Why is the new ministry of catechist important for RCIA teams?

On May 11, 2021, Pope Francis instituted a new ministry of catechist. You may be thinking, as I did when I heard the news, that we have had the ministry of catechist since the Second Vatican Council. In fact, we could say that the ministry of catechist or teacher was established in the New Testament (see 1 Cor 12:4-11).

But what is new here is that the pope has established the ministry of catechist as a permanent vocation. For those of us that have been catechists for several decades, we might have thought our ministry was pretty permanent already. But if you think about it, any of us could stop being a catechist any time we wanted. It has been, in a sense, a daily choice to serve in this ministry.

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What will a permanent RCIA catechist do?

In the future, catechists who are “instituted” will take on their service as a permanent commitment. Pope Francis wrote:

This ministry has a definite vocational aspect, as evidenced by the Rite of Institution, and consequently calls for due discernment on the part of the Bishop. It is in fact a stable form of service rendered to the local Church in accordance with pastoral needs identified by the local Ordinary…. (Instituting the Ministry of Catechist, 8)

In addition to being a “stable form of service,” instituted catechists will serve under the direction of their bishop as he discerns the pastoral needs of the diocese. That means that, like deacons, catechists will be assigned to serve in the places of the diocese that have the greatest need. The place of greatest need may or may not be their own home parish.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, commented on why the new permanence of this ministry is so important:

At stake here is much of what is new in this ministry: men and women are called to express their baptismal vocation in the best possible way, not as substitutes for priests or consecrated persons, but as authentic laymen and laywomen who, in the distinctive nature of their ministry, are able to experience the full of extent of their baptismal vocation of witness and effective service in the community and the world. (Press Conference, May 5, 2021)

It’s all forming new seekers

In addition, there is a key statement in Pope Francis’s apostolic letter that all RCIA teams need to take note of. The ministry of catechist can be very broad and encompass many aspects of teaching the faith. However the primary role of a catechist in this new, stable ministry is to form new seekers in faith:

Catechists are called first to be expert in the pastoral service of transmitting the faith as it develops through its different stages from the initial proclamation of the kerygma to the instruction that presents our new life in Christ and prepares for the sacraments of Christian initiation…. (Instituting the Ministry of Catechist, 6)

The reason this new instituted ministry is so important for RCIA teams is that it formalizes and recognizes the central work we do a members of the baptized priesthood in the work of evangelization and initiation. The pope calls the ministry of catechist “an indispensable diakonia for the community” (2).

However, many of us who currently serve as catechists may not wind up becoming a permanent, instituted catechist. Archbishop Fisichella said, “It is obvious that not everyone who is a catechist today will have access to the ministry of Catechist” (Press Conference, May 5, 2021). In a future post, we’ll look at what this new ministry of catechist entails and what the requirements are for becoming an instituted catechist.

Your turn

Have you read the apostolic letter? What jumped out to you? What does it make you think about what catechists have been doing in your parish? About what they might be doing now? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Hilda Kleiman says

    I am looking forward to seeing how my archdiocese speaks about and makes use of the ministry of the instituted catechist. As you mentioned, not everyone who is currently serving as a catechist in parish may end up as an instituted catechist, so I will be interested to see how that discernment takes place.

  2. Rita Ferrone says

    I am wondering if this will become the role of the “master catechist” because before one can embrace a ministry for life, one would have to gain experience in it and training for it. In other words, would the first time volunteer catechist become an instituted catechist right away? Probably not.

    If the instituted catechist reports to the bishop rather than to the director of religious education and then to the pastor, it would seem to be a diocesan ministry.

    Some dioceses, like the Archdiocese of New York, have formation programs for catechetical leaders already in place. Usually these are for the directors and coordinators of catechesis in the parishes. There is also a rather large network of classes oriented to certification of parish catechists and religion teachers in Catholic schools. I have many questions about how instituted catechists will work into such a system.

    For the RCIA catechists, this would seem to open the door for instituted catechists being the ones deputed by the bishop to celebrate the minor rites (blessings and minor exorcisms). There was not a word in the motu proprio about the liturgical role of the catechist, but in the RCIA there is such a liturgical role. I wonder how this will be handled in the future.

    • Nick Wagner says

      Hi Rita. I also thought the instituted catechists might become the “deputed” catechists referred to in the celebrations of the blessings and minor exorcisms. And that worries me a bit. These wonderful rites are already under-used. If catechists must be formally instituted in order to preside at them, will that further limit their use? I suppose it will vary by diocese. I hope deputation will remain widely conferred on those who serve on catechumenate teams and not be limited exclusively to instituted catechists.

  3. Jim Philipps says

    I like the recognition of catechesis as the sacred vocation it is, and one open to lay women and lay men.

    I worry a little bit about the danger that this could spread the infection of clericalism into what, for the most part, has been a safe haven from it.

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