4,000 quiet heroes

Over the years at your parish you’ve likely heard the plaintive calls from the pulpit for volunteer catechists.

Saint (fill in the blank) Parish, goes a typical plea, “is always in need of committed catechists (teachers) to lovingly and energetically teach our children about the love of Christ for each of us, prepare our children for the reception of the sacraments, and to instill in them knowledge of our Catholic faith.”

While you may have decided not to call up your parish office, over 4,000 men and women did. For zero compensation and probably not so much as even an annual volunteer appreciation dinner, they have stepped forward for the 2018-2019 academic year to serve over 35,000 first through eighth-grade youth every week in our diocese. While many of them decided to volunteer before the recent torrent of church scandals broke, others answered the call only recently. All of them share, by extension, in Bishop Michael F. Burbidge’s teaching office, and merit our gratitude and daily prayer.

By my math, my five children have already logged 27 academic years or 1,000 (free) hours of religious education under the talented direction of about 50 of these volunteer catechists, and our family is far the better for it. My sixth-grade son this year is in a classroom with 10 peers and two teachers, both full-time professionals with a contagious love of the faith. I’m jealous of his weekly master-class opportunity.

To be clear, my wife and I do not do “curbside catechesis” or “outsource” our parental responsibility as our children’s first teachers and catechists. But this impressive cadre of adults have augmented, reaffirmed, and built upon what we have sought to impart. They’re on our team, helping us in our duty.

“You have asked to have your child baptized,” we parents heard the priest say at our child’s baptism. “In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God's commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

Parents: “We do.”

We parents said “we do,” yet hopefully none of us need church scandals to wake us up to what this 4,000-member advance guard has already discovered: that our duty requires a decisive pivot from “spectator” to “participant” Catholicism, from a “member” to “disciple” mindset, from a “how is my parish serving me?” ethos to one of “how can I serve my parish?”

If “being Catholic in Boston is a contact sport,” as Cardinal Sean O’Malley has noted, then we are all Bostonians now. If you are not taking the hits and feeling the brunt impact out there, then you are either still sitting up in the stands clutching your hotdog and beer — or in denial.

“Why are you here?” one of my middle schooler’s catechists began the first class a few weeks ago.

“Because my parents made me come,” one student said, breaking the silence. A few others nodded their heads. One student sitting next to my son muttered and took the Lord’s name in vain under his breath. It just so happens that my son has been running an effective multi-year campaign among his public school peers to honor the Lord’s name, so this young man sat down next to the wrong kid. For my son, faith is already a contact sport.

Indifference and ignorance are hardly the only challenges faced by our front-line teachers who weekly stand before what some are calling the “first truly post-Christian generation.”

“It's very difficult to teach all levels of faith to, for example, first graders,” explained one veteran catechist to me, “when a quarter of the class have no idea what a church is or who God is; another quarter knows what a church is and maybe who God is, but hasn’t said a prayer in their entire six years of life; another quarter go to church most weeks, but their family is just ticking the boxes; and the other quarter is living their faith at home and in the world.”

If her numbers are more or less right, than just about all of us parents who said “I do” at our child’s baptism need to step up our game. The buck stops with us. This is a contact sport. This is real. The stakes are eternal. And thanks be to God, 4,000 quiet heroes have stepped forward to help us win.

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018