essential as “absolutely necessary” or “extremely important.” Essential personnel are those individuals without whom an organization cannot operate effectively.
As a catechist, have you ever thought of yourself as “essential personnel?” The Church does. In the National Directory for Catechesis, we read:
“The service of catechists to God and to the Church is truly irreplaceable. No catechetical materials, resources, or tools — no matter how excellent — can replace the catechist” (NDC, 66).
The document further states: … from the earliest days of the Church … catechists have made and continue to make “an outstanding and absolutely necessary contribution to the spread of the faith and to the Church by their great work” (NDC, 54). Perhaps you are content in your role as catechist, and you recognize that you are making a valuable contribution to your parish. Or perhaps you feel called to a different level of commitment to catechesis. Have you ever thought about becoming a catechetical leader? The vast majority of those responsible for administering parish religious education programs started out as catechists.
Fr. Michael Himes, SJ, theology professor at Boston College, addresses students at the beginning of the year on the question of vocational discernment. In a delightful and somewhat humorous presentation (which you may enjoy viewing on YouTube), he suggests that young people ask themselves three questions:
■ What brings me joy?
■ Am I good at it?
■ Does anybody need me to do it?
I suggest that a variation on these same questions be considered by a catechist who senses a call to leadership.
A joyful role
First of all, consider whether or not your role as a catechist brings you joy. Joy is not the same as happiness. You may not always feel happy in your role as a catechist, especially when your young learners are having trouble sitting still after a long day in school, or when they seem to have forgotten what you taught them just last week. Despite the challenges of the role, it is possible to still feel joy, which comes from the knowledge that you are answering Jesus’ call to form disciples and that what you are doing, however small it may seem, is important and does indeed make a difference.
A skilled role (or the commitment to growth)
Being a good catechist involves more than joy; it also involves knowledge and skill. The second question — “Am I good at it?” — looks at the competence of the catechist. Good catechists are familiar with the Six Tasks of Catechesis and strive to incorporate them into their teaching. They also need sufficient knowledge of the faith that they teach. It is not enough to be familiar with the material in the student text; the catechist needs to continue to grow in knowledge of the faith.
There are many ways that catechists can acquire the knowledge that they need: courses offered through their diocese, online courses, and courses at local colleges. Such courses, whether in person or online, provide the opportunity to talk about the faith with other adults, something many catechists may never have had the opportunity to do. Catechists also need an understanding of developmental theory in order to truly know their audience, as well as the savoir-faire and know-how to be able to hand on the faith effectively using appropriate methodology.
How can you know if you are a good catechist? In many ways, you know instinctively if you are doing a good job. But this is something that can best be observed by others. Ask yourself these questions: “What kind of feedback do I get? Do the children whom I teach seem to enjoy my class? Are they actively engaged in the learning process? Are my lessons effective? In other words, do I see evidence that the learners are becoming more competent and productive in the area that is being taught? Are they developing and demonstrating proof of greater skill and understanding? What about the parents, the pastor, or the catechetical leader? Do they ever offer praise or affirmation for my work? Do other catechists seek me out for help in planning a lesson or for advice on classroom management?” It is often through the eyes of others that we are better able to see ourselves.
A call to the role
The third question also relies on others: “Is anyone asking me to do it?” When I was in high school, my French teacher once made arrangements for me to be excused from gym class so I could cover her class while she went to a meeting. She said she felt confident leaving me with her class since I would be able to help them with any questions they might have while doing their work. She told me she thought I had the potential to become a good French teacher. Another teacher asked me if I would tutor a junior-high student who was struggling in French. Although I knew I was good at the subject, it was their invitations and their confidence in my abilities that contributed to my decision to become a French teacher (which was my first professional career).
What about you? Are people in the parish asking for your help? And do you have a desire to do the work that will truly serve the needs of others?
A discernment process is both personal and communal. On a personal level, it begins with prayer. The National Directory for Catechesis states, “The call to the ministry of catechist or catechetical leader is a vocation, an interior call, the voice of the Holy Spirit” (NDC, 54). But how do we know when the Holy Spirit is calling us? I once heard a wonderful answer to that question: Your phone will ring. The Holy Spirit works through other people, and so we are called to ministry not only through the interior nudges we feel but through others who call us to this work. The USCCB document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord states that “… lay ecclesial ministers often express a sense of being called … [while] at the same time they know that a self-discerned call by the individual is not sufficient.”
The movement toward leadership
The parish catechetical leader plays a crucial role in calling others to leadership. Leaders are in a unique position to identify potential in their catechists. They too might think about the three questions, particularly the first two. The leader can observe the joy (or lack thereof) in his or her catechists. Does the catechist appear to be simply fulfilling an obligation, or does he exhibit a passion for the work? How competent is the catechist? Does she have a sound knowledge of the faith? Do her lessons meet the intellectual and developmental needs of the learners? Catechetical leaders can encourage their catechists to participate in catechist training sessions in the local parish or through the diocese.
In her book Cultivating Your Catechists: How to Recruit, Encourage, and Retain Successful Catechists, Jayne Ragasa-Mondoy emphasizes that catechist formation and certification is
not a matter of completing requirements or jumping through hoops. Instead, she says, “Leading a catechist to certification and beyond is one of the most powerful ways that a catechetical leader can bring prestige to the vocation of the catechist and prepare certain individuals to move into leadership positions themselves.” If leadership is about empowering others, catechetical leaders will want to help their catechists experience success.
Pope Francis often speaks of “accompaniment.” We are called to accompany others on their journey of faith. Catechetical leaders can think back on those who accompanied them on their faith journey, who called them to the ministry of leadership. Personal invitation repeatedly proves to be the best way to call someone to a particular role. Although I knew my parish was looking for someone to coordinate the seventh- and eighth-grade program, it wasn’t until the associate pastor showed up on my doorstep that I answered the call to leadership. He invited himself in for a cup of coffee and proceeded to tell me why I was the right person for the position. I declined his offer the first time, but when he came back a year later to ask me again, I knew I had to accept the position.
In Excellence in Ministry: Best Practices for Successful Catechetical Leadership, author Tom
Quinlan devotes an entire chapter to the topic of mentoring the next generation of catechetical leaders. He says that “we need to become talent/charism scouts and also vocational directors, not only helping people to see their giftedness but also guiding them to build up their skills.” He offers 10 helpful tips for mentoring future leaders, which include getting to know them personally, affirming them, accompanying them, coaching them through failure, and praying with and for them. A practical worksheet accompanies the chapter, allowing the catechetical leader to reflect on these tips and jot down some plans to begin the mentoring process.
I have often heard that in real estate, what matters most is location. In catechetical ministry, what matters most is relationship. In forming close relationships with their catechists, leaders are in a position to recognize the gifts and talents of the catechists and be able to spot potential leaders, thus ensuring that the Good News will continue to be proclaimed for years to come.
Barbara Ramian, MA, CAES, is an associate director in the Office of Religious Education in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, January 2019