Mission Possible

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by Cullen Schippe

My perception of the role of a catechist was changed for good while I traveled on a journalism assignment through pre-revolutionary Nicaragua almost 40 years ago.

For much of my time there, the political climate and social tensions made me feel like I was in an endless episode of Mission Impossible. On more than one occasion, the show’s familiar theme would start playing in my head.

One day, I was accompanying two missionaries on a trip across Pearl Lagoon to visit a small Carib village on its northwest shore. The trip was a harrowing one. As we traveled in a dugout canoe propelled by an outboard motor, we were buffeted by a sudden storm. I must admit there were moments when I feared for my life. I tried to protect the camera equipment I had with me, but resolved that if the storm got any worse, the cameras were on their own.

We landed, soggy but quite alive. A messenger appeared and reminded us that we were late for breakfast with “the catechist.” I don’t think I ever heard someone introduced by that title. But after meeting Maria Sambola, I knew that the title fit her perfectly.

Maria was respected in the community. As I think back on her, she was a “faith-whisperer!” She kept the faith alive in the hearts of her villagers. Although she had very little formal education, she was wise and faithful. She was the focal point for the local church that only rarely experienced the presence of a priest. Her whole life echoed what it means to be baptized into the living, breathing Body of Christ.

Maria was quite a gifted person and all of her gifts were at the service of her community. Over the years, Maria has become for me an icon of the great power there is in helping people thoroughly hear God’s Word, in gratefully receiving that Word, and in fearlessly living that Word—every single day.

I am certain that Maria never saw in her ministry a source of personal entitlement. She was called by the Church to instruct people in the faith and, even in a remote tropical village, to help them live that faith. She is emblematic of the hundreds of thousands of people just like you who are faith-whisperers—who are called to echo the teachings of Christ and his Church for generations of people.

You might occasionally see your work as catechists as “mission impossible.” Yet, without compensation and with little fanfare, you perform an indispensible ministry. You are part of a cloud of witnesses to the wonders of God’s love, the mysteries of Mass and the Sacraments, the joy of living a virtuous life in Christ, and the power of private and communal prayer. Also, you are volunteers. That means you willingly perform this service for those you teach.

Whether you serve your parish for a year or you stick with the catechetical tasks year after year, “catechist” is something you are, not just something you do. Your role as catechist comes with some identifying marks.

You are called to the task. Being a catechist is truly a vocation.

You are a willing witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel because you are committed to Christ and his Church.

You are a representative of the People of God and are participating in the teaching mission of the Church. As such, you are loyal and faithful.

You operate as part of a community. You participate in the life of the Church and encourage that participation in others.

You give of yourself. You do not hold back on the time and energy it takes to be a catechist.

Finally, you always are willing to learn. You do not perform this ministry because you have all the answers to all the questions. Rather, you are always open to know more about the Scriptures and the teachings and traditions of the community.

I have been blessed with a long and enriching career serving the catechetical community. As I look forward, I want to spend the remainder of my working time helping and supporting you. That is the principal reason we at CATECHIST magazine have started the National Society for Volunteer Catechists.

It is my hope that this magazine and your new society will help you see that with the call of the Church, with the grace of God, and with the support of your faith community, you most assuredly have a “mission possible!”

Cullen Schippe has been in Catholic publishing for over 40 years and currently serves as Vice-President of Religious Education for the Peter Li Education Group. He co-authored (with Chuck Stetson) and served as general editor of The Bible and Its Influence (BLP Publishing, 2005). E-mail Cullen at cschippe@peterli.com.

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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, August 2011.

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