When we think of our title as catechists, we usually only consider it to be the name of the volunteer work that we do one or two nights a week at our parish. The rest of the week, we live out our vocations in our married lives, families, careers, and hobbies. However, what would it take for us to see ourselves as being called to be catechists? That, as lay catechetical ministers, our volunteer work with children and adults at our parish is also a vocation?
Even though our main ministry as catechists may take place only once or twice a week, the call to be a catechist is something we are challenged to live out every single day of our life, even when we are not in a classroom with our students. Pope Francis echoes this important sentiment in his address to catechists in 2013:
Catechesis is a vocation: ‘being’ a catechist, this is the vocation, not ‘working’ as a catechist. Be careful: I have not said to do the work of a catechist, but rather to be one, because it involves all your life. It means guiding towards the encounter with Jesus with words and with life, with your witness.
Living out the vocation of a catechist in all realms of our life requires us to develop a spirituality in which the source and summit of our ministry to our students is the enthusiastic contemplation of God. To consider a spirituality that is inherently catechetical and seeks to reveal to others the Person of Christ by our own personal encounter with God, we can look to a group of people who live out this vocation radically in every aspect of their lives: the Dominican Order.
The Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers, were founded by St. Dominic in 1216 in response to the widespread outbreak of heresy. The Dominicans aimed to pray, study, and preach in defense of the Church while living a mendicant, communal lifestyle. Still vibrantly active all over the world today, Dominican priests, brothers, and sisters live their mission of sharing the truth of God with others by first contemplating this truth themselves.
We, as lay catechists, can glean a lot from the Dominican tradition. In Dominican spirituality, religious brothers and sisters live into their charism by adhering to the four pillars of Dominican life:
- community, and
First and foremost, personal and public prayer is the foundation of Dominican life. The Mass sustains Dominican prayer by virtue of the Eucharistic self-offering that takes place within the liturgy; this self-offering translates to the total engagement of the Dominican in prayer with the entirety of her being. In Dominican spirituality, prayer is not just a mental activity; it is a harmony of body, mind, and soul in communication with God. Prayer is the heartbeat of Dominican life that allows her to carry out the order’s charism in the other three pillars.
As catechists, it is essential that we too establish prayer as the lifeline of our ministry. The National Directory for Catechesis states:
Like all the faithful, catechists are called to holiness. Because of their ministry and mission, however, the call to holiness has a particular urgency. The spiritual life of a catechist should be characterized by . . . personal prayer and dedication to the evangelizing mission of the Church. (54.8)
While all the people of God are called to holiness and a life of prayer, catechists have a particular need to mark their days with communication with God. The importance of personal prayer goes hand in hand with the mission of evangelization; in other words, you can’t give what you don’t have yourself! It is therefore necessary for catechists to undertake a life steeped in the rhythm of prayer so as to be filled with the Spirit to pass on to those we catechize.
Like Dominicans, the spiritual life of the catechist should also be a harmonization of body, mind, and soul. Everything that we do as catechists can be offered as a prayer—from passing out worksheets to taking our class on a tour of the parish church, every action, when done in love, can be an act of prayer. Our entire ministry as catechists can be consecrated to God if we are in communion with him in prayer.
The second pillar of Dominican spirituality is study. To Dominicans, the end result of studying is not the memorization of facts and concepts, but a quest to share in the wisdom of God. In study, the Dominican contemplates God’s action in revealed truth and the world around her. Study thus allows her to contemplate God and share the fruits of this contemplation with those whom she serves. The Dominican mind is made holy through absorbing the truths of faith for herself, but also calls others to holiness by sharing the truths she has experienced.
In her book The Spirituality of the Catechist, Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP defines spirituality as “who we are and what we do because of what we believe and because of what we’ve experienced.” As human beings, our beliefs, personalities, preferences, tendencies, and decisions are shaped by our experiences; as catechists, we are called to impart these experiences to those whom we serve. Just as important as thorough study and understanding of the doctrines of our faith, our personal experiences of God can also move those whom we catechize to holiness. A crucial part of living the vocation of the catechist is to be in touch with our own personal experience of God for the purpose of animating others, as Pope Francis reminds us in a 2013 homily, catechists are "people who keep the memory of God alive; they keep it alive in themselves and they are able to revive it in others.” Through study, contemplation of our own lives, and experiences of the faith, we are better equipped to walk with others in their own inquiry of the experience of God.
Community is the third pillar of Dominican life. Dominican spirituality recalls that God carried out his saving action in the Old Testament first through a community of people, our Jewish ancestors. Dominicans actively honor this by living a communal life themselves, recognizing that communal life challenges and shapes each member in generosity and humility.
While catechists are not necessarily called to live a communal lifestyle in the exact style of the Dominicans, we are always called to participate in the building up of the community that we serve. The children and youth whom we teach, the co-catechists with whom we plan lessons, and the parish staff members with whom we interact are all important parts of the community that we are called to build as catechists. Remembering our students’ names, greeting other catechists at the beginning of a session, and speaking with parish staff members to solve discipline problems are all simple ways that catechists can take up the work of building a community. Fundamentally, as catechists, we are entrusted with forming a collection of seemingly random people to be a community of “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), focused on mutually admonishing, encouraging, and challenging one another to take up the Christian life with enthusiasm.
The fourth pillar of Dominican spirituality is preaching. From prayer, study, and communal living, the Dominican ministry of preaching comes forth. This act of preaching surpasses lecturing or teaching in a classroom setting. In Dominican life, preaching is not something carried out only through words, but also through the example of an entire life animated by the Spirit. Dominican preaching seeks to engage in dialogue with the needs of contemporary times while continually inviting others to a Christian life lived in love.
For most catechists, preaching seems like an unusual word to characterize our ministry. However, the preaching that we undertake as lay catechists is rooted in the prophetic call of mission we received in Baptism. The Dominican ministry of preaching is much like our own ministry of catechesis: both endeavors seek a first encounter or renewal of faith. As the Dominican Fundamental Constitutions state, “The object of our preaching is either to cause the faith to be born, or to allow it to penetrate people’s entire lives more deeply.” This causation of faith depends mostly on the Holy Spirit, but also on our ability to live an authentic life that exemplifies the incarnational love of God. The ways we teach our lessons and the activities we choose for our students are important, but not nearly important as the witness we give to the action of God in our own lives. The most significant preaching we do is the way we love and honor our students, fellow catechists, and parish staff members in their dignity as beloved daughters and sons of the Father.
We, as catechists, have a lot to gain from applying the pillars of Dominican spirituality to our own ministry of catechesis. Prayer, study, communal living, and preaching prepare us to hand on the faith to the next generation in a way that affirms our baptismal call. Dominican spirituality encourages catechetical ministers to live authentic Christian lives, challenges them to develop a thirst for truth, and inspires them to walk with the people of God through the transmission of their personal contemplation. The Dominican way of life calls catechists to deeper communion with God, others, and themselves in service to the ministry of the Word.
Featured Photo: courtesy of Notre Dame Vision.
 Janet Schaeffler, OP, The Spirituality of the Catechist: Feeding Your Soul, Growing in Faith, Sharing with Others (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 5–6.