If you were to look up the word catechist in a dictionary, you'd find a few different meanings. Most of us think of catechists as volunteers who teach the faith to children at our parishes. Some may think of the good people who run RCIA classes. Many of the definitions I found were in this context; one even reminded us that parents are children's first catechists!
Happily, I found one online dictionary that defined the word in a way that we use it in the mission ministry: a catechist is a local person in a missionary district who does Christian teaching. As a matter of fact, a catechist may be the life's blood of a village, especially in the absence of a priest. Beyond basic catechetics, this man or woman is responsible for Liturgy of the Word services, sacramental preparation, youth ministry, and much more.
Recently, The Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle, headquartered here in Boston and in ministry in poor areas of Peru, expanded their work by launching "The St. James the Apostle School of Faith Formation." According to Father Isaac Robles Mejia, writing in the Society's latest newsletter, "The St. James Society seeks to help catechists develop a living experience with God, together with a deeper understanding of Catholic doctrine."
The first gatherings, held this past spring, were especially emotional because many of the catechists had lost a loved one to the Covid-19 pandemic. They spent time sharing their painful experiences. It was also apparent that after such a long period of separation, the catechists needed to be drawn out of their "pandemic mindset" and be brought back to that of working with groups. They were blessed to have a trained facilitator to help them; how many of us during these trying times could benefit from the same coaching?
The catechists will continue their studies of the Bible, Christian Initiation, Liturgy, Christology, Social Doctrine of the Church, and much more over the next three years. This is a deep commitment to the evangelization of their neighbors and friends.
As he presided at the closing Mass, Father David Costello, Superior General of The St. James Society said, "The catechist is the elder sibling in the faith, who helps in the formation of the parish, and is the sibling who makes those who receive this service feel like members of the parish family."
Let's pray that the mission Church be blessed with more committed "elder siblings" in faith as well as devoted missionaries to pass it on to them.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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