How do you catechize during a time of pandemic?
Several months of enforced separation from their RCIA group or First Holy Communion class is not a contingency for which any catechist will likely have planned. Yet even as ordinary life changes beyond all recognition, Christ’s call to his faithful to grow deeper into relationship with him has remained constant—and so has the need for the catechesis that echoes that divine call in his Church.
The grim reality of lockdown has prompted an immediate and inventive response from catechists. In the Diocese of Portsmouth, UK, this response has taken various forms. An examination of how catechists in the diocese have responded to the crisis not only provides ample examples of ways in which catechesis can be adapted to a lockdown or quarantine situation—of which the international response to COVID-19 may not be the last—but also highlights the difficulties and challenges such “lockdown catechesis” poses and what it reveals about the practice of catechesis more broadly.
Catechesis in the United Kingdom
Lockdown began in the UK on March 23, 2020, with the closure of businesses, facilities, and places of worship, and the prohibition of all non-essential travel. At the time, RCIA catechists were getting ready to welcome their catechumens and candidates into the Church at the upcoming Easter Vigil, while First Holy Communion and Confirmation catechists were preparing their candidates for reception of the sacraments in the summer or early autumn. Catechists in the UK operate within a context that is distinctly challenging even without the added burden of lockdown: of the 3.129 million people living in the Diocese of Portsmouth, only 230,000 are Catholic—and of that number only 13 percent (29,000) practice their faith. Catechists are normatively unpaid volunteers who fit their catechetical responsibilities around busy professional and family lives.
In Portsmouth, catechesis is supported by a team called Formation for Mission, a diocesan-wide group of experienced volunteers dedicated to the ongoing formation of catechists. Six members of the Formation for Mission team, who are active in various ministries in parishes across the diocese, shared their experiences of lockdown with me: how they have adapted, what they have learned, and how those lessons of lockdown might change their catechesis in the long term.
Moving Catechesis Online
Without exception, the catechists I spoke to have made extensive use of digital communication, primarily email and the video-conferencing platform Zoom, to stay in touch—but in ways that differ according to their specific ministry.
First Holy Communion (FHC) catechists, for instance, have mostly used email to continue a structured, lesson-based catechesis for the children they are instructing. Jo, a FHC catechist in Alton, uses email to send out “an outline of a lesson for the parents to do with their children” each week, together with an invitation “for some sort of response from the children which the parents can send to me.” Mary, a Baptism and FHC catechist in East Hendred, records sessions of Come Follow Me’s sacramental preparation program, I Want to Make My Home in You—a Scripture-based program making use of large card silhouettes of Scriptural figures—and sends them “to the parents via email to play to their children, along with photographs of the silhouettes.” Angela, a FHC catechist in Southampton with additional responsibilities for parental catechesis, sends weekly emails containing links to online resources for deepening understanding of the faith, as well as suggestions for child-friendly catechetical activities: for instance, “writing letters to elderly parishioners or prayer partners in their parish.”