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As was announced, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, the official version was presented of Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio, instituting the Church’s ministry of catechist to those that dedicate themselves to formation in the faith, not only in the preparation for the Sacraments, but also in the integral formation of the human being that accepts Jesus and His Church, and that is able to change his/her life, to be consistent with the exigencies of the faith. It is an official recognition that the Church offers to the many men and women who have given a great part, if not all their life to maintain the faith, hope, and charity of all the faithful, accompanying the different processes of life among which are the Sacraments.
For some unknown reason, last week unofficial versions circulated on the Internet with grave errors, which confused many people. Monsignor Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization lamented these faulty presentations. Therefore, we waited for the official version published by the Vatican on its official page, to present an article of substance.
A Bit of Close History
Vatican Council II offered the Church a renewed aspect of her mission in the contemporary world. And from there, we can reflect on some ideas that led to this important moment.
One point is the renewed Theology of Revelation and of the Faith, in keeping with the Constitution Dei Verbum (DV), the relationship between Revelation and faith. In the Last Supper with His Apostles, Jesus promised to send them the Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). And the Church continues to hand down to future generations “the whole and living Gospel in herself” (DV 7), following attentively at the same time the Spirit to grow in the integral understanding of the things and words transmitted (cf. DV 8). Over the last decades, the Church has moved from conceiving Revelation and faith in a noetic key (of truths and intelligence) to conceiving it in an interpersonal key (of encounter between God and the human person). According to the Constitution Dei Verbum, Revelation is the self-manifestation and donation of God Himself; His Mediator and fullness, Christ, the Incarnate Son, in union with the Spirit. Before being an inspired book and revealed truth, the Word of God is presence and brimming action of God in the human community, in the key of communication of Himself.
According to Vatican II, “through faith” the human being “gives himself totally and freely to God, offers Him the full homage of his understanding and will, freely assenting to what God reveals. To give this answer of faith, God’s grace is necessary, which anticipates us and helps us together with the interior aid of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart, directs it to God, opens the eyes of the spirit and gives enjoyment to accept and believe the truth” (DV 5).
Revelation, Faith, and Catechesis
When Revelation was conceived as communication of revealed and accepted truths by faith as truths, catechesis was imparted in the key of Christian illumination of the intelligence by the data revealed and its retention in the religious memory. Thus the Christian was an illustrated believer. However, in Revelation conceived as Word of God, and faith as personal attitude, the new face of catechesis is discovered. As service of the Word, it is above all, initiation to the personal encounter with Christ, the Lord, in which He communicates to us the living mystery of his Person and His plan of salvation and communion. At the same time, faith is vital communion with Him and with people linked to Him. Catechesis, as a servant of the Word of God that is incarnated in cultures (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 58), fosters this inculturation to make more transparent God’s call to human beings of all times and places (GS 44). And faith is the operative response at the service of the world. Finally, as a servant of the Word, gift of the Spirit, catechesis needs an atmosphere of welcome and docility to It, without being limited to the support of human laws of communication and organization. It calls for moments of prayer and contemplation. In turn, this faith is lived as free gift in need of the breath of the Spirit.
The new way of understanding the Church’s Theology (Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Ad Gentes), in fact, the whole Council is ecclesiological; ecclesiology is dispersed in all its Documents. A Church that understood herself as a perfect society, arbiter of all truth and highly hierarchical institution under the Pope’s authority, has become with Vatican II: People of God on the way, mystery, and event, Sacrament of salvation and Tradition, present in the world and servant of the world, missionary and evangelizer, a Church of communion and dynamic community, open to the future and to the poor.
The new conception of evangelization (Ad Gentes): during the ’60s and part of the ’70s the term evangelization had a limited meaning to the proclamation of the Gospel to believers, geared to their conversion. In Vatican II, the term acquires in general “broader meaning.” In fact, in Ad Gentes the term evangelization encompasses all those actions that lead people to pass from non-faith to faith, to mature their faith, and to integrate themselves into the Christian community through the celebration of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation (AG 1-14).
A Long-Awaited Ministry
Listening to the voices of Pastors of different places of the world, and attentive to the recommendations of Vatican Council II, with the authority proper to him, Pope Francis signed the Motu Proprio Antiquum Ministerium. In it he makes very clear what a lay ministry is (it’s not that consecrated persons are outside of it, but they already must dedicate themselves to their vocation to teaching the faith). It was necessary, very necessary that the Successor of Peter, take up what the first disciples had. The very apt name of the Document tells us that this ministry isn’t a “novelty” in the Church. Now it’s official, and that is its novelty. It is for the Church of the Third Millennium.
In many books on the study, formation, and spirituality of the lay catechist, often there is talk of “ministeriality.” It’s an activity that, “in fact,” always existed in the Church. And, in the presentation of the Document, there was talk of the thousands of men and women that have served the transmission of the “beauty of the faith.” With their lay lives, those catechists were always and will be witnesses of this encounter with the Risen Lord.
Quoting Saint Paul VI, it was said: “These ministries, seemingly new but very linked to experiences lived by the Church in the course of her existence — for example, that of the catechist . . . –, are precious for the implantation, life, and growth of the Church and for their capacity to radiate themselves around her and to those that are far” from her (EN 73).
In the presentation of the Document, Monsignor Fisichella emphasized: “To institute a ministry on the part of the Church equals to establish that the person invested with that charism is carrying out a genuine ecclesial service to the community. The ministry is strongly associated to the first communities that, from the beginning of their existence, enjoyed the presence of men and women dedicated to carrying out certain services in particular.”
