Catechists: an indispensable service in the Church

The apostolic letter of Pope Francis in the form of a motu proprio "Antiquum ministerium" institutes the ministry of the catechist for the whole Church, a concretization of the lay vocation, based on baptism and in no way a clericalization of the lay faithful.

Ramiro Pellitero-May 11, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: ©2021 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Pope Francis' apostolic letter in the form of a motu proprio "Antiquum ministerium" (signed on May 10, 2011, the memorial of St. John of Avila, theologian and qualified catechist) institutes the ministry of the catechist for the whole Church. 

Since the earliest Christian communities, the task of catechists has been decisive for the Church's mission. Although today the word "catechesis" refers primarily to the formation of children and young people, for the Fathers of the Church it meant the formation of all Christians at all ages and in all circumstances of life. 

Now "the Church has wished to recognize this service as a concrete expression of the personal charism that has greatly favored the exercise of her evangelizing mission" (n. 2), taking into account the present circumstances: a renewed awareness of the evangelizing mission of the whole Church (new evangelization), a globalized culture and the need for a renewed methodology and creativity, especially in the formation of the new generations (cf. n. 2), and the need for a new methodology and creativity, especially in the formation of the new generations (cf. n. 3)..5).

Although catechesis has been carried out not only by lay people, but also by religious men and women (for this reason it would perhaps be preferable to describe it as an ecclesial service or task), this ministry of the catechist is conceived here as something typically and predominantly lay. Thus the document states: "Receiving a lay ministry such as that of catechist gives greater emphasis to the missionary commitment proper to each baptized person, which in any case should be carried out in a fully secular way without falling into any expression of clericalization" (n. 7).

The task and mission of the catechists

The ministry of catechists is now being instituted along these lines. It is worth recalling here what Francis pointed out in a letter addressed to Cardinal Ladaria a few months ago, regarding non-ordained ministries: "The commitment of the lay faithful, who 'are simply the vast majority of the People of God' (Francis, Evangelii gaudium102), certainly cannot and should not be exhausted in the exercise of non-ordained ministries".

At the same time, and with explicit reference to catechesis, he maintained that the institution of these ministries can contribute to "initiate a renewed commitment to catechesis and to the celebration of the faith".It is a matter of "making Christ the heart of the world", as the mission of the Church demands, without closing oneself up in the sterile logics of the "spaces of power". 

Consequently, even now the institution of the "ministry of the catechist" is not intended to change the ecclesial condition of those who exercise it for the most part: they are still lay faithful. Nor should the ministry of the catechist or any other non-ordained ministry be considered as the goal or fullness of the lay vocation. The lay vocation is situated in relation to the sanctification of the temporal realities of ordinary life (cf. n. 6 of the document, with reference to the Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Church and the Church, Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Lumen gentium, 31).

Having said this, let us return to the beginning. The importance of catechesis in the Church and in the service it renders to Christians, their families and society as a whole. Paul VI considered Vatican II as the great catechesis of modern times (cf. John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae, 1979, n. 2). In the conciliar assembly the mission of catechists was underlined: "In our days, the office of catechists is of extraordinary importance because there are not enough clerics to evangelize so many people and to exercise the pastoral ministry" (Ad Gentes, 17).

In the wake of the Council, the Church is now rediscovering the transcendence of the figure of the catechist, which can take the form of a vocation in the Church, supported by the reality of a charism, and within the broad framework of the lay vocation. This highlights the complementarity, within communion and the ecclesial family, between ministries and charisms. 

In fact, for its mission, and especially in some continents, the Church relies daily on the many catechists - millions at present, according to what was said at the official presentation of the document to the press - men and women, in this discreet and self-sacrificing task of hers. This has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. "Even in our days, many capable and steadfast catechists are at the head of communities in various regions and carry out an irreplaceable mission in the transmission and deepening of the faith. The long list of blessed, saints and martyr catechists has marked the mission of the Church, which deserves to be known because it constitutes a fruitful source not only for catechesis, but for the whole history of Christian spirituality" (Antiquum ministerium, 3).

Now the Church wishes to organize them more effectively for their mission (and this is one more reason for the institution of this task) and will establish the corresponding liturgical rite, committing herself to prepare and form them, not only at the beginning of their mission, but throughout their lives, since they too, like all Christians, need ongoing formation. 

Catechetical formation 

The contents of catechesis are ordered to the "transmission of the faith". This, as the document in question points out, is developed in its various stages: "From the first proclamation that introduces the kerygmaThe teaching that makes people aware of their new life in Christ and prepares them in particular for the sacraments of Christian initiation, to the ongoing formation that enables each baptized person to be always ready to 'give an answer to all those who ask them to give a reason for their hope' (1 P 3,15)" (n. 6). "The catechist," he continues, "is at the same time a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue who teaches in the name of the Church. This identity can only be developed with consistency and responsibility through prayer, study and direct participation in the life of the community" (Ibid., cf. Directory for catechesis, n. 113). 

Not every catechist is to be instituted through this ministry, but only those who meet the conditions for being called to it by the bishop. It is a matter of a "stable" service in the local Church, which will have to conform to the itineraries established by the episcopal conferences.

In this way the conditions for future catechists are specified: "It is desirable that men and women of deep faith and human maturity be called to the instituted ministry of catechist, who participate actively in the life of the Christian community, who can be welcoming, generous and live in fraternal communion, who have received the necessary biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be attentive communicators of the truth of the faith, and who have already acquired a previous experience of catechesis" (n. 8).

For all this, the catechist needs a specific formation, the catechetical or theological-pedagogical formation.

As our times have shown, this catechetical formation is necessary, in various ways, in the Church as a whole. Not only for catechists, but for all the Catholic faithful, whatever their condition and vocation, their ministry and charism. It is a specific formation, within the theological-pastoral formation. A theology in pedagogical format, we could say, which requires a certain knowledge of the human sciences (anthropology, pedagogy, psychology, sociology, etc.), seen and evaluated in the light of faith. 

This also applies to the teaching of religion in schools. Although this task is not "catechesis" in the modern sense of the word, every Christian educator needs to situate himself in this broad catechetical perspective, which today falls within the framework of Christian anthropology. 

The renewal of catechesis, the document reminds us, has been accompanied by important reference documents, such as the exhortation Catechesi tradendae (1979), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) and the Directory for catechesis (third edition of March 2020). All this is "an expression of the central value of catechetical work, which places the instruction and ongoing formation of believers in the foreground" (Antiquum ministerium,4).

The ministry of the catechist, in short, is conceived as a concretization of the vocation baptism, and in no way as a layman, based on baptism and in no way as a clericalization of the lay faithful. It is an ecclesial service that comes to consolidate a task long exercised and examined as such. And which requires, especially in our time, a training qualified.

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