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Catholic Education

An overview of catechesis

Last year as part of its annual Catholic educational issue, NCR invited Dr. Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, to contribute a guest perspective. This year NCR invited Daniel Mulhall, representative for Catechesis and Multicultural Concerns for the U.S. bishops, to offer his views on the state of American catechesis.


To understand catechetical ministry today, one need look no further than to the regional, diocesan or national catechetical congresses held each year in the United States. Be it 50 catechists in a rural diocese coming together for an in-service or the more than 20,000 folks who gather each year from around the nation for three days of talks, worship and fellowship at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, each group offers insight into the state of the enterprise.

The first thing that strikes people meeting with catechists is their vitality. They’re eager to learn about their faith, hungry for opportunities to grow spiritually and delighted to be with other catechists.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of them. Even the best catechetical programs today are handicapped by one essential missing element: adults willing to catechize.

Rare is the parish program whose director of religious education does not have at least one missing children’s catechist come Labor Day -- the weekend before most classes begin.

Reasons abound to explain the shortage: Both parents working outside the home, the pressure on single-parent families and a general lack of adult education in the parish are a few of the reasons most often mentioned. (These same factors affect when and where catechetical sessions are held, leading to more family-centered lessons and summer-camp type activities.)

Catholic schools are similarly challenged to place well-formed catechists in the classroom; the growth in the school-age population and the increasing demand for teachers by the public school sector only exacerbate the current problem.

Parishes often are forced to settle for having a willing adolescent teach younger age groups, or for having a “drafted” parent struggle to teach the class. In the case of the adolescent, there is enthusiasm but possibly little experience or training. With the “drafted” adult, there is often experience without either enthusiasm or formation. Neither situation is conducive to evangelization.

Catechetical formation programs also face the immediate challenge of a rapidly growing school-age population. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more children in grades K-12 today than at any other time in U.S. history -- more even than in the “baby boom” generation. These numbers are expected to rise for the next 20 years.

Catechists needed for all groups

As a result, parishes will need even more well-prepared catechists to care for the children who will enroll in the programs for the first time. (The demand for competent catechists prepared to work with adolescents and adults will continue to grow just as quickly.)

In addition, this population growth is spurred by a wave of immigrants who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Polish and Portuguese, to name just a few. Catechists will have to be found and prepared to work with these people in their own languages and cultures.

The next thing one notices at a catechetical conference is that most of the participants are women. Across the country, at least 85 percent of all catechists are female. Most parish and diocesan directors of religious education are also female. While most catechists are between the ages of 30 and 50, there are a surprising number of older and younger catechists.

That being said, it’s important to add that there is a growing concern about the next wave of catechetical leaders. Most parish and diocesan directors of religious education have been in the ministry for more than 15 years, and only a few new people enter the field each year. Recruiting and preparing a new generation of leaders is another task that will require our attention early in the next millennium.

Conferences also make it clear that catechists come from every race and culture. The growing African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-American Catholic communities are adding large numbers of their own catechists to the mix. This pattern is most noticeable in major U.S. cities and along the coasts, but it is also becoming more common in the heartland.

The changing face of the catechist is another challenge for diocesan and parish formation programs. A one-size-fits-all formation program no longer will meet the needs of all of these groups, if it ever did. Although programs individually tailored for different ages and cultures would seem appropriate, practically it can’t be done, given the limited resources at the parish and diocesan levels. However, the leaders of these programs can become more aware of the various needs of the people who seek formation and adapt wherever possible to age or cultural requirements.

Publishers who produce religious instruction materials face their own challenges. It is not enough that their materials receive an imprimatur, are shown to be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and find approbation by diocesan curriculum review committees. These materials also must be sensitive to culture and race and be usable by even the most poorly prepared catechist.

Materials for all ages

This is a daunting task, but the dozen or so U.S. companies that publish catechetical materials seem to reach this goal quite well. A walk around any conference exhibit hall shows a variety of materials for all age levels -- text and resource books, catechist manuals, videos and CD-ROMS.

Catechetical publishing in the United States is based upon a free market system. The publishers produce materials that they think will sell. They bear the cost of publication and reap the profits (or losses) of the sales. There are a variety of public and private companies who produce catechetical materials in this country. Several of these companies are owned by major secular publishing houses (McGraw-Hill, Harcourt General), others by religious communities (Jesuits, Daughters of St. Paul, Christian Brothers), and others by private individuals and families.

Publishers are a major source of funding for many of the catechetical conferences that are held in the United States, either through sponsorship of speakers or provision of food for the meetings. Their motives are not quite altruistic; their sponsorship promotes name recognition, brand loyalty and gives them an opportunity to showcase their new products to a captive audience.

Because publishers depend on the marketplace for their revenues, most of the catechetical materials are published in English. Until recently, publishers have been unwilling to publish in Spanish because they could not sell enough books to make their desired profit. As the Hispanic population grows, more Spanish language materials are being sold, and so more publishers are producing Spanish language products -- not enough to satisfy the requests of Hispanic catechists, but much more than before.

This market-driven approach to catechetical publishing also explains the nearly complete absence of materials for other cultural and ethnic groups. Publishing materials for such relatively small groups makes wonderful pastoral -- but little economic -- sense.

African-American and Native American catechists justifiably complain about the lack of materials appropriate for use in their communities. Even when publishers attempt to tell the faith stories and traditions of these groups, they find it difficult to get the cultural nuances just right. Asian-American Catholic communities often import materials from their home countries, just as immigrant groups in the past regularly have done. Not only is this costly and time-consuming, these materials -- though in the right language and culturally appropriate -- do not address the major issues of the immigrant here.

While publishers cannot be expected to produce materials at a loss, they must be encouraged to make greater efforts to be sensitive to all the races and cultures who use their materials. It is not enough to have a member of an ethnic community listed on the writing team, to publish pictures of ethnic communities or to tell ethnic stories -- although each of these is an appropriate step. Texts also must be sensitive to how various cultures think and act, what they value and how they worship.

Textbook publishers alone are not responsible for inculturating the faith in a society, but they certainly have the ability to have a far-reaching impact. The church in the United States has turned to the publishing community for many years to help meet its catechetical needs. Although at times strained, the relationship between the church and publishers is a good one, and all parties are working together to address these growing concerns.

One also notices at catechetical conferences the involvement of priests and bishops. Parishes with strong programs receive a great deal of attention from their pastors. A common sight at conferences is groups of catechists engaged in spirited conversation with their pastors, and they are obviously having a good time. Of course, every pastor can’t be present at every meeting, but the enthusiasm and support for catechesis (or lack thereof) is certainly clear whether pastors are physically present or not.

As the person primarily responsible for catechesis and catechists, the bishop’s enthusiasm sets the tone for his diocese. At the recent Los Angeles Congress, Bishop Gerald Barnes of the San Bernardino diocese spent hours each day in the diocesan booth talking with catechists, greeting people by name and receiving hugs and smiles. The catechists from San Bernardino were excited and affirmed by the bishop’s presence, and they showed it. Other bishops engender similar responses when they meet with catechists and affirm them in their ministry.

Catechetical ministry is about to undergo great renewal. There are challenges to face and obstacles to overcome, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis offer extraordinary guidance and direction. Ultimately, the task lies with several people -- the catechetical leader, the parish catechist, the person in the pew -- to recognize that all are called to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection, and to live so that others desire to follow his way.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999