Welcome to a new school year! There is excitement in the air.
You can see it in the families buying school supplies, teachers decorating classrooms, back-to-school in-services, open houses, and meetings for new catechists and teachers. There exists the wonder of possibilities.
Along with all the newness of the opening of the school year, there is the need to assess what has been remembered and what has been lost in the freedom of summer vacation, to see if you need to take a step back to review a topic.
One of the many blessings that Pope Francis has brought about is a deep concern and care for catechesis. His book, The People Wish to See Jesus: Reflections for Those Who Teach (the Crossroad Publishing Co., April 2014), offers reflections he shared with catechists when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He touches upon some of the basics of catechesis and characteristics of catechists.
Don’t Lose the Gospel
In a homily given March 2005, then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio reminded us that we are, first and foremost, Christians. He cautioned that it is all too easy for us to become immersed in the things of the Church and to lose the gospel’s originality and simplicity.
Yet, at times, we do, don’t we? We get caught up in parish politics, in “to do” lists, and in all the “stuff” that is needed to run our programs. We easily find ourselves labeling each other as conservative or liberal, pre- or post-Vatican II. And we forget that those we minister with and to are our brothers and sisters. At times, our ministry becomes a sibling spat instead of a joyful proclamation and modeling of the gospel.
The future Bishop of Rome told catechists that “if there is anything in which catechists should be experts, it is in their capacity to welcome…to make sure no one is left by the side of the road” (Letter to Catechists, August 2003). As catechetical leaders, we know the importance of being welcoming. We greet our catechists with enthusiasm in the beginning of the year, and we take the time to guide new catechists. We greet parents and students at opening sessions and at open houses.
Broaden the Welcome
The question we need to ask ourselves is: “How sincere and lasting is that welcome?” It’s human nature to gravitate toward those who return our welcome—and so the challenge is to approach those who don’t return our welcome. How truly welcoming are we to the parent who pushes our limits, who finds fault with us, who ignores the dismissal procedure and roars out of the parking lot? How open are we to catechists who question our knowledge, who ignore the curriculum and texts and do their own thing? How welcoming are we to our parish priests and other ministers? Do we duck into our offices at times and hope they just go away?
Do we broaden our welcome to the point of listening to those in our ministry—or do we see a pattern of superficial listening that lacks genuine welcome? Francis refers to this “pedagogy of presence” as being the very “content of catechesis”—when we empathetically share in the suffering and reality of various situations (Letter to Catechists, August 2003).
Harkening back to being “first and foremost Christians,” we recall that Jesus’ signature style was compassion born of empathy—and mercy extending from that empathy. Perhaps this is a good time—here at the beginning of the school year—to immerse ourselves once again into catechesis and start anew.
In his address to catechists on the occasion of the Year of Faith and the International Congress on Catechesis held in Rome September 2013, Pope Francis offered the following three points:
First, Pope Francis reminded us that to start anew with Christ means to be close to him. We accomplish this by listening and spending time with Jesus. Pope Francis reminds us that being present to Jesus is not just speaking at him, but allowing ourselves to be looked at by the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes squirm inside when I reflect upon Jesus gazing upon me when I am not particularly inviting or compassionate.
Pope Francis reminds us that this intimate peering into our souls is part of “being” catechists and not just claiming a title. To “be” catechists is an attitude of abiding in Christ. It is to be always damp from the waters of our Baptisms in which we were graced with the gifts of ministering as catechists.
Second, Pope Francis says that starting anew with Christ happens through encounters with others, while leaving ourselves behind. Fully united with Jesus, we go out confidently and authentically into the world, living as St. Francis of Assisi requested: preaching the gospel at all times, using words when necessary.
Third, Pope Francis says that uniting ourselves with Christ leaves us unafraid, even to the outskirts of the world. He reminds us that, when we find ourselves especially distressed or fearful, we can be mindful that God is truly present with us. To live in such a way demands our faithfulness and creativity. Don’t be stagnant or rigid. Pope Francis warns that if we become rigid we will wither.
Pope Francis exhorts us to proclaim with parrhesia—humble boldness and joy (see The Joy of the Gospel, n. 259)—the message God has entrusted to us. This new school year offers us the opportunity to start anew with Christ. Let’s do it! And always remember, people: It’s the Good News!
Carrie Sallwasser has been a Coordinator of Religious Education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis for 18 years. She serves as President and Heartland Representative for the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors (NPCD).
This article appeared in Catechist magazine, January 2014.
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