RCIA catechists have to teach the faith…in context

In recent weeks, we have been exploring the ministry of catechist, especially now that Pope Francis has established this ministry as a permanent vocation. In the last post, we started looking at the three dimensions of formation for catechists:

  • Being and “knowing-how to be with”
  • Knowledge
  • Savoir-faire (136)

In this post, I want to spend some time on the second dimension of formation: knowledge.

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RCIA catechists transmit the faith

The full title of this dimension in the Directory for Catechesis is: “Knowledge—Biblical-Theological Formation and Understanding of Human Beings and the Social Context.”

Wow. What does all that mean?

Fortunately, the Directory does a pretty good job of explaining itself. First we are reminded that the deepest virtue, the main virtue is the ability to “be with” and to be a witness to the stories of God’s action in the world.

But, says the Directory, “The catechist is also a teacher who instructs in the faith…” (143). That means we have to know the teachings of faith and also be able to communicate those teachings “in relation to the cultural, ecclesial, and existential context of the hearer” (143).

In other words, we cannot simply read Scripture or catechism passages to the seeker. We have to “transmit” Scripture, the catechism, the teachings of the popes, the teachings of church councils, the teachings of our local bishops—all in the context of the seeker’s actual life. Some people call this speaking more to the heart than the head—although we need to speak to both. 

Each person’s heart is different. So the Directory says, “In the presentation of the message, it is in any case necessary to be attentive to how this is done so that it may be welcomed and received actively” (145). There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum. 

The Directory lists the key elements of our teaching that we will have to adjust accordingly for each seeker we encounter:

  • “the concise and kerygmatic character” of the message, presented in such a way that it appeals to human experience
  • “the narrative quality of the biblical account,” which means we tell the stories of the Bible in a way that they are no longer just stories but actual parts of the seeker’s own life and history
  • “a catechetical style of theological content,” which is not just delivered, but “transmitted” or “communicated” in such a way that it matters in the real lives of the hearers
  • “a knowledge of the discipline of apologetics,” which is mostly about showing how faith is not magic; it is a grounded in human experience and is not opposed to reason (see Directory for Catechesis, 145)

Guiding a seeker to an encouter with Jesus

All catechists, especially those who discern they have a permanent vocation to this ministry, need a deep, solid knowledge of the teaching the church. But all by itself, that is not enough. Catechists are also “called to understand human beings in the concrete and sociocultural context in which they live…. This knowledge is gained through experience and continual reflection on it… Adequate consideration should be given to psychology, sociology, pedagogy, the sciences of education, and communication” (146).

What I understand this to mean is that I cannot just parachute into any community anywhere with my theology degree and begin to catechize. I have to also have a true and deep understanding of the culture I hope to serve and the best tools of the human sciences to be able to able to communicate effectively. 

The Directory for Catechesis makes it clear that to be a teacher of the faith means much more than just the physical act of teaching. We have to teach in such a way that the heart of the seeker is actually touched and the seeker begins to understand that God’s love and mercy is boundless. 

This dimension of formation can sometimes be frustrating because we know what we know and, once we have said what we know, we wonder why the seekers don’t always “get it.” Even so, someone who has a true vocation for the ministry of catechists will continue to innovate their teaching method so that each and every seeker they encounter can truly hear the gospel message.

That ability to innovate is described more in the final dimension of catechist formation: savoir-faire. We’ll look at that in the next post.

Your turn

What does the transmission of all this information look like in your parish RCIA? What would you like it to look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Click here to get your free copy of “FIVE TIMES TO ANOINT A CATECHUMEN DURING THE RCIA PROCESS”
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Photo by criene from Getty Images Pro.
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