With the recent release of the Motu Proprio, Antiquum Ministerium: Instituting the Ministry of Catechist, Pope Francis draws our attention to the critical importance of lay discipleship and the formation of catechists in our time. The Church in the West has experienced a decline in growth since the close of the Second Vatican Council and perhaps will continue to do so in the aftermath of this past year. Not only has there been a decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, there continues an exodus out of the Church by many who now have no formal religious affiliation at all.
Anyone who has a pulse and is serving in the Church today knows that the crisis is real, tangible, and ongoing. The crisis is multifaceted but stems ultimately from a crisis of faith that has affected every dimension of ecclesial life, perhaps especially the realm of catechesis.
In Antiquum Ministerium, Pope Francis acknowledges this decline: “In our days, when there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechist is of the highest importance” (AM #4). The issuing of the motu proprio is a continuation of a long line of catechetical works following the close of the Council addressing the need for authentic witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a secular and post-Christian age.
The new papal document offers several key areas worth highlighting, each underscoring the desired outcome and reasons for its release.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully taught will be like his teacher” (Lk. 6:40)
At the heart of the crisis of catechesis is the absence of authentic disciples. The great commission mentions first to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28: ). This first directive, in many ways, has simply been skipped. We may have recruited people to help with various parish ministries, but we have not always sufficiently formed them as disciples. In my work serving as a diocesan director of catechesis, the formation of catechists remains a top priority. Catechists are responsible for some of the greatest work in the life of the Church.
That being the case, discipleship and catechesis are intrinsically linked, so much so that without those who conform their lives fully to Jesus Christ, the faith does not spread. Disciples of Christ beget other disciples and are conduits of the Holy Spirit, who is the principal agent of conversion and evangelization. Antiquum presupposes the foundation of discipleship for the institution of the Ministry of Catechist to be built upon. Without this, catechesis runs the risk of being merely the transmission of information rather than the teaching and bearing witness to the person of Christ.
For catechists to be effective in their mission, they must first be a disciple and know Jesus intimately. “Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (CCC427). Only a disciple of Christ can truly say this. Humility is the prerequisite for discipleship and for being a catechist. The first question one should ask themselves in relation to being a catechist or being instituted is, “Am I truly a disciple of Christ?”
The Vocation of the Catechist
The Church exists to evangelize. In his encyclical Evangeli Nuttiandi, Pope Paul VI raises an interesting question, “At every new phase of human history, the Church, constantly gripped by the desire to evangelize, has one preoccupation: whom to send to proclaim the mystery of Christ?” (EN # 22). The discernment of catechists for the work of labor in the Lord’s vineyard is of critical importance.
From the outset of her mission for the salvation of souls, the Church has always had a missionary character. The Church does not exist to remain dormant, but to proclaim the good news with passion, vigor, and conviction. To accomplish this task, it needs well-formed disciples to answer the call to be catechists. To underscore the vocational aspect of the catechist, Pope Francis quotes Lumen Gentium:
In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they are given a special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become salt of the earth.” (AM #6)
A noticeable emphasis of Antiquum Ministerium is the use of the term “vocation” in reference to catechists. In establishing a lay Ministry of Catechist, Pope Francis recognizes that the Church needs to be more intentional in forming and deploying lay catechists to build up the body of Christ. She must also discern, assist, and support the laity who recognize a call to serve in this capacity:
The Church awakens and discerns this divine vocation and confers the mission to catechize. The Lord Jesus invites men and women, in a special way, to follow him, teacher and formator of disciples. This personal call of Jesus Christ and its relationship to him are the true moving forces of catechetical activity. (General Directory for Catechesis, #231).
