Conversations with the Catechists

Teaching the Faith at the Church of St. Rita in Astoria, New York

Not long ago I was reflecting upon the work of St. John the Baptist, and this put me in mind of my local parish church in Astoria, New York, the Church of Saint Rita, where I recently met with two admirably self-sacrificing catechists: Helen Foster, who serves as the church’s Director of Religious Instruction, and one of her volunteers, John Pellot, a bright young man who works in Manhattan for an asset management and investment banking firm. Helen and John had invited me to sit in on a religious class that they were conducting for teenagers preparing for Confirmation. During the class, they asked their young charges to share with their peers their favorite saints. 

Each student presented his or her favorite saint in a brief talk complemented by a colorful poster, which each had put together prior to the session. To give a few examples, one young lady spoke of how St. Clare’s devotion to the poor inspired her to be charitable to the poor in her own life; another spoke of St. Sebastian and how his martyrdom before the assassin archers of the Emperor Diocletian should remind us of what courage we need to exhibit in the face of persecution; another spoke of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her care for unwanted and neglected children; and still another spoke of how St. Francis inspired us to put Jesus Christ at the center of our lives just as St. Francis had done in his own life. 

To hear teenagers witnessing to the power and the glory of the Faith by sharing with their peers the heroic testimony of the saints was a welcome surprise, and it prompted me to speak with Helen and John about what inspires them to instruct their charges in their shared Catholic Faith.

In talking with Helen—an elegant, intelligent, formidable lady, with whom the children do not dare to tussle—I asked her if she would share with me the joys and difficulties of instructing the young of the parish in the truths of the Catholic Faith. It was clear in speaking with her that this was a gentle but also a very resolute lady, one who might be fired with the love of the Holy Spirit to catechize the young but who, at the same time, has no illusions about how difficult it is to accomplish this in a Catholic ethos where fewer and fewer Catholics know anything of the dogmatic content of their faith. Throughout our talk, she was insistent that parish churches must take their catechetical responsibilities more seriously by training their catechists and holding them more accountable, because if they do not execute that responsibility more effectively the future of the Catholic Church in America will be put in even more jeopardy than it is already.

Fortunately, at St. Rita, Helen works with an altogether exemplary pastor, Father Jose Carlos da Silva, a Brazilian priest who has made the careful instruction of his young parishioners one of his top priorities. Of course, as we all know, not all of our churches are blessed with such resourceful, responsible, effective pastors. Still, St. Rita is reassuring proof that where there is strong commitment to evangelizing the young, catechesis can flourish. After articulating her clear and forceful views on the vital role of catechesis at the parish level, Helen shared with me many other insights into her own experiences as a catechist, and our interview took off from there.

There is much said today in many Catholic quarters about the poor catechesis that continues to characterize the Church in America, and yet in the catechetical work that you are doing for St. Rita I see a very robust commitment to sharing the faith with the young of the parish. Can you tell me how you approach the challenges of catechesis?

Helen Foster: At one time many catechists were chosen because they were liked and thought to be a good catechist. They had no formal training and, most important, no guidance. Being a catechist is a mission in life.                                 

How do I approach the challenge of catechesis? By living my faith day to day, making it real, putting words into action. Jesus taught with love and compassion and gave us hope. This is how I like to teach and share my faith.

At times this is not easy. I pray that I will be guided by the Holy Spirit in all that I do. I look at each obstacle as a challenge in which I can learn and grow spiritually. It is very important to me that all the students know that they have a relationship with God. We are here to help them know God more and to teach them about the Catholic religion. I want the students to know about their faith. When someone asks them, “Why are you a Catholic?” or “Why do you believe in the Catholic Faith?” they should be able to answer with true love and feeling that they have faith in the Church because they have faith in God. It is not enough to say, “I was baptized Catholic or I was raised Catholic.”

What inspired you to become a catechist?

When my first grandchild was a toddler I wanted to teach him about the Catholic Faith. It was easy to tell him about God. I thought, why not learn more and become a catechist? If I can talk freely about my love of God, his goodness and Mercy, why not do more and teach? What better example of sharing God’s love with others?

What do you see as the barriers to effective catechesis? What is the best way to overcome those barriers?

The biggest barriers to an effective catechesis is commitment. All of us have outside commitments and it is difficult to commit to two-and-a-half hours every Sunday. Once a person is willing to commit, I try to use whatever talents they have to offer. Having good resources and encouraging each person is very important.

You have spoken about how encouraged you are by the willingness of young people to help you in your catechetical work. Can you expand on that? This readiness on the part of graduates of your catechetical program to help advance the program seems a welcome confirmation of the efficacy of your efforts. 

After the students have celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation, I ask them if they would like to be a part of our religious program by helping as aides in the lower grades, as hall monitors, and as office assistants. When they become involved I ask them to attend our catechist meetings. I speak with them individually so that I can know what they think of the program. I listen to what they have to say and this gives me ideas on how to reach the other students.

You also spoke of the vital role that parents must play in ensuring that their children understand and exercise their faith.  Kindly expand on that.

