Even the best intentioned catechist with years of field experience is often shocked by how, in all that time, he or she has barely scratched the surface of theological understanding. Let me give a personal example. I am currently reading the second volume of Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, a masterful study of what we can know about the historical Jesus and the heart of his teaching. I read the first volume some years ago; it ran to 1,000 pages. The current volume in my hands is near 1,100 pages. And there are three volumes to follow!! My Scriptural competence, next to that, is peanuts. Here is terrific medicine to combat the sins of complacency and pride, at least for my exalted and erroneous sense of my religious competence.
I had a catechist under my own supervision many years ago who told me point blank she would not teach above the first grade because she had no interest in continuing education beyond what she needed for her weekly class. I found this unacceptable for a number of reasons. In the first instance, teaching the faith to even the youngest of children involves—of law and necessity—involvement with their parents and guardians, who will bring adult questions to the table. Secondly, I am wary of teachers at any level who lack a passion for their disciplines, even when it is not religion. We’ve all had courses in our educational histories where the gym teacher taught Shakespeare of necessity, and we know how well that works.
But most significantly, the professional development of the religious minister, teacher, or catechist is an act of faith. The term “theology” (loosely translated) is the study of God. The catechist who develops passion for the sacred science is in fact growing closer to God. Enthusiasm for religious study is a public manifestation of faith, a self-energized engagement in the New Evangelization.
I am not unaware of the many difficulties that face catechists who wish to grow in theological competence. I will cite one at length, the contrast between seminary preparation and catechetical preparation. In my day (sounding here like Abe Lincoln) priestly training could extend up to twelve years. Today it is in the neighborhood of 6-8 years and a good priest will tell you that this is not really enough. The catechist, by contrast, gets thrown to the wolves from day one, often in response to a late August desperate appeal in the church bulletin.
If I were a bishop, I would set policy that pastors actively recruit candidates for catechetical positions at least one year in advance, and provide these individuals with a substantive groundwork for their upcoming ministry. In addition to a foundational immersion in Catholic study, I would add pedagogy—how one manages a classroom, prepares a lesson plan, etc. I would also have the parish pay for this training.
One of the key outcomes from an intensive orientation is the skill to teach one’s self. Professional formation organizes our thinking about theology and catechetics, acquaints us with the giants of the field, and educates us in the direction of the books and other resources we will seek out ourselves in the future for our own professional development. Naturally, dioceses augment the continuing education of teachers in the field every year with speakers, events, celebrations and the like, but at the end of the day we are the captains of our ships.
I will address difficulties and possible solutions to the question of professional development on subsequent Wednesdays. If you would like to share your initiation and preparedness for your ministry—successes and horror stories, or you have questions and observations, let’s hear from you.