Enlisting witnesses for Jesus Christ: The challenge of Catechetical Sunday

Written by Sister Kathy Burton
This Sunday, all of the parishes throughout the United States call forth those individuals who have volunteered to serve as catechists in all areas of their parish’s faith formation program encompassing children, teens, young adults, adults, families, seniors. They serve as catechists for RCIA, sacramental preparation, youth/young adult ministry, in short, in all levels of parish lifelong faith formation. But this year’s theme: “Enlisting Witnesses for Jesus Christ,” is not only addressed to those commissioned as catechists, but to all of us. This Sunday, each and every Catholic will be challenged to reflect on his/her own baptismal vocation. Just what does our baptismal vocation call us to?  The answer is easy: Discipleship. What exactly, does a disciple do?  That answer is a bit more challenging.  As disciples, we have been called not only to follow the Gospel but to proclaim it in word and deed.

As our bishops stated in the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC), learning by discipleship is an integral element for effective catechesis. Forming disciples is not only the responsibility of the catechist. It is the responsibility of every baptized Catholic. Discipleship demands a commitment to a way of life. It calls for more than a “textbook” knowledge of the truths of our faith. Like Jesus, who formed his disciples using the ordinary human experiences of daily life, “catechesis links human ordinary experience to the revealed word of God” (NDC 4_A). Effective catechesis enables one to relate the Christian message to one’s life experience. Through comprehensive catechesis, one matures in his/her faith, developing the insight to explore, interpret and judge basic experiences in the light of the Gospel. Therefore, catechesis must be ongoing and lifelong.

This type of catechesis relies on many factors. First and foremost, the family. It is within the context of family life, a child first comes to know the person of Jesus Christ. Catechesis given by parents and family “precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis” (Catechesi Tradendae no. 68). Within the Christian family, parents are the primary educators in faith, “the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children” (Lumen Gentium no 11.). It is within the family that members first learn basic prayers, traditions and conscience formation in the light of Jesus’ teachings. Because of this, parents need the ongoing support and encouragement of the parish community, especially the pastor, parish catechetical leader and all members of the pastoral staff.

Another factor essential for effective, vibrant catechesis is the witness of the parish community. The parish is the place where the Gospel message is received, nourished and expressed and where Christian community is formed. Thus, it is the responsibility of the pastoral staff and the entire parish community to ensure a welcoming environment and a willingness to accompany those seeking to know Jesus more intimately.

“The parish serves as an effective catechetical agent precisely to the extent that it is a clear, living and authentic sacrament of Christ. On the other hand, where a parish is lifeless and stagnant, it undermines both evangelization and catechesis. In such a situation, no catechetical program can be expected to overcome the catechetical message of the parish as a whole” (NDC .4_C).

The witness of the individual catechist provides yet another component necessary for vibrant, strong catechesis. Next to the home and family, the witness of faith filled, well-formed catechists is a critical element in every phase of the catechetical process. Effective catechists are persons fully committed to Jesus Christ, firmly believing in the Gospel and its power to transform our lives. They understand their role as ministers, not volunteers. They are called to witness, in a particular way, “The Joy of the Gospel.” And so, this Sunday, we call forth, commission and promise our support to these generous individuals who have enthusiastically responded to their baptismal vocation to “Enlist witnesses for Jesus Christ.” As we celebrate this particular ministry, let us not forget that we, too, are called by our baptism, to this same discipleship. How will we respond to this same invitation?

Sister Kathy Burton, SSJ is co-director of Faith and Family Life Formation, Lay Ministry Formation, Office of Lifelong Faith Formation, Diocese of Camden.