The Bishop of a diocese is considered the Church’s official “teacher” of the Catholic people entrusted to his care in a particular region. That responsibility is derived from the three-fold mission of Christ that he shares by virtue of his episcopal ordination and consecration: “to teach, to govern, to sanctify.”

The Bishop “teaches” in many ways, primarily through his preaching of the Word of God and other formal instructions; through his pastoral writings and other communication with the local Church; through his sacramental ministry; and through the witness of his other ministries as well as his life and presence among the people of God in the diocese.

In a Diocese the size of Trenton, with approximately 735,000 Catholics, reaching out and teaching all the faithful is a tall order. The Bishop could not possibly fulfill his teaching responsibilities alone. For that reason, the Bishop depends upon collaborators from among the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese who are well prepared to engage in the ministry of religious education and formation known as “catechesis.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that:

Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church’s efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.

“Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.”

While not being formally identified with them, catechesis is built on a certain number of elements of the Church’s pastoral mission which have a catechetical aspect, that prepare for catechesis, or spring from it. They are: the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching to arouse faith; examination of the reasons for belief; experience of Christian living; celebration of the Sacraments; integration into the ecclesial community; and apostolic and missionary witness.

“Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life. Not only her geographical extension and numerical increase, but even more her inner growth and correspondence with God’s plan depend essentially on catechesis (CCC, Prologue, II, “Handing on the Faith: Catechesis”, 4-7).”

A copy of the Catechism, however, and access to a Google search engine do not a catechist make! Lay catechists who are designated in their parishes to help the Bishop discharge his teaching responsibility do so in virtue of their baptism, their training in the faith and teachings of the Church, their commission as catechists and the lived witness of their Catholic Christian lives.

In his first encyclical letter Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote,

Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole…hence the need for vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety…and that all aspects of the profession of faith are duly emphasized (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, June 29, 203, art. 48).

To be an authentic, effective catechist, therefore, one must know the faith – that is, the faith of the Catholic Church – well enough to be able to share it wholly and integrally with those for whom they have received their catechetical commission.  Knowledge alone, however, is not enough.  To be an authentic, effective catechist, one must live their faith in witness to the Gospel and be recognized within the community of believers for that witness.

Catechesis, then, begins with the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ and embraces that proclamation faithfully as it is embodied in the teachings of the Church and its liturgical, sacramental and moral life.  It is not “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” It is not a “cafeteria menu” that one picks and chooses from among its offerings. It is the faith of the Catholic Church, whole and entire, joyfully and attractively presented, leading to a deeper conviction and commitment to its truth in the living of a Catholic Christian life.

Every year, on the third Sunday in September, the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates “Catechetical Sunday,” this year on September 20.  The theme chosen this year by the United States Conference of Bishops is taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you (1 Cor 11:23).”  That is an apt description of the work of catechesis and evangelization.  It points to both the substance – what I received and handed on – and the relationality – from the Lord to me and through me to you – of catechetical activity.

Catechetical Sunday offers us, as Catholics, a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the role that each baptized person plays in handing on the faith and witnessing to the Gospel.  Catechists have a special ministry among the baptized faithful, a “missionary vocation,” as Pope Francis has often spoken of it.

The Diocese of Trenton is especially blessed by those who have committed themselves to deepening their own faith as they enrich the life and faith of those they teach in our parish based religious education and adult faith formation programs.  Collaborating with the diocesan departments of Catechesis and of Evangelization, our lay catechists not only instruct in and impart the Catholic faith – they inspire!  As Bishop, I am exceedingly grateful to the baptized and commissioned faithful who help me fulfill my own teaching office and responsibilities.  I humbly offer you my prayer and blessing.

In closing, for our celebration of Catechetical Sunday this year, let me share with you words Pope Francis once directed to catechists:

Being a catechist is not a title; it is an attitude of biding with Him and it lasts a lifetime.  It means abiding in the Lord’s presence and letting ourselves be led by him (“Address of Pope Francis to the International Congress of Catechists,” Rome, September 27, 2013).

Catechists are people who keep the memory of God alive; they keep it alive in themselves and they are able to revive it in others (Pope Francis, “Homily for Mass of the World Day of Catechists,” Rome, September 29, 2013).

So, keep this in mind: I didn’t say to do the “work” of catechists, but to “be catechists, because this is something that embraces our whole life. It means leading people to encounter Christ by our words and our lives, by giving witness (Pope Francis, Address to pilgrims, Year of Faith and of the International Congress on Catechesis, September 27, 2013).

To those who have served in the diocesan offices and for those who have been catechists in our parishes over the years, a heartfelt “thank you.”  To those just beginning this ministry, “welcome, and God’s blessings.”  To the whole local Church of the Diocese of Trenton, let us all, together, thank God for the blessings he has given us in and through our catechists and their ministry.  Let us pray:

Loving Father, we pray today for our catechists. We thank you for their gift of ministry in your Church. Grant them your wisdom; that they may grow in the understanding and teaching of your Word. Grant them also your love; that they may be fruitful heralds of your Word and lead others to love you. Pour forth your Holy Spirit upon them to grant them wisdom about what is important; knowledge of the truths of faith; understanding of their meaning; right judgement about how to apply them in life; courage to persevere even in the face of adversity; reverence before all that is sacred and holy; and that loving zeal which leads others to a transforming encounter with your Son. We pray this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.