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USCCB to consider catechist ministry plans

Two years after Pope Francis urged bishops’ conferences to establish a stable ministry of catechists in local churches, the USCCB will consider next week a proposal that would frame established catechists as central formators in local dioceses, helping bishops to implement “evangelizing catechesis” to reach disaffected Catholics.

But before the proposal might be adopted, bishops will discuss three possible models for framing the instituted ministry of catechist in the U.S. —  a ministry Pope Francis called for in the 2021 apostolic letter Antiquum ministerium

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The proposed models for framing the ministry of catechist differ significantly from each other — one is focused on teaching teachers, another on engagement in secular culture, and a third focuses on institutional collaboration with bishops, according to a Nov. 6 USCCB memo obtained by The Pillar

The first model — “diocesan evangelizing catechists” — proposes that instituted lay catechists be understood as appointed to help diocesan bishops “in the education and formation of others.” 

In that schema, formally instituted catechists would be seen as “diocesan masters of evangelizing catechesis…formator[s] of the formators in evangelizing catechesis on a diocesan wide basis,” the memo explained.

The second model would from the ministry of instituted catechists as “lay ministers in the secular world.”

“The model… would see an instituted catechist as a lay minister who feels called to witness and proclaim the faith in order to awaken the ‘personal enthusiasm’ of all the baptized and revive ‘awareness of their call to carry out a proper mission in the community’,” the letter explained.

“In this model, an Instituted Catechist would be those lay men and women who have exhibited an extraordinary vocation to promoting awareness of the faith in their brothers and sisters and who are additionally formed and appointed by the bishop to be evangelizing witnesses in the secular world,” the memo added.

The third model under consideration — “co-workers in the apostolate” — would frame the ministry of an instituted catechist as pertaining to those who “are called ‘in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.’”

 “lay man or woman who, in collaboration with ordained ministers, shares in some way the pastoral care and formation of the faithful within the parish community.”


For its part, the USCCB’s committee on evangelization and catechesis has recommended that bishops take an initial phase, “possibly five years in length,” to “prepare diocesan evangelizing catechists in accord with model one” — the model envisioning that instituted catechist would assisting in the formation of other teachers across a diocese. 

“Then, after providing a sufficient opportunity for the development and experience of evangelizing catechists across the country, each diocesan bishop would be free to discern how to implement phase two in order to address his local pastoral realities. Thus, he might broaden Model One to involve a number of other catechists on a regional or cultural basis in his diocese or adopt either Model Two or Model Three in accord with his discernment of the particular pastoral situation/needs in his diocese,” the memo added.

“In this two-phase approach, Phase One would focus on the development and implementation of catechists who help the bishop on a diocesan level and can serve as master catechists imbued with an understanding and commitment to a new approach involving evangelizing catechesis as envisioned in the Directory of Catechesis,” the text explained. 

“Phase Two would focus on the development of other diocesan catechists, newly imbued with this approach to evangelizing catechesis, but now charged with broader responsibilities as discerned by the diocesan bishop.”

To explain its recommendation, the committee — headed by Minnesota’s Bishop Andrew Cozzens — suggested that “the significant number of baptized Catholics who have disaffiliated from the Church presents a pressing urgency for dioceses and parishes to develop a much more evangelizing form of catechesis. This is the greatest need for instituted Catechists.”

“The 2020 Directory for Catechesis urges this distinctly new focus for catechesis which we are still seeking to fully implement as a Church in the United States,” the memo added, explaining that “Antiquum ministerium presents a unique opportunity and responsibility to form master catechists to assist the diocesan ordinary in this paradigm shift in evangelizing catechesis.”

While bishops will not vote on the evangelization committee’s proposal at their plenary meeting in Baltimore next week, their discussions will help the conference’s evangelization committee to “finaliz[e] a draft document for deliberation and adoption by the full body of bishops,” according to the Nov. 6 memo.

Their work comes in response to Pope Francis’ 2021 motu proprio instituting the formal “lay ministry of catechist.” 

The apostolic letter made universal a role previously established in canon law for missionary areas, while allowing local bishops’ conferences to define the scope of the ministry — as the U.S. bishops’ conference is now working to do. 

The document stressed the missionary character of the whole Church and quotes the Vatican Council II decree on the Church’s missionary activity Ad gentes, saying “In our days, when there are so few clerics to evangelize such great multitudes and to carry out the pastoral ministry, the role of catechists is of the highest importance.”

“In our own day too,” wrote Francis, “many competent and dedicated catechists are community leaders in various parts of the world and carry out a mission invaluable for the transmission and growth of the faith.” 

While acknowledging that the diocesan bishop is the chief catechist of his diocese, and parents the primary catechists of their children, Francis said that “recognition should be given to those lay men and women who feel called by virtue of their baptism to cooperate in the work of catechesis.”

“This presence is all the more urgently needed today as a result of our increasing awareness of the need for evangelization in the contemporary world, and the rise of a globalized culture.”

Quoting his own 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis said that “it is the task of pastors [priests] to support [lay people] in this process and to enrich the life of the Christian community through the recognition of lay ministries capable of contributing to the transformation of society through the ‘penetration of Christian values into the social, political and economic sectors.’”

But the pope’s letter left the final scope and function of the ministry largely in the hands of the diocesan bishop and local bishops’ conferences.

Episcopal conferences were specifically delegated to determine “the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria for admission to this ministry” and charged with “devising the most appropriate forms for the service which these men and women will be called to exercise.”

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An enhanced recognition of the work and role of lay people in some areas of Church life was discussed during the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and the 2020 document Querida Amazonia, both of which made special mention of the role catechists play leading Christian communities in areas without a priest. 

In parts of the world where the role of catechist is well established, catechists perform more functions than just instruction in the faith. In missionary communities, where months may pass between visits by an available priest, catechists lead liturgies, perform baptisms, witness marriages, preside at funerals, and otherwise take charge of pastoral initiatives and organizing parish functions. The provisions of Antiquum ministerium appear to open the possibility for local bishops conferences to create similar roles for lay catechists in dioceses in other parts of the world. 

“It is essential that [catechists] be faithful co-workers with priests and deacons, prepared to exercise their ministry wherever it may prove necessary, and motivated by true apostolic enthusiasm,” Pope Francis wrote in 2021.

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