On the Optional Memorial of St. John of Avila, sixteenth-century Spanish priest and Doctor of the Church, Pope Francis established, by apostolic authority, the lay ministry of catechist. I have to admit that I did not know about this Doctor of the Church before reading this motu proprio, but with a little bit of research, I now see the fittingness of establishing this lay ministry on this day.
St. John of Avila (c. 1500-1569) re-evangelized Andalusia during a time of ecclesial and spiritual crisis, a time much like ours. The Church was fiercely divided; mammon was unduly adored; doctrinal confusion was rampant; formal training in the faith, amongst both the clergy and the lay faithful, was poor. The list of issues (as in our day) could go on and on. Clearly, the Church needed reforming. But re-form in what? To what end?
To this, John provided the ancient and everlasting answer: an overwhelming experience of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
John’s catechetical method began with the love of God. St. Augustine wrote that the life of faith begins with knowing that God loved us first. This is the kerygma that the New Evangelization proclaims afresh to the contemporary world; words of everlasting life communicated to us in Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word). This is why the Church stresses the primacy of Jesus Christ and of his grace. The Church needs energetic catechists who are experts in transmitting that faith from its initial reception through its various stages of development to complete conformity to Christ. As a priest partaking in the ministry of the bishop—who is the primary catechist of his diocese—St. John of Avila saw himself as a “sower of seed,” casting the Gospel kerygma and then nurturing whatever took root. He did this throughout Andalusia. By his charismatic preaching, he attracted and formed some of the best disciples of the era. At John’s canonization, Pope St. Paul VI called him “a faithful imitator of Saint Paul,” that zealous Apostle so transfixed by the love of God in Jesus Christ that he did everything in his power to preach the kerygma to the world, making sure that people—catechists, if you will—were available in each community to help with ongoing formation in the faith.
Pope Francis has now made this an official lay ministry within the Catholic Church.
The Holy Father begins his apostolic letter Antiquum Ministerium (AM) with 1 Corinthians 12:28-31 in which St. Paul recognizes that God has designated some people as teachers. In Ad Gentes, the Council Fathers at Vatican II praised the “army of catechists” who help pastors in their mission to evangelize, declaring “the role of catechist is of the highest importance.” Does this mean that a lay ministry of catechist might detract from the primary catechetical role of the bishop and priests? Not at all. In the Church’s history we recognize that there is no competition between the two, and we know that the role of lay catechist is an ancient one. Moreover, as Francis suggests in his motu proprio, the role of lay catechist is at the service of the bishop (“the local Ordinary”): “It is in fact a stable form of service rendered to the local Church in accordance with pastoral needs identified by the local Ordinary, yet one carried out as a work of the laity, as demanded by the very nature of the ministry” (AM, 2).
Learning about the catechetical school in Alexandria in my high school Church history class, I’d been fascinated by the figures of St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen who seemed to be model catechists. They impressed me with a unity of theology and prayer that made the faith extremely attractive. As a young adult, I would sometimes daydream about establishing a great catechetical school on the shores of Chicago, forming all seekers who were “waiting to discover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Christian faith” (AM, 5). I even chose “Paul” as my confirmation name because like St. Paul the Apostle, I wanted to be a “witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue who teaches for the Church” (AM, 6). As a married man who has always felt called to teach the faith in some way, I have sometimes struggled (as I know many layfolk have) to make sense of my calling. The Church, recognizing the ministerial role of the laity by virtue of our baptisms, has given the lay faithful numerous ways and means to do this, with the powerful encouragement of previous popes and the Second Vatican Council. In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “Within missionary activity, the different forms of the lay apostolate should be held in esteem.”
Pope St. Paul VI wrote in Apostolicam Actuositatem: “The hierarchy entrusts to the laity certain functions which are more closely connected with pastoral duties, such as the teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions, and the care of souls. By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of this work.”
In one of the great documents of the Second Vatical Council, Lumen Gentium, we read: “The laity can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy.. This was the way certain men and women assisted Paul the Apostle in the Gospel, laboring much in the Lord. Further, they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose.”
And now Pope Francis has established the ministry of catechist, with a Rite of Institution soon to follow. He writes, “May the discernment of the gifts that the Holy Spirit never fails to grant to the Church sustain their efforts to make the lay ministry of Catechist effective for the growth of their communities” (AM, 11).
This is all good news, but where are today’s catechists being formed?
Well, right here, to start with. Word on Fire’s mission is to proclaim Christ in the culture, and Bishop Barron has stated that his goal is to form an army of evangelists to do this. Included in this is a smaller platoon of catechists.
I am so grateful to be in the missionary field working with him. There are many great preacher-evangelists doing similar work today, including great formation programs forming catechists. The Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University, the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, and Word on Fire’s own Institute are just a few examples of institutions that—in the spirit of the ancient catechetical school of Alexandria—help to instruct the faithful and form them to live and communicate the faith in all its splendor. Such institutes have been doing an excellent job giving future catechists “suitable biblical, theological, pastoral, and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth of the faith” (AM, 8) so that they can, like St. John of Avila, become more competent sowers and cultivators of the seed of the Gospel.