Catechists of the Archdioceses of Winnipeg and St. Boniface with Judith Vasquez (standing), director of Catechetics and Faith Development for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. (James Buchok photo)
WINNIPEG — Advent is a time to “reduce spiritual clutter, clear our hearts and make room for the Lord.”
With those words the director of catechetics for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, Judith Vasquez, welcomed 200 catechists to a retreat at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Winnipeg Nov.30.
The retreat was led by Archbishop Richard Gagnon, who reassured his audience, “The catechesis of the church doesn’t fall on your shoulders. You do not have control over the souls in that classroom. Catechism starts with parents and the catechist is to supplement.”
Gagnon quoted Deuteronomy 4:9: “Do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
He said in the Jewish faith the passage is called the Shema. “The Torah teaches the people to learn, to know and to pass on to children.” But, he added, catechism is not just passing a story along: “The Bible is full of stories but it is the living Word of God.”
The archbishop emphasized the importance of discipleship in a catechist and explained that discipleship means, “You copy. Copy who? Jesus. For some people the only Bible they will ever need is you.”
The archbishop spoke of walking the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago in Spain, likening it to the experience of a catechist: “We walked for three weeks, but it was for more than just reaching the goal. It was the journey; that’s where you listen, you are learning by encountering people through relationships, so the present is as important as the goal. The classroom is a special moment of presence. In sharing your faith you also teach yourself. There is a desire in our hearts to share our journey of faith with others.”
Pope Francis, Gagnon said, speaks of the church as a field hospital in a war. “It is ill-equipped; people do what they can to help the wounded. We are the church and we are called to help each other search for salvation. In the classroom you are a healing presence.”
The church’s General Directory for Catechesis says the church is sent to be the keeper of the faith, in communion with Jesus Christ. “Everyone here has a communion with Jesus Christ that started at baptism,” Gagnon said. “Faith is all about communion; every sacrament is a sacrament of communion with Jesus Christ and at the very centre is the eucharist; communion.”
The archbishop said a challenge for catechists is renewal. “Cradle Catholics get used to holy things and that’s why we have to be renewing, renewing, renewing.”
Young people, especially the very young, the archbishop said, “have a natural openness to the supernatural. That’s why Jesus loves them.” But many older children, he said, “don’t know how to live the faith; simple things like church on Sunday, or the liturgical seasons.”
“The Lord’s generosity is immense,” Gagnon said, as he spoke of Matthew 13 and the Parable of the Sower. He said some seeds are well-planted but need watering; in other places the soil is not so good and needs some fertilizer; other seed lands on rocky ground.
“Jesus is the seed on the world, always in abundance, in all climates, on all terrains. The sower knows the difficulty of sowing seeds but knows each seed has potential, the harvest will come. We can recall in our own hearts some difficult conditions. We are grateful to those who have planted seeds in us.”
The archbishop listed five objectives for a catechist:
1. To promote the knowledge of the faith, to know Christ and to live a sacramental life.
2. To provide a liturgical education. To teach how saints are heroes, to know the mass; “The more we understand about the mass the more we appreciate it.”
3. To encourage moral formation with respect to others and ourselves.
4. To learn about personal prayer and to study the Our Father and others (Hail Mary, Glory Be and the Creed) to know by heart. “Talk to God as you talk to a good friend and also listen to God.”
5. Formation of community life, to be aware that we are a part of a great community called a church.
“Do the best you can and do not be too discouraged if it doesn’t turn out,” Gagnon said. “Prepare well. Have recourse to prayer at all times and when you pray recognize Christ is there, without him we can do nothing.”
The archbishop confessed; “I’ve always found prayer difficult. I’d rather read or hear music, that’s much easier, but prayer demands our attention. When it is difficult, the Holy Spirit is present and the rewards are there.”
“All pastoral activity is found in the ministry of presence,” he said, “and catechism is a ministry of presence.”