Vigorous Engagement •  Participants take part in a roundtable and question-and-answer session during the formation day.
Vigorous Engagement •  Participants take part in a roundtable and question-and-answer session during the formation day.

Story by Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Gathered for a roundtable discussion with more than 100 catechists, international formation-education consultant Sister Patricia McCormack relayed an important message – conveying their own devotion to Jesus is the most important gift they can give their students.

Photo Gallery: Diocesan Formation Day for Catechists

“Books won’t do it if we are not authentic. While we may not have all the answers, we know the one who does know all the answers,” the Immaculate Heart of Mary sister said. “Be people who are willing to share. Smile, that’s very important. Keep in mind that you are here to serve. … If you get criticism, ask [yourself], ‘What’s the message in that? What can I learn from that?”

Those suggestions as well as words of encouragement and ways to become re-energized in the ministry of catechesis were highlights of the annual formation day hosted Feb. 3 by the diocesan Department of Catechesis in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

The day, which was open to catechists, parish catechetical leaders and anyone using home study for religious education, featured Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and a keynote address on “Structure for Success – Tips that Replace ‘Survive’ with ‘Thrive’” by Sister Patricia.

Sister Patricia, author of “Energizing the Parking Lot Parent: a Catechist’s Guide to Fostering Parent Participation,” shared knowledge from her own extensive classroom and administrative experiences working at the elementary, secondary and college levels.

Part of her talk included offering organizational tips and suggestions on how catechists can better prepare for their sessions as well as ways to engage both students during class and parents in their children’s faith development. Among the many points she covered was the manner of approach a catechist may use, especially when facing a challenging situation with students and their families. The bottom line, she said, was for catechists to focus on the positive in their ministry and to remain committed to promoting the Gospel values.

Questions Before the Crowd

During Mass, which included concelebrants Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education, and Msgr. Sam Sirianni, Co-Cathedral rector, Bishop O’Connell preached the homily and reflected on the themes of the day’s Readings, applying them to areas pertinent to catechetical ministry.

He asked the congregation to reflect on the First Reading, when God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” The Bishop asked those gathered to reflect on how they would respond if God appeared to them in a dream and asked the same question.

The answer, he said, is important “because it probably says a lot about you and what you value most, a self-revelation.” But more important than the response is calling to mind the action of what it means to having “placed ourselves in the middle of God’s Word.”

Speaking on the Gospel Reading, the Bishop told how the Lord invited his Apostles to take a break from their ministry and rest, but the vast crowds continued to follow. Jesus, too, was moved with pity for the crowds, put his own time of rest aside and went about ministering to the crowds.

Similarly, Bishop O’Connell once again asked the catechetical ministers to place themselves in the middle of God’s Word and reflect upon how they would respond to their own communities.

“[Jesus’] Word and work surround you as does the crowd who come to you for catechesis,” he said, and “while the crowd may not be vast and they may not all be ‘hastening from all the towns,’ they come from our parishes and families.”

“What is in your heart as you see them? Pity, care and concern? The desire to shepherd them by your role?” he asked before reminded them of what was in Jesus’ heart as he set aside his own need for rest and “began to teach them many things.”

“And that is what you do, what we do as his disciples. As Catechists, we ‘teach many things,’ from hearts that are full,” Bishop O’Connell said.

‘Teaching from the Heart’

Brian Jefferes, diocesan associate director of catechesis, said the day provided a good combination of spirituality and useful tools for the classroom and networking, and catechists in attendance agreed.

Lorraine Buffalino of St. Catharine of Genoa Parish, Holmdel, said she came away from the session refreshed and energized.

“We were assured that as long as you are teaching from the heart, and children know that you care about them, you can make them feel comfortable and welcomed,” said Buffalino, who teaches first-grade children.

Margaret Zola, coordinator of religious education in St. Mary Parish, Bordentown, and Sts. Francis and Clare Parish, Florence Township, said the affirmation received from Bishop O’Connell and Sister Patricia was reassuring for any catechist.

“Our catechists, aides and hall monitors aren’t just volunteers,” Zola said. “They don’t just give of themselves weekly – they prepare for class over an hour a week. They are the ones engaging the students. I couldn’t do this program without their help. Sister Pat reassured me that we are all the ‘I’ in Evangelize.”