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Dedicated teachers help students learn the faith outside of Mass

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Martha Drennan, director of faith formation at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield, had a nightmare on her hands. Starting her job the week after religious education classes were to start, she was faced with a shortage of catechists. Knowing no one in the church and needing more than the 17 committed catechists to teach the 300 registered students, she asked for prayers and volunteers. 

Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy and executive director of the St. Thomas More Institute, knows the importance of catechists.

“The best gift we can give to our children is the gift of faith,” he said. “It comes first and foremost from parents, but the church also has an important role. Catechists take up that mission to go and make disciples. We need them and it’s not always easy — those who volunteer find it rewarding to share their faith with children of different ages.”

Catechists are supposed to be more than warm bodies leading a class, said John Knutsen, assistant director for the Saint Thomas More Institute.

Knutsen said it is essential for anyone serving as a catechist to be a committed and faithful disciple of Christ, someone who lives and breathes the Catholic faith and has a real passion for witnessing to what the Lord has done in his or her life.

“When a parish has a team of well-formed disciples serving as catechists, it really can transform not only the children in religious education but their families, too,” he said.

James Blankenship is director of religious education at St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville. This year, has 38 returning catechists for 42 classes but he needs one more catechist. He said the successful return rate has to do with relationships.

“A few of my catechists have been teaching for more than 10 years,” he said. “I spend a lot of time cultivating a relationship with my catechists and helping them to become better disciples of Jesus. A disciple will live out his or her faith to the max and that is what I find in my catechists.”

Joanna Willard has been a catechist for second-graders at St. Francis for 16 years. She believes handing the faith to children is something God called her to do. “The key is bringing in the personal dimension, showing enthusiasm for God’s love and expressing it in a way that it becomes contagious,” she said. “Children hunger for God’s truth and love.”

Willard, mother of Father Jordan M. Willard, was homeschooling her children when she felt called. “I heard God’s voice tugging at my heart saying ‘I want you to do this,’” she said.

It can be difficult to recruit catechists, but putting an announcement in the parish bulletin is not enough, according to Kelly Wilton, director of religious education at Precious Blood Church in Culpeper. “When they feel personally needed and called by another person in the parish, they tend to answer the call,” said Wilton. “People sometimes feel inadequate to teach the faith or feel they are not a perfect Catholic. If you’re imperfect and still learning, we are providing support.”

Drennan agrees. “It plants a seed in them. They might think, ‘I didn’t think I had anything to offer and this person thinks I do,’” she said. “I see my work for the parish as empowering them to become the Christians that God has baptized them to be.”

Sometimes we don’t know what that looks like until we are invited, she said. “It’s not flattery but helping people recognize and discern the gifts that God has given them and encouraging them to make use of it.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018