came to the role of catechist in a parish setting very late in my career. For the whole of my adult life, I had worked in some way as a teacher in a Catholic school with responsibility for catechesis as part of my vocation. From the age of twenty-five, I had also exercised the primary catechetical responsibility with my own children. With such a weight of experience, I believed that working with the catechetical program in the parish would not be particularly challenging. Anyone who has worked in this mission will recognize how misguided I was. The parish context is utterly unique since the students we encounter face very different challenges without the support of a school community. The parish catechist is subjected to extraordinary and demanding expectations as well. Whereas a parent and a Catholic schoolteacher have a degree of “control” over the circumstances in which catechesis is delivered, this is not the case in parish programs with which I am familiar. The students can often be there “under sufferance”; having already spent a full day in a school classroom, they are often far from receptive. In some cases, parents are not particularly supportive and at times they are even unfairly critical. Indeed, it was in a parish catechetical setting that I heard for the first time those dreaded words: “I’ll just let my child try this out; and if she likes it, she can stay.” Presumably, if the catechist does not “perform,” the child will then be deprived of the richest treasure that can be offered to any human being: the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How does one cope in circumstances like these? The temptation is to try to be “exciting” and “interesting” – and very quickly to burn out. This approach will ultimately fail, because the vocation of the parish catechist brings us face to face with the raw reality that there is only one gift worth giving: Jesus Christ. The parish catechist, first and foremost, is a witness to Christ. Here it is worth recalling the words of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” No program or resource, however superbly prepared, can replace a catechist who is in love with God. A telling example of this is St. John Vianney, whose catechetical lessons attracted hundreds from every walk of life every day, not just the children of the parish.