Cardinal Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, and in charge of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Conference of the Mexican Episcopate (CEM), offers Exaudi’s readers his weekly article entitled “The Ministry of the Catechist.”
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At Pope Francis’ initiative, next Sunday, Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, the whole Church will celebrate the Sunday of the Word, whose objective is that the ecclesial community give more importance to Sacred Scripture in Christian life. To this end, the Pope will confer the Ministry of Catechist to several individuals from different parts of the world, including women. It is the acknowledgment of an evangelizing service that many laymen and laywomen have always carried out, and a mission that the Church entrusts to them and confirms. In addition, the Pope will institute the lay ministries of Lector and Acolyte conferring it on several men and women. There will be no lack of those that consider this a small step to women’s priesthood. However, it’s none of that!
I am the son of a catechist, a peasant who could hardly read or write, as at that time there was no school in the small village. The parish priest came every now and then to celebrate Mass. My father used to take a Spanish priest, missionary, and Passionist especially for feasts and “First Fridays,” to hear confessions., offer the Mass, and assist the sick. Evangelization and catechesis were supported by my father, educated for this by my grandmother Rosa. Maiden aunts were in charge of us children, with a traditional weekly catechesis, to prepare us for our First Communion. My father belonged to Catholic Action and frequented the course imparted there, to be trained. On Sundays, he presided over what they called the “Peasants’ Mass,” without a priest. Everything was done as in a normal Mass, with prayers and biblical readings, but without Consecration or Communion, as is done today in Celebrations of the Word. As my father didn’t read very well, he asked someone to do the readings and he would explain them, in something equivalent to a homily, with the cordial acceptance of the community. He also taught weekly subjects to young boys, to girls, to women, and men of Catholic Action for their Christian formation. When the first Bishop arrived of our new diocese and the first parish priest was appointed, the Bishop said that my village was attended better by my father, than by the priest . . . That is how my priestly vocation was born and grew. This was over 70 years ago.
The service of the women catechists has been essential in preserving the faith in our communities. Now it is recognized as a ministry with a liturgical rite, but its importance has always been notable. What would become of the Church without their service?
In my previous dioceses, for a population of over two million inhabitants, the majority indigenous, with just over one hundred priests and some two hundred women religious, there is the exemplary service of some 6,000 men catechists for the dispersed communities, in addition to 2,000 women, almost all young, for the children in the urban centers. As they have to cross over mountains and go to distant places, it’s the men that give this service, all speakers of their native languages. They are an incredible force of evangelization. Wherever they work, there is less of a presence of Protestant denominations. Their service is for free and their formation is permanent. Some have been doing this for many years, with great acceptance by the community. They are chosen for other communitarian tasks for their capacity and generous self-giving, including of a political nature, as they are recognized as good servants of the community. Of course, not all are candidates for this ministry, but only those that assume it as a life commitment, and not just for a few years.
In his Motu Proprio entitled Antiquum Ministerium, Pope Francis says: “The ministry of Catechist in the Church is very ancient. It is a common opinion among theologians that the first examples of it are found in the writings of the New Testament (1). “Since its origins, the Christian community has experienced a broad form of ministry, which has been made concrete in the service of men and women that, obedient to the action of the Holy Spirit, have dedicated their lives to the upbuilding of the Church. In the great charismatic tradition of the New Testament, it’s possible to recognize the active presence of baptized people, who carried out the ministry of transmitting in a more organic, permanent way and linked to the different circumstances of life, the teaching of the Apostles and the evangelizers” (2).
“May capable and constant catechists are at the head of communities in diverse regions and they carry out an irreplaceable mission in the transmission and deepening of the faith” (3).
Without any prejudice to the mission proper of the Bishop, who is the first catechist in his diocese together with the priests, with whom he shares the same pastoral care, and to the particular responsibility of the parents in regard to the Christian formation of their children, it’s necessary to recognize the presence of laymen and laywomen who, in virtue of their Baptism, feel called to collaborate in the service of catechesis” (5).
“In fact, the catechist is called, in the first place, to manifest his competence in the pastoral service of transmission of the faith, which develops in its different stages: from the first proclamation that introduces the kerygma, passing through the teaching that makes one aware of the new life in Christ and prepares in particular to the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, up to permanent formation, which enables each baptized person always to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). At the same time, a catechist is a witness of the faith, teacher and mystagogue, accompanier and pedagogue who teaches in the name of the Church. An identity that can only develop with coherence and responsibility through prayer, study and direct participation in the life of the community” (6).
It is appropriate that men and women of profound faith and human maturity be called to the instituted ministry of Catechist, who take part actively in the life of the Christian community, who can be welcoming, generous and live in fraternal communion, who receive the due biblical, theological, pastoral and pedagogical formation, to be attentive communicators of the truth of the faith, and who have already had a previous catechetical experience. They must be faithful collaborators of the priests and the deacons, willing to carry out their ministry wherever it is necessary, and animated by true apostolic enthusiasm” (8).
Let us remember our catechists and be grateful. Let us pray to the Holy Spirit that He may give this charism to many laymen and laywomen, and find their vocation in this ministry, so essential to the Christian life of the communities. Women religious, priests and Bishops, let us discover this vocation in our pastoral agents and let us be encouraged to trust in their service.