At the beginning of Notre Dame’s academic year, I accompany seventy Notre Dame students as they prepare to serve as catechists in South Bend area parishes. Over the course of the year, these catechists will spend countless hours planning lessons and teaching the Catholic faith to students ranging in age from kindergarten through high school.
Together, we carry out the work of the Notre Dame Catechist Academy, one of the ways that the Institute for Church Life renews the catechetical imagination of the Catholic Church. Most of my work consists of forming these students through workshops, preparing them to take over a classroom of their own.
It is my goal to expand and stretch their imaginations, sharing principles that invite them to consider not only what it means to be a catechist, but also what catechesis might say about living as a faithful disciple in the world. I wish to share two of those principles here.
Good catechesis creates space for prayerful encounters with God’s Word.
Catechesis stands apart from other “academic” subjects in that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims, “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person . . . Jesus of Nazareth” (CCC §426). Catechesis moves not toward mastery but toward relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ.
So, as catechists, we must create room for our students to cultivate that relationship. More often than not, they struggle with this. How are they to cultivate a relationship with a God whom they cannot see?
God, however, has already made the first move. Dei Verbum reminds us, “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” (§21).
In light of these words, I begin each workshop by reading a passage from Scripture. Scripture, I remind my students, is where God comes not only to meet them, but also to invite them to know him. God begins his dialogue of Love with his Word.
A dialogue, of course, is not one-sided, so after we listen to Scripture, I invite my students to respond by adding their own words. What response might God’s Word stir in their own hearts? Sometimes, we share those thoughts with one another. Other times, I leave them to meditate on their responses in silence.
It is my hope that this practice of listening and responding to the Word of God will become more than a practice reserved for their catechetical classrooms. It is my hope that it will become the very posture by which my students might practice listening to and responding to God in every area of their lives.
Good catechesis uses stories.
I spend a lot of my time teaching my students how to be successful as teachers. Good catechesis, I tell them, is never haphazard or cursory. It begins very intentionally by meeting our students where they are. It begins by getting to know them—their stories and their language, their joys and their fears. Knowing these categories, I tell these students, helps a catechist know approximately where to begin and how far they might go in constructing a lesson.
This is a participation in and imitation of God’s own activity in our lives. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” we read in John 1:14. God approaches us on our terms by teaching, telling stories, and sharing meals. He does all of this for a simple purpose, so that we might better know the way back to him.
As I invite these students to consider more and more deeply what it means to imitate Jesus’ activity through catechesis, I place a particularly big emphasis on the telling of stories.
As his reputation as a teacher grew, Jesus fielded all sorts of questions about God, the Law, and the Kingdom of heaven. Many of his responses take the form of parables, stories in which he frequently turns these questions on their heads, exploring how God’s life invites a new way of living in the world.
Jesus’ stories humanized complex issues, challenging overly judicial explanations and manners of living that stood at odds with the new law he came to proclaim. Under this new law, everyone is called into a new order, a law of love that emphasizes faithfulness over perfection, leading always toward deeper relationship and communion with God.
As catechists, we are called to an imitation of Christ in this way. We are called to tell the stories that invite our students into deeper and fuller relationships with Christ and his bride, the Church.
To do this, we must begin from our students’ own lives and narratives. We can use their music, their hobbies, and their technology to find paths to God’s great story. By using their narratives as a starting point, we are much more likely to help them see Christ and the Church anew, helping to nourish and push their imaginations and conceptions of God past rules and rubrics, toward a real relationship with a personal God who wants us to share in his love.
Featured Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260–1318); Road to Emmaus, detail; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.