What makes a good catechist?
As spiritual reading at the moment I’m reading Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Inner Strength for Active Apostles, which was originally published in 1918 and is a classic on the spiritual life. Dom Chautard was a Trappist Abbot, but writing for people who worked in the apostolate. It’s essential reading for any person with a busy apostolate as it hammers home again and again the absolute necessity of the interior life. We know from experience, as well, that the moment prayer slips a little bit in our lives, our work slips, our catechesis is not so effective. When we forget that this is primarily the Lord’s work, that he actually wants wonderful outcomes more than we do, things immediately go sour.
This hit home when I recently read a particular passage in Chautard’s book. It is written in – typically for the era – somewhat pious language, but the concern is exactly the same for our time, nearly 100 years later. He writes about a congregation of Catechist Sisters, one of whom is exceedingly talented, attracting crowds of children from all parts of the city to her catechism classes. However, the director of the congregation instructs that she should cease giving catechesis.
“I have assisted at some of her lessons,” replied the priest. “She indeed dazzles and entertains the children, but in too human a manner. She will, after spending another year in the novitiate, be better grounded in the interior life and will be also better able to sanctify her soul and the souls of the children by her zeal and talents. But she is at present actually an obstacle to the direct action of our Lord on the souls of the children…”
Instead, to the disgruntlement of the Mother Superior, he puts another Sister in her place, less talented, but more ‘interior’. The moral of the tale is somewhat twee, for, to Mother Superior’s surprise, the number of children attending continued to increase:
The influence hovering over the class was that of Jesus, for an interior person explaining the catechism is like the heavenly tones of a musical instrument played by Jesus Himself, and no human art, however marvellous, is comparable to the action of Jesus on souls.
It’s true – the style is not our own today, but cutting through this, isn’t it amazing how the same concerns perenially crop up in the Church throughout the centuries?! Today, we would be right to be concerned in the same way about children’s and youth ministry that merely entertains and “dazzles” but does not leading to an encounter, a deep union, with Christ.In our parish, we have been trying to address this concern recently for our First Communion children. We have introduced Adoration as part of their programme throughout the year. For the vast majority, it is a completely new concept to be still before the Lord in the Eucharist – and prayer is utterly foreign. It is difficult, and we are very much making improvements by ‘trial and error’, but it is something we are convinced can work, because Jesus is alive in the souls of these children and desires to draw them to himself.
This understanding is deeply at the heart of the Notre Dame de Vie catechesis I have already mentioned here. (Some English translations of the catechetical sessions are already available on their website.)