Editor's Note: This is a beautiful recognition of the vocation of the catechist and a tribute to the generosity and contribututions that catechists continue to offer children, youth, adults, and families throughout the world. Let's us give thanks and pray for one another. - Dan Pierson
I am a conference junkie. Because I’ve given talks at various parish, diocesan and national events for the last twelve years, people often ask, “so what do you see, traveling around the country?” It’s probably a skewed perspective, flying in on Friday night, speaking most of Saturday, then returning to the airport Sunday. Sometimes a longer retreat or workshop gives the chance to know people at a deeper level and communicate over a longer period of time. That kind of experience makes it harder to say goodbye, but is the exception, not the rule.
So much travel: what does it teach? Given the breadth of the action in a truly catholic culture—from Asians in Seattle to Cubans in Miami, from Filippinos in Las Vegas to Latinos in Lubbock, any sweeping generalization sounds suspect. With that caveat comes a firmly optimistic read. For the most part, catechetical activity isn’t generating headlines, but it speaks loud and clear of a robust faith community. In the old cliché, reports of the church’s demise, at least in this arena, are exaggerated.
Come along for an imaginative tour of conferences around the country. Most events, whether in Milwaukee or Monterey, tend to be as similar as the Gap stores at the local mall. The folding chairs for a keynote in the elementary or high school gym, the breakouts in classrooms, are sometime upgraded to hotels or convention centers.
Whatever the site, the spirit is familiar: the planners generously invest abundant time in the details of preparation. On the day itself, hard-working people give up a Saturday to gain personal inspiration or learn techniques of better teaching. The frequent singing of “The Summons” at the opening prayer service is appropriate; participants have responded whole-heartedly to a sometimes inconvenient, often mysterious but always compelling call.
Mostly women, but with a heartening, growing contingent of men, they huddle together over boxed lunches at cafeteria tables and bond intensely. They buy books and CDs, supporting the publishers who help finance these events. They exchange tips on what works and what doesn’t, activities that engage teens and the latest research on adult education. One source of their strength is that they are first friends, who monitor each other’s personal sadnesses and successes. They are quick with a casserole, congratulations or sympathy. No wonder parishioners turn to them so readily during a crisis.
“In media stat virtus,” wrote Thomas Aquinas. “In the middle lies the truth.” Catechists and DREs stand firmly in that middle ground. To most pew folk, they represent the face of the church. Many lay ministers serve as a buffer zone between the people and the hierarchs. If the bishop issues a policy that the altar servers at Confirmation must be shorter than he and wear white gloves, it will generate a buzz and some snickers in the professional network, but most ordinary churchgoers will be spared the drama.
How easily these catechists dismiss institutional wackiness. So my mentor Sister Mary Luke Tobin, SL once waved aside some bishop’s egotism as she would’ve treated mischievous boys on the playground. How gladly the laity get on with real work, how they hunger for genuine, shaped-in-the-trenches spirituality. Their own quest for meaning is a powerful model for those they instruct. Often, the work on the ground runs years ahead of the concepts or policies about it.
While the effort for professional certification is laudable and continues energetically, these people also deserve blue ribbons for dedicated good-heartedness. They know the science of catechesis (and devote countless summers to learning more). More importantly, they practice the art: relating to children, teens and adults with widely different backgrounds, values and yearnings, shaping them into fragile, ever-changing community. Gently, they guide the human search for meaning and the difficult apprenticeship to Christ.
As a speaker who’s only briefly part of each community, I admire from afar their generosity: dipping into their own pockets for supplies, snacks and educational resources. Gamely, they appreciate or participate themselves in the disconnect between immigrant groups and the dominant culture. They communicate in a variety of languages, but their native tongue is care. Many teachers realize they can’t compensate for parental lack of involvement, but do their best to make an hour on Tuesday evening the most power-packed experience they can construct.
Children respond like plants in sunlight to authentic teachers who speak in practical, understandable ways. Parents relate well to catechists who are like themselves, approachable because they live with the same realities of puzzling insurance and tax forms, baffling teenagers, dwindling finances and soaring bills for home repair and health care. Catechists and DREs are more, though: models who with those burdens still find time to read in depth, make occasional retreats or days of prayer, minister to needy people, and create sanctuaries in their homes or classrooms.
They don’t waste time gnashing their teeth over the gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity of their co-workers or parishioners. Instead, they compliment Margaret on a dynamite prayer service, invite Marc and his partner to brunch, remind Najeek about power point class. At the parish level, women denied official validation run the show. Outside the power structure, they’re free to be creative, outpacing theological or canonical theories that may someday explain their work.
What is the wellspring of such activity, what’s the source of their strength? I can only speculate that they are well grounded. The broad acceptance gained through centering prayer or meditation doesn’t dichotomize or polarize. It eschews categories because individuals are so much more interesting and unique. Maybe the official ecumenical movement is stalled in Rome. But Karen from the Lutheran church shares insights with Episcopal women in a Benedictine parish hall.
Furthermore, these devoted workshop attendees have self-selected: they are clearly committed to learning. When I suggest a new idea or intuition, it’s gratifying to see the wave of light wash a participant’s face. “I’d never thought of it that way!” they say without a word. In those rare moments dear to a speaker’s heart, they articulate an inner shift: “you have no idea how much you’ve affected me.” For such moments, it’s worth doing time in airport security.
Another subtopic of the workshop genre, growing in popularity, is the women’s day of prayer. Meticulously prepared in advance, these events “care for the caregivers.” Women flock to a winning combination of sympathetic community, carefully orchestrated details like music and dance, thoughtful gifts, a stimulating speaker and lovely meals. When I was interviewed by a journalist for the local paper before one of these events, he mused, “and all this energy—all this planning work—done without the diocese!”
Later, I thought about his comment. Such creative independence can be explained by one unruly reality: adults insist on being adults. Eight women with other full-time jobs can in their free time organize an event that draws 320--seventy more people than the conference center holds. They are superbly organized and hospitable; they stretch attendees’ imaginations with liturgical dance and new ideas that many in the audience may not have experienced.
Overworked and underpaid, frazzled by dysfunctional relationships, insulted by oppressive hierarchies, and plum tuckered out, catechists and other adults come to workshops to meet a deep need. Galway Kinnell describes it eloquently in his poem “St. Francis and the Sow”:
sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…
retell it in words and touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.
Joined by prayer and common interests, an intergenerational spectrum comes together, conversation sparkles and blessings abound. Informally, seasoned catechists counsel newbies. Grandmothers tell young moms to relax—junior probably won’t become a serial killer.
The interwoven threads of prayer, learning and community are a winning combination. So maybe the Catholic people aren’t nurtured by the weekly homily or the diocesan newspaper. They search elsewhere and are amply rewarded by innovations that surpass boring language and meaningless abstractions.
Such gatherings have become such a vibrant source of energy, I’ll keep coming as long as they’ll have me. See you at the airport Friday.
From The Best Of Being Catholic by Kathy Coffey. Orbis, 2012. It was originally published in National Catholic Reporter, 5/26/11.
Kathy Coffey is speaker, writer, poet, mother of four, grandmother of two. For more information, to review her books, read articles, etc. visit