What RCIA teams need to know about how catechists are formed

After Pope Francis instituted a new ministry of catechist, we began looking at what that might mean for RCIA teams. Earlier, we looked at why is the new ministry of catechist important and then at the identity of the catechist as witness, mystagogue, and accompanier. 

In this post, I want to discuss how we get there—how do we learn how to be the kind of catechist the church needs? The Directory for Catechesis gives us a learning path for catechist formation. This formation is for all catechists, not specifically for those of us who serve in catechumenate ministry. Think of this as the baseline training. Specialized training for catechumenate ministry would follow after.

Having said that, the way catechists are formed has parallels to the way catechumens are formed. The church expects that those who feel called to serve as catechists will be transformed by the formation process. Like the seekers, catechist-candidates are supposed to internalize the first proclamation in such a way that it changes their lives. The Directory for Catechesis says:

[Formation] is a process that, taking place deep within the catechist, profoundly touches his freedom and cannot be reduced simply to instruction, to moral exhortation, or to an updating of pastoral techniques. (131)

Just as with the seekers, the “school” for catechists is the Christian community, which the Directory calls the “privileged place of formation” (133). The Directory then goes on the list six specific criteria for the formation of catechists.

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1. Spirituality of mission and evangelization

Again, echoing what is supposed to happen with the formation of seekers, the formation of catechists is to be primarily a spiritual experience that is always centered on the gospel mission. In a caution that will resonate with many of us who have served as catechists for a while, the Directory says that by staying focused on the spirituality of our ministry, we will “avoid the risk of falling into a sterile pastoral over-exertion.” By keeping the primacy of an encounter with others and a passion for evangelization, we will be saved “from individualism, from self-absorption, from the crisis of identity, and from the collapse of fervor” (135 a).

2. Catechesis as integral formation

Here the Directory makes explicit the parallel to catechumenate formation. While we are teachers, we must also be witnesses of the faith. To learn how to do this, “the formation of catechists as well should be able to draw inspiration from the catechumenal experience that, among its other elements, is characterized precisely by this comprehensive vision of Christian life” (135 b).

3. Style of accompaniment

This criterion might be challenging for some of us, and also liberating. If we are to be accompaniers, then we have to learn the art of it through the experience of being accompanied ourselves. The Directory doesn’t say what that looks like, but I imagine it would be something like the sponsor’s relationship with the catechumen. We also learn the art of accompaniment by going out to accompany others. To accompany others, the church asks us to be humble and allow ourselves “to be touched by the questions and confronted by the situations of life, with a grace full of compassion but also respectful of the other’s freedom.” That means we have to accept the other person unconditionally, willing to walk beside them “without establishing the route in advance, without demanding to see the fruits, and without holding anything back…” (135 c).

4. Consistency among formative styles

This criterion is pulled verbatim from the General Directory for Catechesis, which is the predecessor to the Directory for Catechesis. I remember having an aha moment when I read it years ago. It means that the formation for catechists has to have the same structure and method as the formation of those we hope to catechize. 

“It would be very difficult for the catechist in his activity to improvise a style and a sensibility to which he had not been introduced during his own formation.” (General Directory for Catechesis 237, cited in Directory for Catechesis 135 d)

5. And attitude of docibilitas and of self-formation

I had to look up docibilitas, which is appropriate because it means being open to always learning new things. It means more than that, however. It means living every day with:

…the willingness to be touched by grace, by life, by persons…in order to learn how to learn…. In concrete terms, this is a matter of understanding oneself as a participant who is always in formation and open to the new things of the Spirit…. (Directory for Catechesis 135 e; emphasis in original)

6. The dynamic of the laboratory in the context of the group

The idea of a “laboratory of faith” comes from Pope John Paul II, and it means a process of growing in faith through an inner dialogue with God. In the context of catechist formation, it means making that inner dialogue explicit, in a sense doing faith “out loud” with others and learning from “the experience, contributions, and reformulations of each one, in view of transformative learning.” (Directory for Catechesis 135 f)

These six criteria are like those miracle sponges that are compressed down to about the size of a quarter. Once you get them wet, they expand to something bigger than your hand. Each of these criteria seem small, and some have a bit of a “duh” factor. But if you pray over them and imagine how you can integrate each one more deeply into your best version of your ministerial self, they will each expand to something bigger than your heart. Learning and living these six criteria is how we will become the catechists the church needs today.

Your turn

What kind of formation do you need as a catechist? How will that help form your seekers and catechumens? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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