By Sister Mary Agnes Ryan | Special Contributor 

We celebrate and give thanks always, at all times and in all places, but most especially this month for those involved in faith formation and religious instruction in all our parishes.

Those include parish catechetical leaders, parish catechists, adult faith formation catechists, RCIA catechists and  those in our Catholic elementary and secondary schools – all those who provide instruction and formation in the faith for God’s people, who witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his values. 

The theme for Catechetical Sunday 2017, Sept. 17 this year, is “Living as Missionary Disciples.” This theme permeated many of the sessions at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders gathering in Orlando from July 1-4. Several of the keynote speakers in the plenary sessions, panelists, and breakout session presenters addressed aspects of this topic. 

Some questions surfaced that invite each of us to ponder, make some judgments and act.  While these questions look at the country as a whole, each of us can ask them regarding our own parish programs.

• What are the challenges and opportunities we face at this moment in time in the culture and in the United States? 

• What does it mean to be a Church on mission, or a Church of missionary disciples?

• Where are we called to go?

• What are the best practices, tools, resources for advancing the Gospel now and into the future?

Let us consider some responses! Some of the challenges we face can seem daunting:  a statistic shared was that for every one person who comes into the Church, six leave; consistent decline in the practice of the faith; fewer adults identifying as Roman Catholics (or even with any designated religious denomination); fewer parents sending their children to any kind of faith formation in a parish, whether in a Catholic school or parish religious education program.

Opportunities do abound, however! Can we rethink how we encounter the people who come through our doors – the parish church door, the parish office door, the parish school door, the parish religious education office door? There are potential “moments of return” for many whom never come to a formal Church service or gathering. How do we greet them, and what do we offer? What changes do we need to make in our programs and classrooms so that those we encounter will see the Good News so lived in our lives that it will become a living invitation?

What does it mean to be a Church on mission? “Pope Paul VI in 1974 reawakened the Church’s evangelizing mission, St. John Paul II heralded the call for the New Evangelization, and Pope Francis situates the ministry of catechesis within the process of missionary discipleship.” (Living as Missionary Disciples. USCCB. p. i. 2017) 

The challenge given to us is to look at how we are evangelizing those who are in the pews now, those who used to be with us and those who do not know Jesus Christ. Pope Francis invites us to encounter, accompany and become spirit-filled evangelizers to all. As parish catechetical leaders and catechists, how are we evangelizing those parents of the young people to whom we minister who do not regularly participate in Sunday Mass?

Catechetical leaders and parish catechists in all areas of faith formation are called to be people who invite others into an encounter with Jesus Christ, to share time and life with those few who become part of my life and ministry who will then go out and encounter others. Each of us is called to accompany those who have encountered Jesus Christ in a personal relationship. Relationship is everything as we have heard! We are then faced with two fundamental questions:

• What do I need to learn so that I can think with the mind of Christ and

• What do I need to be formed in to live with the character of Christ? (LMD, p. 26)

Jesus Christ himself has given us the method! 

• Come and see (encounter)     

• Follow Me (accompany)

• Remain in Me (community)    

• Go therefore and make disciples of All Nations (Send). (LMD, p. ii)

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called, says Pope Francis, to go to the peripheries. Who are on the peripheries in your parish programs? The peripheries are where the castoffs of the “throwaway culture” are discarded. Who are the people on the edge of your vision that need greater attention? We are invited to see with new eyes.

In order to develop best practices, let us look at the Method Modeled by the Master, Jesus Christ. “We look to Jesus, the master, who personally formed his apostles and disciples.  Christ himself teaches us how to evangelize, how to invite people into communion with him, and how to create a culture of witness; namely, through love, mercy and joy. (LMD, p. ii)

Jesus gives us this method in three distinct stages!

1) He draws His disciples into friendship: win people into friendship both with yourself and with God through an encounter.  2) He trains them through his public ministry; build them up into the practice of the faith by accompanying them. 3) He calls and commissions them in the Great Commission; send them out to do the same by helping them to be spirit-filled evangelists and multipliers. (Making Missionary Disciples, p. 20)  This we are called to do in all the many programs our parishes offer.

All of us, in whatever ministry we find ourselves, need to continue to develop habits that give the method the power to work, that foster fruitful discipleship. Some of the ways we do this are the following: being in deep, intimate, lifelong, life-giving, covenantal love (relationship) with the living God – it is a gift but must be nurtured once it is received, and it is nurtured by frequent reading and reflecting upon sacred Scripture; by participation in the sacramental life of the Church, especially in the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist; by daily mental prayer; by cultivating a devotional life (such as praying the Rosary), and by service to the poor.               

Each of you is called to be a spirit-filled evangelist. “As St. Catherine of Siena put it, ‘If you are what you were meant to be, you would set the world on fire.’” (MMD, p.16) 

As Jesus told his disciples, he tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28:19)

Go forth this year and be an amazing catechist and be that fire that ignites the love of God in all those you encounter.

Immaculate Heart Sister Mary Agnes Ryan serves as diocesan director of the Department of Catechesis. She was among the delegation from the Diocese of Trenton to attend the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” convened by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in July in Orlando.