When Pope Francis introduced his motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium to the Universal Church in May of 2021, we members of the Dicastery for Evangelization were aware that it would be welcomed most especially in the United States. This is because the thriving catechetical effort in the United States is a sign of the Church’s vitality there. The number of US catechists alone is evidence of that fact.
The word “catechist,” as we know, is derived from the Greek term katechein. Our familiar word “echo” is also derived from it, which gives us a clue as to what catechesis is about. Faith is like a sound wave that reaches a valley surrounded by mountains and then bounces off as an echo, perpetuating the sound. When faith touches us, we ought to become echoes, or sharers, of that faith with others. This is the original meaning of catechesis if it is used and understood in the transitive form, the doing.
Later in Church history, catechesis also has been used in the intransitive form, which has put more emphasis on the content of catechesis. Both understandings are important. To be touched by pulsating waves and to bring others to pulsate, to be alive, in the faith by one’s own personal witness and to teach the faith by transmitting knowledge are worthy and important tasks. A Catholic faith identity assumes identification with the content of the Creed, and this is part of the process and content of catechesis. To echo—and to explain or interpret that which we are echoing—requires that we always return to the Tradition of our Church, to the origin of our faith.
Scripture and our Sacred Tradition are the enduring sources of our faith, and catechists should be immersed in this flowing river, if you will. Such an immersion will lead catechists to a threefold awareness of their ministry.
Catechists Are Familiar with the Wounds of Life
During my studies in the United States more than thirty years ago, I was part of the Rite of Election of Catechumens at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. That first Sunday of Lent, I heard a hymn that I have not forgotten since:
Lift high the Cross,
the love of Christ proclaim,
till all the world adore
his sacred name.
Each newborn servant
of the Crucified
bears on the brow
the seal of him who died.
George William Kitchin (1827–1912), an English man, wrote this song in 1887 for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, so the song has a missionary spirit. It has also been suggested that this hymn was inspired by the story of Constantine´s great conversion to Christianity after seeing a cross with the inscription “In hoc signo vinces” on it: “with this sign you will conquer.”
Catechists who want to transmit the Gospel must have touched the wounds of the Crucified and personally “bear the seal of him who died.” Our entire faith story is how, through their personal identification with the Cross, ordinary people have become saints—both canonized saints and uncanonized saints, or as Pope Francis put it, “saints ‘next door.’” To accept and bear the crosses in our lives leads us to embrace the Cross of Jesus Christ. The more we experience suffering and become aware of the suffering of others, the closer we are to the Cross of the Lord Jesus.
The new Rite for the Installation of Catechists includes the reception of a cross by catechists as an expression of their ministry. It is a sign that they have touched the wounds of Christ and are called to holiness, that is, to an intimate identification with the crucified Lord. When we embrace the Cross of Christ, we are empowered to carry the crosses that others bear. This communion makes catechists capable of witnessing and sharing the length and depth of our faith.
“Lift high the Cross.” Right there where life tends to pull us down seems to be the strongest proof of our confidence in the providence of Christ’s love. To “bear on the brow the seal of him who died” makes you, as catechists, look to others with the eyes of Christ. This understanding leads us to a second aspect of catechetical ministry: conversion.
Catechists Are Ready to Turn Around
During my studies in the United States, I was staying at a parish called St. Benedict the African on the South Side of Chicago. This neighborhood is situated in a poorer area of Chicago. Many Baptists live there, and it seems that their tradition of celebrating baptism by immersion inspired the architect of St. Benedict’s church building. Because many of the residents on the South Side own a car (even if they do not have stable housing), the architect designed a great circle in front of the church to give people a feeling of being chosen by the Lord to be a prophet, a priest, and a king. Architecturally, everyone who enters the church is received like royalty, which gives them a feeling of personal importance. After entering the church, they must turn around again to the huge baptismal font to be reminded that baptism calls us to turn around, to look for conversion every day in prayer and deeds.
The most famous catechist of the New Testament who walked in the footsteps of Jesus is certainly a man of conversion: St. Paul. To reflect on his ministry means to recognize the importance of turning around. His experience of falling from the horse, of becoming blind, of being led and guided by others, opens him up to Christ’s action and leads him to a full conversion. He is illuminated by Christ’s love and is led to see others with the eyes of Christ.
St. Paul is baptized. In the light of this sacrament, all catechesis becomes a process of conversion—not in an evangelical or fundamentalist understanding of “being born again” but in the Catholic understanding of being born again, and again, and again—that is, continuous conversion. We can read in the words that Ananias addresses to St. Paul a sort of installation or commission. Ananias says, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22: 14–16). St. Paul is being commissioned to be a catechist, a witness of the faith.