Pope Francis’ conclusion is very clear: “There is a numerous laity, although not enough, with a rooted sense of community and great fidelity in the commitment of charity, catechesis, and celebration of the faith.” Deduced from this is that to receive a lay ministry, as that of the catechist, gives greater emphasis to the missionary commitment proper of each baptized person, which in any case must be carried out in a fully secular way without falling into any expression of clericalization” (Angtiquum Ministerium, 7). At stake in this conclusion is a good part of the novelty that this ministry contributes: men and women are called to express in the best way possible their baptismal vocation, not as substitutes of priests or of consecrated persons, but as genuine lay men and lay women that, in the particularity of their ministry, make it possible to experience in all its extension the baptismal call to witness and to effective service in the community and in the world.
Monsignor Fisichella also said that it “is evident that not all those that are catechists today will be able to accede to the ministry of catechist. This ministry is reserved to those that fulfill certain requisites that the Motu Proprio enumerates. In the first place, that of the vocational dimension to serve the Church where the Bishop considers him most qualified. The ministry is not given for personal gratification, but for the service that it is hoped it will give to the local Church and to the service where the Bishop considers necessary the presence of the catechist. It must not be forgotten that in different regions where the presence of priests is lacking or scarce, the figure of the catechist is that of one who presides over the community and keeps it rooted in the faith.”
For his part Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst explained three points to understand Antiquum Ministerium (AM):
- The ministry of the catechist is opposed to a clericalization of the laity and to a laicization of the clergy. To establish these notable affirmations will help to understand the spirituality of the Church in Communion, where all of us baptized exercise our ministry.
- The ministry of the catechist is carried out in a spirituality of community and in a spirituality of prayer. The catechist responds to his vocation in the Church in a particular way with the proclamation of the teachings of the Gospel. Therefore, it presupposes the catechist’s integration in the communion of the Church and exacts a constant communication with God and with the faithful.
- The catechist’s ministry is a service that is acquired with a specific and solid formation. Thus it is guaranteed only when the catechist is accompanied and qualified for this vocation and specific task. It’s precisely in this context in which the Church has the opportunity to transmit the specificity of the vocation and mission of the catechist.
10 Keys to Read Antiquum Ministerium
Observed, from an initial appreciation, are these keys that can help us to understand better that
- The ministry of the catechist is very ancient, noted clearly from the first disciples is the “missionary nature of the disciple.” The basis of the New Testament establishes with crystal clarity that: From its origins, the Christian community has experienced a broad form of ministeriality made concrete in the service of men and women that, obedient to the action of the Holy Spirit, have dedicated their lives to the building of the Church . . . The Church wished to recognize this service as a concrete expression of the personal charism, which has greatly fostered the exercise of her evangelizing mission. A glance at the life of the first Christian communities, which were committed to the spread and carrying out of the Gospel also urges the Church today to understand what new expression there can be with which she can continue to be faithful to the Word of the Lord to have His Gospel reach every creature.” (AM 2).
- The memory of the long list of Blessed, Saint and Martyrs Catechists has marked the Church’s mission, which deserves to be known because it is a fruitful source, not only for catechesis but for the whole history of Christian spirituality . . . In our days also, many capable and constant catechists are at the head of communities in different regions and carry out an irreplaceable mission in the transmission and deepening of the faith” (AM 3).
- The catechist opens paths and “plants the Church” to continue in communion (AM 4). The person of the catechist is necessary to evangelize many multitudes and to propagate the faith.
- Fidelity to the past and responsibility for the present are the indispensable conditions for the Church to be able to carry out her mission in the world. For that, it’s necessary to recognize the presence of laymen and laywomen that, in virtue of their Baptism, feel called to collaborate in the service of catechesis. In our days, this presence is even more urgent due to the renewed awareness of evangelization in the contemporary world, and to the imposition of a globalized culture, which calls for a genuine encounter with the young generations, not forgetting the need for creative methodologies and instruments, which make the proclamation of the Gospel coherent with the missionary transformation that the Church has undertaken (AM 5).
- Salt of the earth and light of the world. The person of the catechist with his/her secular vocation gives credible witness of this encounter with the Risen Jesus (AM 6).
- The transmission of the faith, which is carried out in its different stages: from the first proclamation that introduces the kerygma, going through the teaching that makes one aware of the new life in Christ and prepares, in particular, for the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, to the permanent formation that enables each baptized person to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) (AM 6).
- The catechist is at the same time witness of the faith, teacher and mystagogue, accompanier and pedagogue who teaches in the name of the Church. It is an identity that can only be carried out coherently and responsibly through prayer, study, and direct participation in the life of the community (AM 60.
- To receive a lay ministry, such as that of the catechist, gives greater emphasis to the missionary commitment of every baptized person, which in any case must be carried out in a fully secular way without falling into any expression of clericalization (AM 8).
- The ministry of the catechist has strong vocational value. In fact, it is a stable service given to the local Church according to the pastoral needs identified by the Ordinary of the place but realized in a lay way as exacted by the very nature of the ministry (AM 7). The vocation to be a catechist must be promoted and evidently formed.
- The Episcopal Conferences are invited to institute the ministry of catechist, establishing the styles and itinerary of formation and the Rites of Institution (AM 9).
Knowing so many Religious Congregations and Institutions as well as Associations of Faithful dedicated to Formation, I believe that a new stage is beginning for the commitment to form missionary disciples.