On 11 May, Pope Francis instituted the formal recognition of the ministry of catechesis, a vocation that is often exercised by the laity. Grant Tungay SJ explains that the formalisation of this ministry is part of Pope Francis’ larger vision to create a synodal Church.
We are entering into the ninth year of the pontificate of Pope Francis. By now, we are getting a fair idea of the themes of this papacy. One central theme for Francis is synodality, seen from the emphasis he places on the synod as a tool for discernment for the Church. But for Francis, synodality is not only expressed in a Synod of Bishops. Synodality helps us to understand some core features of the Church itself.
A synodal Church is a Church in which the Pope, Bishops and lay faithful journey together, all listening and responding to the call of the Holy Spirit. As each person in the Church listens what the Spirit is saying, vocations are born – we are called to serve the community through our talents. As St Paul says, there is One Body, but many gifts given by the Spirit to build up the Church.
Restoring the value of the gift of teaching
One gift that has been undervalued in the past is that of teaching. It is this gift that is beautifully expressed in the work of catechism. Catechists have specific abilities that make them ideal teachers of the faith, transmitting it to future generations. These personal charisms enable them to transmit the faith to young people in a life-giving way. It is precisely these invaluable talents that Pope Francis wants to highlight, in a recent apostolic letter he has dedicated to the ministry of catechism.
On 10 May, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio entitled Antiquum Ministerium, in which he instituted the ministry of catechist. Some people may ask why we need a formal ministry dedicated to catechism, if we already have catechism programmes with catechists?
Seen in the light of the synodal Church that Pope Francis is hoping to build, however, it begins to make sense. He is trying to get the Church to realise that missionary work should not be reserved to the “professionals”, that is, to ordained ministers. By its very nature, the Church is missionary and all is members are called to use their gifts for the building up of the Kingdom. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, “in virtue of their baptism, all members of the People of God have become missionary disciples” (EG § 120). He is trying to nurture a zeal in the heart of every baptised member of the Church to give witness to God.
A secular but complimentary ministry of giving witness
What is this formal ministry of catechist?
First of all, Antiquum Ministerium states that it is a ‘secular ministry’ (AM § 6). This means that it sees the ministry as part of the vocation of lay members of the Church. As Vatican II says, the lay vocation is lived out in the circumstances of family life and secular work, which is different but complimentary to the vocation lived out by ordained members of the Church (Lumen Gentium § 31). Again, the Church is one Body, with many gifts given by the Spirit.
What can a catechist bring to the Body? According to Antiquum Ministerium, every catechist “must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church.” (AM § 6). This means that a candidate for the ministry of catechist is a person who lives out their lay vocation with profound faith, and one who has the ability to nurture in others that same faith which they hold dear. They must also be persons of prayer, and active in the faith community. The ministry of catechesis is, therefore, giving formal recognition to the truly dynamic persons in our parishes, who will play crucial roles in the Church’s missionary outreach.
But practically speaking, what will the ministry entail? This is where it gets interesting. Antiquum Ministerium is silent on the practical details, and Pope Francis has left the Episcopal Conferences to work them out. This is an invitation to these Conferences to be creative in their missionary work. The document gives the Conferences the ability to identify the how catechists are to be formed, as well as the specific service they are to perform. All the document stipulates is that the ministry will be conferred by a formal Rite of Institution in church, and that the Bishops must discern how the programme will give expression to the hopes for this ministry. Also, seeing that the ministry is vocational, the Bishops must ensure that the candidates are suitable for this important work.
Catechists are often underappreciated for the work that they do. This formal ministry of catechist seeks to elevate our awareness of their importance. It also provides the Church with an opportunity to be creative. Every member of the synodal Church which Pope Francis is building is called to evangelise.
The Spirit is calling some members to be teachers, and transmitters of faith to new generations. The hope is that Episcopal Conferences will seize the creative space that Pope Francis has given them for evangelisation, and carve out a bold programme to utilise the gifts of our great teachers of faith.