All parents play a vital role in sharing and passing on their Catholic faith to their children. We are reinforcing what the children are learning at home. Unfortunately many students come with very little or no knowledge of their faith.  As we instruct the children we need to share this with their parents by speaking with the parents privately or in a group. Meetings with parents are very informative, for parents as well as catechists. All of this helps us form a better program for all those involved. It is vital that we encourage the parents to take an active, responsible role in the religious education of their children.

You mentioned how seminarians and other male figures are vital to successful catechesis. Kindly elaborate on that.

Seminarians and male teachers are very important. The students need to see that it is manly to speak of your faith. To share God’s love and word is not just something for mothers and children but for fathers as well. Having male catechists has made a bigger impact with the students than I had first thought.

From what I can see from attending Mass at St. Rita, you are obviously deeply intent on seeing to it that the young of our parish understand the same Catholic faith that guides you in your life. How, may I ask, did you acquire your own strong faith?

My mother, aunt, and family influenced my life greatly by their strong belief in God and the Catholic Church. I learned at a very young age that God was always with me. I could speak to him at any time and he truly listened. I spoke to him daily and prayed knowing that he would hear me. All of this was a great foundation for my spiritual and religious growth. I wanted to know God deeply, to love him and serve him, to share my life with him and spread his love to those around me, especially the young.

***

When I turned to speak with John, Helen’s impressive young lieutenant, I could see that the spirit of St. Carlo Borromeo, who did so much to advance Catholic education during the Counter Reformation under Pope Pius V, is alive and well in Astoria. Of course, St. Carlo comes to mind because he was the first of the great 16th-century reformers of the Church to see the need for more instruction of the young in the doctrinal tenets of the Faith. He established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine expressly to ensure that children were carefully and systematically instructed in the Faith. That great work was the beginning of what we now call Sunday school, and John is carrying on that crucial legacy. In our interview, I was struck by how much I found myself agreeing with Helen: it is essential for the success of catechetical programs of parish churches that they include bright, capable, devout young men. John certainly personifies all of those fine attributes. 

In seeing your Confirmation class today presenting their adopted saints, I was reminded of the Latin derivation of our word “education,” which is educere, “to bring out, to lead forth.” It seemed to me that in asking your charges to share with you and their classmates information about their adopted saints and why they had chosen them, you were tapping into the appeal that the Church and her saints have for these young people that is already inside their developing hearts and minds.  Do you find this to be the case?

John Pellot: The kids are attracted to saints with values, beliefs, and personality traits similar to the ones they have themselves. I was very pleased to see the kids identify and relate to the saints on such a personal level. They revealed many of their personal qualities that they share with their chosen saints. I learned a great deal about the children’s convictions and interests. I also identified some of the areas in their lives in which they wish to grow and develop.

We hear frequently that there is a crisis of catechesis within the Church. And yet at St. Rita, you and Helen Foster and the other dedicated instructors seem to be directly tackling that problem. Could you share with me some of the frustrations you are encountering, as well as the success stories?  

I am very pleased to see the number of children that are currently enrolled in St. Rita’s Catechism program. In my class there are many success stories. When I began teaching the class, most kids did not know all the sacraments and their meaning, the cardinal virtues or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. About a month ago, I tested their knowledge in these areas and they all answered correctly. About a week ago I asked them to write a couple of paragraphs on their overall classroom experience. I asked them what they learned and how their knowledge of the Church has grown. I was amazed with the positive feedback I got. They were all happy that they took the class and said their knowledge of the Church has grown. That was my goal, to enhance the children’s knowledge and understanding of the Church. So in my opinion the class has been a success.

The only frustration I had with the class is the lack of participation on the part of parents. When the children did their presentations on their saints, we asked that the parents attend and watch their children present. Unfortunately, many of them could not make it. I think it is important for the parents to reinforce what we are teaching and support their children throughout the process.

Another abiding problem that we hear about is how antagonistic the popular culture is to the truths of the Faith. Do you see signs of this in your young charges? I have to say that I saw much more of a responsiveness to the Faith in the young people who presented today than I expected to see. If they are consumers of the popular culture, they are obviously not letting it get in the way of their respect for the Faith. Can you comment on this?  

In my opinion, we need young people in the pews to carry on the Faith. I have seen a disconnect between the youth and the parish because of the age gap. Let’s face it, we see a lot more elderly people in church than we do teenagers. That is why I wanted to teach the class. I might not be a teenager, but I am still very young. I am familiar with the pop culture and I was able to reach the children more effectively by tying in relevant ideas and applications to their lessons. The children in my class are a generation of mobile-device users and social-media consumers. For example, I assigned them a project in which they had to develop and advertise an app that promoted Lent. I split them into groups and had them work as a team. I had them develop an app name, function, and a plan to market their Lenten idea. The kids loved it!

Based on your experience at St. Rita, can you tell me whether you are hopeful about the Catholics of tomorrow? Do you see future Catholic leaders in those you are teaching?

I am very hopeful about the Catholics of tomorrow. In my class I have seen the Holy Spirit working in the teenagers. Many of them have younger siblings in the program and I hear them trying to teach them their prayers and see them sitting together during Mass. These young kids look up to their older siblings and are receptive to their values and beliefs. It makes me very proud to see these teenagers talking to the younger children and teaching them the values of the Church. They are the future.


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About Edward Short 19 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.