From its earliest days the Church recognized that the entire Christian community has the responsibility for catechesis. Modern Church documents, notably the General Directory for Catechesis (1997), have assigned this responsibility to individuals according to their position in the Church and their state of life. The bishop has the primary responsibility for catechesis in the local church and presbyters, parents and educators have specific duties and ministries in accord with pastoral needs.
The laity who are called and given this mission from the Church assume different levels of dedication and commitment. Full-time catechists devote their lives to this ministry and are publicly recognized as such. Part time catechists, often volunteers, offer a more limited but very important contribution to parish life.
Formation of Catechists. The General Directory insists that "diocesan pastoral programs must give absolute priority to the formation of lay catechists" (234). Bishops are to be scrupulously attentive to the catechetical formation of priests both in seminary training as well as ongoing clergy formation. Catechetical centers and institutes in many parts of the world, some under the aegis of Catholic universities, some organized by dioceses, have provided opportunities for ongoing catechist formation in the form of courses in scripture, theology or liturgy, retreats and days of prayer, and workshops or seminars on special topics.
The vocation of the catechist is both communal and individual. The Church fosters and discerns this ecclesiastical vocation and confers on the individual the mission to catechize, that is, to foster and strengthen the faith of Christian believers by means of the experience of Christian life as well as by doctrinal formation. The GDC lists three dimensions of the formation of catechists: being, knowing, and 'savoir-faire.' These three aspects must be seen as integral aspects of formation and developed in a holistic way.
Being. The formation of catechists begins with the personal formation of the catechists themselves (GDC, 239). They must attend to their maturity as persons, believers, and evangelizers.
Knowing. To be successful the catechist needs to have sufficient knowledge of the message that they seek to communicate, and as well as some knowledge of the background of those to whom they communicate. With regard to the first, formation includes both a biblical-theological foundation and a study of the human sciences such as psychology, sociology and pedagogy (GDC, 243). The doctrinal material is presented within an organic vision that respects the "hierarchy of truths" (241). The program should enable the catechists to articulate their own faith and should enable them to interpret their life experience in light of the gospel message. With regard to the second, it is necessary for catechists to be informed about the social contexts in which they work. Catechesis is effective only when it takes into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed. Catechists must appreciate and respect their language, customs, symbols, and questions.
Savoir-faire. Knowledge in itself is not enough. In addition, the General Directory stresses the importance of savoir-faire, of "knowing how" to hand on the message in a manner adapted to the capacity of those being catechized. It is based on sound educational theory, the ability to organize learning activities and lead effective discussions. The catechists'savoir-faire is strengthened by the opportunity to observe the sessions of those more experienced, to plan with and be mentored by other catechists.
Commissioning Catechists. The vocation of the catechist is supported by the witness of the whole Christian community because "catechesis is a work for which the whole church must feel responsible and must wish to be responsible" (CT, 16; GDC, 220). Although faith is a personal act—the free response of the human person to the initiative and self-revelation of God—it is not an isolated act. One can not give oneself faith, nor can one believe without being carried by the faith of others (CCC, 166).
Catechesis is effective to the extent that the Christian community becomes a "point of concrete reference for the faith journey of individuals" (GDC, 158). Since 1935, by the Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council (now the Congregation for the Clergy), "On the Better Care and Promotion of Catechetical Education," it has been the practice in many places to observe "Catechetical Sunday" as a way of focusing on the importance of catechesis and to recognize the role of the catechist in the community. It is an occasion to commission catechists within the context of the Eucharist in order to sanction and confirm their call to service in the faith community.
Bibliography: congregation for the clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997). international council for catechesis, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community: Some Principles and Guidelines. (Washington, DC 1992). congregation for the evangelization of peoples, Guide for Catechists (Washington, DC 1993). c. bonivento, ed., "Going, Teach …" Commentary on the Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae of John Paul II (Boston 1980). t. h. groome and m. j. corso, eds., Empowering Catechetical Leaders (Washington, DC: National Catholic Educational Association, 1999).