The concept of catechesis as a vocation for the lay faithful is not a new or novel idea. In fact, it is rooted in our baptism and in St Paul’s theology of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is important to note that this concept of vocation is not to be confused with the two states of life, consecrated virginity and matrimony. Rather, it falls under the vocation of the baptized to participate in the prophetic mission of Christ. “The call to ministry of catechist is a vocation, an interior call, the voice of the Holy Spirit.” (National Catechetical Directory, p. 228)
If being a catechist is a vocation in the minor sense, it must be understood as a charism and a discerned calling.“And God has appointed in the Church, first apostles, second prophets and third teachers. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28-29). Not all are called to be teachers but all the baptized are called to bear witness to the faith and share the good news according to their state in life. The laity, and in particular parents by virtue of the Sacrament of Matrimony, have the grace to teach the faith and are rightly the primary catechists of their children.
That said, not all parents will discern a call to be instituted in the Ministry of Catechist. It is here that we must make an important and necessary distinction if the Church is going to institute the laity into the Ministry of Catechist. Teaching the faith in a formal sense is a “calling” and charism that ought to be discerned. The Catechism explains that “charisms are a specific grace of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefits the Church, given in order to help a person live out the Christian life or to serve the common good in building up the Church” (CCC, #799).
Although the Church has opened to more involvement by the laity in ministry since the Council, in many cases it has not provided the discernment of charisms for the faithful, nor the necessary formation for them to fulfill this calling. Often our lay catechists have not been evangelized and catechized themselves, and lack theological formation, thus making them ill equipped to lead ministry. A strong catechist formation must accompany the Instituting of the Ministry of Catechist.
The Formation of Catechists
Implementing the Ministry of Catechist is critical and no light matter. It remains to be seen if there will be a sincere follow through with this motu proprio and what requirements will be set. Nonetheless, Pope Francis provides a glimpse of what is to be expected:
It is fitting that those called to the instituted ministry of Catechist be men and women of deep faith and human maturity, active participants in the life of the Christian community, capable of welcoming others, being generous and living a life of fraternal communion. They should also receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith and they should have some prior experience of catechesis.” (AM #8)
The Fifth Chapter of the new Directory of Catechesis is dedicated to and provides a vision for the formation of catechists. It says, “the work of formation acts as a transformation of the person, who internalizes the evangelical message existentially and in such a way that it may be light and guidance for his ecclesial life and mission” (Directory of Catechesis, #131). The recent release of this document underscores Antiquum Ministerium and should be read in unison.
Moreover, the Ministry of Catechist does not exist to give the laity power in the Church or a formal role for its own sake. Its purpose is to strengthen the Church and advance her mission in the world. Its critical implementation is contingent upon the laity seeking holiness of life, their humility to be formed in the faith, and the integrity of the teachings of the Church. Doctrinal integrity is of the utmost importance as well as fidelity to the Magisterium, without which a Ministry of Catechist is all but worthless in our culture.
“Church doctrines,” St. John Henry Newman wrote in Apologia pro Vita Sua, “are a powerful weapon; they are not sent into the world for nothing. God’s word does not return to him void.” The laity needs to evangelize modernity, not be evangelized by it. Too often we have seen the leaders in the Church being formed in the image of the world and not the world being transformed in Christ. The role of the laity, catechist or not, is the sanctification of the temporal and the ushering in the social reign of Christ the King. Recall the words of Pope Benedict XVI in one of the last Ad Limina visits of the U.S. Bishops (January 19, 2012):
Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.
You cannot give what you do not have. In order to participate in the economy of salvation through the ecclesial vocation of the catechist, we must first be converted and well-formed, answering the call to teach and with humility, receive His Word to hand on.
The parable of the two builders provides the framework for the Ministry of Catechist.
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Mt. 7:24-25)
We know the rest of the parable, the result and the demise of the foolish man who built his house on sand. It is time now to take up the yoke of Christ and live out the universal call to holiness that the Church has called for. Catechesis and evangelization will only advance if we who are responsible for this ministry are converted, if we begin to live a life of heroic virtue and are resolved to become saints and build our house on a firm foundation.
Antiquum Ministerium will only be effective, and not merely collect dust on the ecclesiastical shelf, insofar as those instituted in the Ministry of Catechist become saints. If not, this era will continue to limp and lag on as before, eventually prompting even the stones to cry out (cf. Mt. 19:40)!
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