The Sacrament of Baptism therefore is the foundation for all ministries in the Church. Our new Directory for Catechesis, published in 2020, invites us to pay particular attention to the Sacrament of Baptism. It says that all catechesis in the Church should be based on the way we prepare catechumens for the sacraments of initiation, and that catechesis should be deepened through a mystagogical process or journey. The catechumenate, then, is the paradigm for all catechesis. All our planning and teaching, all our catechetical processes done under this orientation lead Christians to an initial conversion, and then to a continuous conversion. We can only witness from what we have received and live, and we can only share that which the great Tradition of the Church has proven to be truthful and holy.
Conversion is always turning to the origin in order to open up future horizons in the spirit of the Gospel. Catechesis is teaching by listening and talking by praying. Without this spiritual dimension, all is nothing; everything fails. As we know: If you stop praying, you will lose your faith. And if you begin praying again, you will rekindle your faith and the faith of others. This connection makes us aware of a third aspect of catechetical ministry: listening with a sincere heart.
Catechists Show Empathy and Sympathy
A while ago, at a railway station, I read an advertisement that said, “If you feel what you see, you can give what you have!” Being a catechist requires being able to feel empathy as you accompany those you catechize. Empathy requires listening; it does not force our point of view by continuous talking like the rushing of water in a waterfall. Empathy is going at least one thousand steps in the shoes of others. In this way, the Holy Spirit teaches us the suitable words that others need to hear, for we have listened from the heart. Catechesis that comes from listening leads to conversion, to community, to union.
A year ago, Pope Francis spoke to catechists about the need to listen in these words:
Evangelization is not a mere repetition of the past, never. The great evangelizing saints, like Cyril and Methodius, like Boniface, were creative, with the creativity of the Holy Spirit. They beat new paths, invented new languages, new “alphabets,” to transmit the Gospel, for the inculturation of the faith. This requires knowing how to listen to the people, to listen to the peoples to whom one is proclaiming: listening to their culture, their history; listening not superficially, already thinking of the pre-packaged answers we carry in our briefcase, no!
To truly listen, and to compare those cultures, those languages, even and above all the unspoken, the unexpressed, with the Word of God, with Jesus Christ, the living Gospel. And I repeat the question: is this not the most urgent task of the Church among the peoples of Europe? The great Christian tradition of the continent must not become a historical relic; otherwise, it is no longer “tradition”! Tradition is either alive or it is not. And catechesis is tradition; it is trador, to hand down, but as living tradition, from heart to heart, from mind to mind, from life to life. Therefore: passionate and creative, with the impetus of the Holy Spirit. I used the word “pre-packaged” for language, but I fear catechists whose heart, attitude and face are “pre-packaged.” No. Either the catechist is free, or he or she is not a catechist. The catechist lets her- or himself be struck by the reality he or she finds, and transmits the Gospel with great creativity, or is not a catechist. Think about this well.
These words of the Holy Father at our Catechetical Congress in 2021 are part of his general spiritual agenda. This is clear in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, where he speaks of methods of catechesis with a true synodal spirituality. Not acting politically but with a sense of listening to the Lord for the sake of the Church, Pope Francis states:
Lack of dialogue means that in these individual sectors people are concerned not for the common good, but for the benefits of power or, at best, for ways to impose their own ideas. Round tables thus become mere negotiating sessions, in which individuals attempt to seize every possible advantage, rather than cooperating in the pursuit of the common good. The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society.
In the cathedral of the Diocese of Limburg in Germany, there is a Romanesque fresco showing St. Nicholas as a catechist. What is different about this painting is that his right ear is as big as his entire body. I believe it is there to remind visitors about how the proclamation of our faith should begin: with empathic listening.
Catechesis is active listening. Our speaking and teaching can only touch the hearts of others if we are authentic in the way we embrace the Cross, in the way we give witness of our conversion, and in the way we show compassion to others. This triple dimension of the ministry of all catechists keeps alive the resounding wave of the Holy Spirit and makes us, in turn, echoes of the Gospel, echoes of the Father’s love in the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom put it best: “One man aflame with zeal is enough to uplift a whole people.”
Bishop Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is the Delegate for Catechesis in the Vatican Dicastery for Evangelization.
 George William Kitchin, “Lift High the Cross,” lyrics modified by Michael Robert Newbolt, 1916, music by Sydney Hugo Nicholson. For full lyrics, see http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/l/i/f/t/lifthigh.htm.
 See Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, 6–9.
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2020), nos. 69, 65.
 Pope Francis, Address to the Participants in the Meeting Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, September 17, 2021.
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 202.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily 1 on the Statues, no. 33, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. W. R. W. Stephens, first series, vol. 9 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889), rev. and ed. Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/190101.htm.
This article originally appeared on pages 14-17 of the printed edition.
Art credit: Photo by Riccardo Rossi, 2016-09-25 IM Jubilee for Catechists at Flickr.com, Creative Commons License.