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Black Elk and the need for catechists

There is an army of volunteers across our country who give generously of their time to pass on the faith to our young people, but I wonder how many of these laborers in the vineyard of the Lord truly realize the sacredness of their task.

Left: Nicholas Black Elk is pictured in an undated historical photo teaching a girl how to pray the rosary. (CNS photo/courtesy Marquette University) Right: A young Black Elk and Elk of the Oglala Lakota as grass dancers touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, London, England, 1887. (Wikipedia)

I write these words as the annual November meeting of the United States bishops comes to a close. We bishops discussed many significant matters—from racism and immigration to the liturgy for the baptism of children. But I would like to emphasize one theme in particular that came up frequently in our conversations, namely, the catechesis of our young people. I have a rather intense personal interest in the topic since, at the conclusion of this gathering, I officially became chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis.

In his formal address to us at the commencement of the conference, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, reiterated statistics that I have often remarked regarding the growing number of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated in our country. He especially noted the rise of this cohort among people under thirty years of age. For every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, he reminded us, six are leaving. We must make a renewed commitment, he concluded, to the indispensable work of handing on the faith. The Archbishop’s intuition in this regard was confirmed, over and again, by bishops who spoke, in various sessions and forums, of a crisis of catechesis in our Church.

I had this wake-up call from the Pope’s representative very much in mind as my friend, Bishop Robert Gruss, the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, rose to speak on the second day of the meeting. Bishop Gruss’ happy task was to present to us the case for the beatification and canonization of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Indian medicine man who, at midlife, converted to Catholicism. After hearing the bishop’s impassioned presentation, we enthusiastically voted to approve the advancement of Black Elk’s cause. What especially struck me in Bishop Gruss’ brief biographical sketch is that Black Elk, after his conversion, eagerly took up the task of catechesis within his community. Due to his impressive memory and acute mind, he was able to convey the complexities of the Bible and Church teaching to his fellow Lakotans who had embraced the faith. And very much in line with the Catholic conviction that grace builds on and perfects nature, Black Elk endeavored to incorporate his mystical sensibility and healing power into the fuller context of his Catholicism. It was his holiness and prayerful connection to God, even more than his learning, that brought his people closer to Christ.

My prayer is that, if the cause of Black Elk moves forward, we might one day invoke him as a real icon for catechists in the Catholic Church. There is an army of volunteers across our country who give generously of their time to pass on the faith to our young people, but I wonder how many of these laborers in the vineyard of the Lord truly realize the sacredness of their task. Without good catechists, more and more of our young people will fall into secularism and indifferentism. And as these unaffiliated in ever greater numbers come of age, our society will be adversely affected, for Christian ideas and values will be less and less at play.

So what can catechists today take from the example of Nicholas Black Elk? First, they can commit themselves to the assiduous study of the faith. As I have argued before, huge numbers of the young identify intellectual problems and questions as the reasons they are leaving the faith: religion in relation to science, the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, etc. Without smart catechists, the kids abandon the faith. It’s as blunt and as simple as that. My nephew, who is starting his first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) this fall, went through religious education as he was coming of age. To be frank, he found the vast majority of his training superficial and remembers almost none of it. But one year stays in his mind. In his sixth grade religious education class, he had a catechist who had a master’s degree in theology and who took the young people, with some rigor, through a study of the Bible. Please don’t tell me that the kids can’t handle that sort of challenge; on the contrary, it’s what they remember—and savor.

Secondly, they can see their work as a true vocation, a sacred calling, a mystical obligation. As Pope Paul VI put it so memorably, men and women of today listen to witnesses more than to teachers, and to teachers in the measure that they are also witnesses. Or as the cliché has it: the faith is caught more than taught. Some years ago, I read a study that indicated what drew young people to the faith were not gimmicks or histrionics or the pathetic attempt to be “relevant” to them. What drew them were teachers who knew their subject matter and were obviously committed to it.

Catechists, the Church needs you! We’re losing our kids to secularism. If anyone of sharp mind and faithful heart is reading these words, take seriously the possibility that God is calling you to this sacred work. And I pray that one day catechists can look to Nicholas Black Elk as exemplar and heavenly friend.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at


  1. I decided to drop out of teaching CCD – mainly because, it seemed to me, what I was telling the kids was just the opposite of what is coming from Rome. (on more than a few things)

    I am so flummoxed about… things going on in the Church. It is hard to teach whenever insults come from… certain leaders in the Church.

    Catechist Kev

  2. May I recommend Bishop Barren that you investigate the Marian Catechism Apostolate from Fr. John Hardon S.J. and Cardinal R. Burke? If you can promote this program that would be a big step. Thanks for considering.

  3. In the Lakota language Black Elk is Heȟáka Sápa. Calling him by the English name smacks very much of colonialism and cultural appropriation. Catholics ought to have no truck with either, especially in the light of the sorrowful history of US treatment of indigenous peoples.

    • He went by the name Black Elk, and he was known by that name for well over thirty years by that name. The book Black Elk speaks was published in 1932, and Black Elk did not die until 1950, so it seems he was fine being known by that name. Forget the nonsense notion of cultural appropriation. He is not alive so he can’t be upset about what people call him. When Black Elk tells me to stop calling him Black Elk then I will stop calling him Black Elk. Who are you to go around giving orders about other people that you never knew, and who never told you what to do in their name? TAnyway, his son was known as Ben Black Elk, so it sounds like they had no problem. Butt out of stuff that is not your business.

  4. First, you need another Fulton Sheen. That should be your first priority, Bishop Barron. You do a great job in media in many ways, but you need a special person with a commanding TV presence, a person who will have good writing that talks about the world today, will grip an audience. Young people are hungry for the faith, because they have grown up in a faithless world saturated with meaninglessness. Youtube is critical. There is a lot of work to do to lay out the faith on Youtube. Why Be Catholic? Should be the focus. Lay out the truth about the teaching of the church. “Catholics and homosexuality”. “Catholics and the pooor” “The Catholic view of marriage” “Why You should not live together until marriage”. “Why Contraception is a very bad idea” “Why sex outside of marriage is a very bad idea”. In fact, there needs to be a whole “Why X is a very bad idea” series, because modern culture has pushed a whole series of very bad ideas down young people’s throats. At the same time, there needs to be a more advanced, theologically astute series for adult Protestants that answers all their questions. This is a time of great opportunity. I hope you take advantage of it.

    • What is needed is someone with the charisma, intelligence, wit and speaking talent of Milo Yiannopoulos combined with the theological and philosophical depth and Catholic orthodoxy of Joseph Ratzinger. No small order.

  5. Bishop Baron, thanks for this inspiring article. I am now in my fourth year of teaching high school age kids about the Catholic faith. For me it has been a thrilling and amazing journey in so many ways. I probably spend eight hours of prep for every hour I teach. I try hard to first ensure that I am teaching Catholic truth and then to present it in a compelling way. Some days I think I see God’s grace at work through my efforts; other days I wonder. Every day I trust that God will use my effort for his divine purposes. I appreciated your reminder that this is a sacred calling and a mystical obligation. Loaves and fishes, folks, loaves and fishes.

  6. Bishop Barron, regarding your conclusion: “Catechists, the Church needs you! We’re losing our kids to secularism. If anyone of sharp mind and faithful heart is reading these words, take seriously the possibility that God is calling you to this sacred work.”

    I am a catechist with advanced degrees in theology who taught high school religion for over twenty years. I was faithful and earnest and my students loved my classes. I quit because administrators and fellow religion teachers in Catholic schools were outright hostile to Catholic orthodoxy, and trying to be a faithful Catholic teacher in such an environment was killing my spirit.

    So when you say the Church needs intelligent and faithful people to be catechists you are correct. What you do not acknowledge is that the Church’s schools and parishes and chancery offices are replete with an inner ring of dissidents who make life miserable for faithful catechists and who systematically discourage and prevent such faithful Catholics from doing the work that the Church so desperately needs. In many cases, such faithful teachers are weeded out during the interview process.

    As a result, Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are reinforcing the secularism and indifference to Catholic faith that you identify among today’s young people. When Catholic Faith is presented almost entirely as providing spiritual reasons to endorse and advocate for secular leftist programs and movements already well-entrenched in the society, why would many young people or many people at all desire to commit their lives to something so unnecessary?

    So what say you about the reality that intelligent and faithful Catechists have a very difficult time in today’s Church, and as a result many are discouraged?

    • Excellent response, and you have my sympathies. Yes, it is the Church bureaucracies with which the bishops surround themselves that is the real problem. How many directors of parochial school systems are believing, faithful Catholics? I have never met a single one who fits that description.

  7. “For every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, he reminded us, six are leaving.” Well, what would you expect? The bishops spend all their time on politics and “social justice” issues. People can join that “cause” without having to bother with the constraints of a creed. The liturgy does not teach the Faith. The Pope does not teach the Faith! Overt heresy is not only uncorrected, it is applauded by our bishops, cardinals, and the Pope himself. What can catechists do, even if they are excellent, faithful teachers? I grow so tired of these statements from bishops that acknowledge the obvious collapse, and then ignore the obvious causes.

    • Great response, Timothy. This post and Sawyer’s is right on target.

      Wonder what the good bishop’s response to the infamous LA Religious Education conference – replete year-after-year with dissidents – would be?

      Catechist Kev

  8. We can only pray that our Baptized Catholic youth will eventually develope a relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But how can they have a relationship with someone they have not met. And how can they meet someone without having an encounter with them. We must avail them with that encountet. In addition,how many catholic students are missing due to contraception and abortion. NFP must be taught and practiced by our Catholic families if all our children are to have that encounter and have an opportunity to play a role in tomorrows Church Militant.

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