I began professional work in the Church at the age of eighteen. I had experienced a profound personal conversion in high school, had taken my first steps as a missionary disciple, and was growing in the Christian life. So, my pastor offered me a job as a parish youth minister.
Looking back, this is not the path I would recommend—for a high school graduate or for a parish. But there I was, full of enthusiasm for the Gospel and excited to be employed in a place where I could grow in my love for God while working professionally for him.
This parish had Mass twice every weekday and perpetual Eucharistic adoration. While I had spent lots of time before getting hired in Mass and adoration grounding myself in the love I encountered there, I soon found myself busily walking past the chapel many times a day, too preoccupied doing the Lord’s work to spend time with him. When I did have experiences where I was alert to the movement of grace in my life, rather than remaining present to the Lord so that I could become deeply rooted in him, I would immediately take notes so I could share the experience with others in a testimony, short-circuiting the blessing he intended first for me as a disciple. And there were experiences where I was a bit scandalized, as well. That pastor who had been my spiritual director and close confidant was now also my boss. And I began to see a very real, human side of him (and of other parish leaders) that I had never seen before.
In short, my “yes” to administering a catechetical ministry was starting to jeopardize my previously formed habits of sitting at the feet of Jesus, as Mary of Bethany did. I discovered a tendency in me to professionalize the life of discipleship, teaching it to others while a distance from it began to open within me. Inviting others to encounter Jesus had become my job, my work. But more and more I was leaving behind my own relationship with him. My service was now my prayer, right?
It didn’t take me long to see that working professionally within the Church can actually be more dangerous to one’s own faith life than working in a secular profession. This is because there can be a tendency in those who hand on the Gospel to no longer be challenged and evangelized by it themselves.
I’m going to make a bit of a confession here. For a recent segment of my professional life, I wrote and taught quite a bit about the importance of prayer—yet I wasn’t doing anything beyond the most rudimentary prayer myself. I knew this was a problem. I knew it was even harmful spiritually to me and reduced my potential impact with my students. But, for a time, I still didn’t make the necessary steps toward the Lord.
Important questions arise here for every Church professional: Am I praying daily? How can I prioritize my own regular encounter with God? Do I have others in my life who know me and won’t hesitate to challenge me to authenticity? How can I pass on the saving Gospel to others while still being challenged by it myself, to be evangelized as I evangelize others? These questions—and how we respond to them—form the crucible of our own salvation as catechists and catechetical leaders.
A very close priest friend of mine recently sent a striking email. After finishing a significant years-long assignment, he was granted a sabbatical. He wrote that he would be out of contact for a while, that he needed to truly step away and listen to God’s voice in a singular way and to ask further for the grace of deeper conversion for himself. His email was inspiring to me. Am I listening in a singular way to our Lord’s voice?
Pope St. John Paul II put it this way: “Unless the missionary is a contemplative he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way. He is a witness to the experience of God, and must be able to say with the apostles: ‘that which we have looked upon . . . concerning the word of life, . . . we proclaim also to you’ (1 Jn 1:1–3).”i Indeed, our very credibility as catechists depends upon prioritizing the encounter that we proclaim to others. Remaining in this position of encounter is, without question, the most important commitment we can make.
Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University and author of two books focused on the renewal of catechesis: An Evangelizing Catechesis: Teaching from Your Encounter with Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2020) and the revised edition of Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship (Liturgy Training Publications, 2022). He also serves on the USCCB’s executive team for the Eucharistic Revival.