As a time of immense grace, this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis is an opportunity for the Catholic Church and for each one of us to reflect ever more completely the merciful love of the Father (Lk 6:36). Holy doors are open in every diocese throughout the world; these open doors are symbols of hope, healing, and love; and they announce the mercy of God, who is “the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person.” Each of us in ministry or service to the Church must, during this time, undertake a review of our attitudes, practices, and habits so that we might be a more efficacious sign of the Father’s mercy in our own lives and the lives of others. This applies in a particular way to all those who are involved in the ministry of catechesis and have such an influential role for present generations of children and youth, in particular. I am grateful to all catechists who minister in our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs, and I would like to reflect with you on this new opportunity for the Church, especially in our mutually shared role of teaching and passing down the faith.
The Catechist as Echo of the Gospel
The word “catechist” comes from the Greek word to “echo.” As catechists we echo the teachings of the Church, but we also echo in word and deed our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The fires of our initiatory response in faith to our Baptism and Confirmation need to be fanned into flame once again during the Year of Mercy. We need to reengage our own realization of our need for mercy as children of God and followers of Jesus. “The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself” reminds Pope Francis. Wherever the Church is found, mercy must be evident and wherever Christians are gathered so too should others encounter an “oasis of mercy” in our very person. Rediscovering the spiritual and corporal works of mercy will provide that living fountain of mercy that Our Father provides for us. The spiritual work of instructing the ignorant is a particularly important task during the Year of Mercy for catechists. It is an act of mercy to bring light to a person’s mind, which might be plagued by the darkness of misconception and ignorance. This task of mercy readies a student for the newness of truth and the ability to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. Bishop John Doerfler, in his installation homily as Bishop of Marquette, gave a helpful outline showing how a catechist and indeed each one of us can deepen our own walk with Jesus Christ:
- Make a friend of Jesus
- Be a friend to Jesus
- Introduce your friends to Jesus.
Make a Friend of Jesus
Discipleship begins in friendship with Jesus Christ. This love relationship is one in which we, as students, sit at the feet of the Master and learn what it is to be truly loving and merciful. This is a powerful image for catechists who are witnesses to this love relationship with Jesus Christ. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” noted Pope Paul VI. We must be teachers and living echoes of the teachings of the Church but also witnesses to the Gospel and to a living, breathing relationship with Jesus.
Be a Friend to Jesus
One becomes a friend of Jesus, and nourishes that friendship daily, through a living relationship of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and constant awareness of the presence of God, especially while catechizing. In order to be capable of mercy “we must first of all dispose ourselves to listen to the Word of God. This means rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word that comes to us.” We must spend time in prayer every day and reflect upon the Scriptures so that we can draw from the living Word of God in helping to nourish others. We cannot be authentic agents of mercy if we have not first experienced the abundant mercy of God and received the very real forgiveness of the merciful God. Please frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation and invite and remind students of the importance of this sacrament. It is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that we discover, uncover and rediscover the face of Jesus Christ.
Introduce your Friends to Jesus
Faith is certainly personal but is not intended to be private and kept to ourselves! Christ Himself commanded each one of us to “go out and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). What has been given to each one of us must be shared with others. While students are not friends, they need to know that we care for them deeply. They should understand that we love them and their families as Christ loves the Church. They are our new “friends in Christ” and as catechists we “accompany” them into the mystery of the Gospel. The gift of faith and the sacramental life of the Church is the greatest source of joy, happiness and fulfillment in this earthly life. Pope Francis tells us that the spring of mercy is one that “will never run dry, no matter how many people draw from it.” As we help our students to know love and serve Jesus, who is all-merciful, we must also help them to practice the faith as disciples. Teach them to love the Mass and attend every Sunday as we do, to pray at home with their families and to live out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Teach them the meaning of each of the works of mercy and then point to some of the concrete ways that they can be agents of mercy in the world by carrying them out. Above all, have confidence in the merciful love of the Father and the incarnate expression of that love in the person, work, and mission of Jesus. Call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to help us to be a living fountain of mercy. May God bless abundantly the work that you do during this special year as “agents of mercy,” especially for our students! Bishop David Ricken is Bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin.