Bishop O'Connell celebrates Mass for the gathering of parish catechetical leaders in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
Bishop O'Connell celebrates Mass for the gathering of parish catechetical leaders in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
Persons in any leadership position should be trained in their specific field, including catechists who teach others about the Catholic faith.

The training of catechists served as the focus of the virtual keynote presentation given by Dr. Joseph White to the 75 parish catechetical leaders who attended the annual Convocation of Catechetical Leaders Sept. 9 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

“The ministry of catechesis is a critical one in the Church, and like all individual positions of leadership and ministry in the Church, formation is required,” said Dr. White.

“In catechesis, we are not handing on our own opinions, we are ‘echoing’ the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, so it’s important to be formed in what that teaching is and how to hand it on.”

Along with Dr. White’s address, other highlights of the convocation that was sponsored by the diocesan Department of Catechesis, were the Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., at the start of the day and the presentation of the 14th annual Chick McGinty Award for “Excellence in Catechetical Ministry” to Marge Halloran, the retiring parish catechetical leader in St. Joseph Parish, Toms River.

Bishop O’Connell made a striking analogy in his homily between the PCLs’ call to serve as instructors in the Catholic faith and the actions of a swimmer. He reminded the PCLs of how it was at their Baptism into the Catholic Christian community when they were initially commissioned to live their faith in witness to the Gospel of Christ. Then, he continued, “at various moments in our lives, that commission surfaces, like a swimmer emerging from water to breathe deeply the fresh air of renewed energy.” Such a moment for a commission to surface would be during the preparation and reception of the Sacraments and the life that follows them.

“Catholic religious educational programs are such moments as is everything they contain and attempt to accomplish in the lives they instruct and inspire,” he said. “The experience of Church through the gatherings of the Christian community in prayer and service are such moments as is the identification of oneself as Catholic. As catechetical leaders, all these moments are in our hands, with the grace of God, to create, foster, and engage in the lives of those God places in our path.

“What a sacred trust that has been given us by and within the Church! What an awesome responsibility! What a profound opportunity!” Bishop O’Connell said, adding that none of the works will be successful “If we, as leaders of the Church’s catechetical efforts, are not convinced of the truth ourselves – the compelling truth – of our Catholic faith. And we invite our catechists to help those entrusted to our care to make that faith a way of life.”

Dr. White based his presentation primarily on the fourth chapter of the Directory for Catechesis, “The Formation of Catechists,” which was released in 2020 and provides the how-to guidelines for catechesis and universal norms for guiding evangelization.

Part of the chapter Dr. White reviewed included the three dimensions the of catechist formation: Being (and knowing-how-to-be-with), which focuses on the catechists own spirituality and capacity for relationship with God and with others;  Knowledge, which includes both knowledge about the core teachings of the Catholic faith and of how people learn and grow, and Savoir-Faire (a French phase that means “know-how,”) which focuses on the methods and best practices for communicating the faith.

“I’m hoping catechetical leaders will highlight with their catechists the importance of all three dimensions and also [emphasize] the idea that we always have more room to grow in each of these areas,” he said. “Formation, in the Christian life and in catechetical ministry, is an ongoing process.”

A dialogue with Dr. White gave the PCLs the opportunity to ask questions and for advice about logistics and concerns when recruiting catechists and their formation. He admitted finding it troubling when PCLs indicated having difficulty recruiting catechists post-pandemic, and that they are hesitant about “asking [too] much of their volunteers” out of fear they will scare some people away.

“While we don’t want to insist that people come to us with a theology degree, it is OK, and I think important, to ask that they discern a true call from God for the ministry,” Dr. White advised. “It would be better to have a few highly motivated catechists who are eager to learn than many volunteers who aren’t sure this is where they belong. We must be excited about sharing the faith if we want to engage our learners on a path of lifelong discipleship.”

Dr. White added that he enjoyed hearing a PCL make the distinction between formal and informal types of catechist formation, then responded by saying, “We need to be creative in the opportunities we give our catechists to form themselves.

“Through individual conversations in which we assess needs, we can begin to point people to articles, books and resources on the internet to help them grow,” he said.

After noting that the convocation provided her some time to take a break and remember that her “job” is to help her students and their families enter a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, Paula DeStefano, coordinator of elementary catechesis in St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, reflected on how Dr. White’s discussion of knowledge and methodology “really struck home.

“A successful catechist must have techniques to effectively convey the faith, but without a solid foundation in the faith, you can’t support others on their faith journey,” DeStefano said. She added that it’s her hope “to offer our catechists a place to openly share their faith with their students while at the same time providing opportunities to grow in their own faith.”