New catechist ministry shows evangelization at heart of Church, U.S. leaders say

New catechist ministry shows evangelization at heart of Church, U.S. leaders say

Encuentro representatives from the United States meet with German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst, delegate for catechesis at the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, at the Vatican Sept. 16, 2019. At left is Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit. Encuentro representatives were in Rome to present findings from the Fifth National Encuentro to Pope Francis and Vatican officials (Credit: CNS photo).

The U.S. Bishops Conference chairman of evangelization and catechesis views the Vatican’s recently instituted ministry of the catechist as a “beautiful thing” to try to evangelize an increasingly secularized nation, and highlight the importance of catechesis.

NEW YORK – The U.S. Bishops Conference chairman of evangelization and catechesis is calling the Vatican’s recently instituted ministry of the catechist a “beautiful thing” to try to evangelize an increasingly secularized nation.

“This is a way to highlight that we really need to take catechesis seriously because we need people who are officially trained and commissioned to do this important work,” Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis told Crux. “This is the next and a very important step in making sure our catechists are well formed and equipped and well commissioned to do the important work they have to do.”

The new ministry was instituted by Pope Francis on Tuesday. It came in the form of an apostolic letter titled Antiquum Ministerium (“Ancient Ministry”).

The document allows lay men and women “of deep faith and human maturity,” and that are “active participants in the life of the Christian community,” to be instituted as catechists in their local diocese. The pontiff said the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will soon publish the Rite of Institution for the ministry.

Francis also invited national bishops’ conferences to “render effective” the new ministry and to determine “the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria for admission.”

Cozzens said his committee will discuss the document and guidance for bishops to implement the new ministry at the bishops’ June meeting. He doesn’t have a timetable for when something will be implemented, adding they’ll take their time “to make sure we do it well.”

“We’re going to try and do our best to assist bishops to make sure that that relationship (with the catechists) is established well to carry out the work that’s needed,” said Cozzens, noting the importance of the complementary relationship between the bishops and laity.

“This document highlights that this call [to catechist ministry] flows from baptism and when we get the complementarity right between the clergy and the religious and the laity, the church is able to be fully herself,” he continued. “To me, this is not about encroachment of roles or anything like that. This is about allowing the church to become fully herself by properly recognizing a vocation in the church that’s been lived since the beginning.”

Those that work in faith formation and evangelization at the diocesan level also applaud the document, and are looking forward to its implementation in the States.

Father Paul Soper, the secretary for evangelization and discipleship for the Archdiocese of Boston, called it the “continued implementation of the second Vatican council.”

Soper said the document helped formalize the “present reality” of the layperson’s role in catechesis.

“It is abundantly clear to us that the Holy Spirit has given these gifts of teaching, of formation, of catechesis broadly among the lay people of the church and we’re just acknowledging that,” Soper told Crux.

Patrick Krisak, the director of faith formation and missionary discipleship for the Archdiocese of Boston, said one of the benefits of lay men and women being instituted as a catechist is that they can serve as a bridge between the clergy and laity.

“It’s helpful for the laypeople among the parishes at large to have people who are involved in catechesis at the parish and diocesan level who are in their same state in life, and can call them to holiness from within a similar example of a similar state,” he told Crux.

Kevin Foy, the Archdiocese of Chicago director of lifelong formation, said the document is “recognition that the Church exists to make Christ known in people’s everyday realities and the laity live those everyday realities and so of course they need to be lifted up and supported and encouraged to do just that.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois, who has a doctoral degree in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, told Crux the document is a follow-up to extending the role of acolytes and readers to women, which Francis did in January.

“This is another step of saying that there’s another ministry in the church that is very important,” Paprocki said. “Lector and acolyte are more associated with the liturgy, while the ministry of catechist is associated with evangelization.”

In a conversation with Crux, Jemima Rosario Sullivan, a professor of catechetics at the Catholic University of America, called the document “providential” for the U.S., in particular given the rise in religious disaffiliation and decline in church membership from the younger generations.

She said it puts the ministry of the catechist back at the forefront of the church.

“It seems to be saying the ministry of the catechist is not an isolated activity that takes place on the margins or kind of peripheries of church or parish life, but it’s really at the heart of the church’s evangelizing mission,” Sullivan said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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