Tag Archives: catechists

The Spiritual Art of Planning

(This photo is not to do with planning… We had the Frassati Society a couple of days ago – a fantastic evening which seems to be going from strength to strength.)

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Nowadays, a lot of my life involves scheduling, planning, organising, juggling. Doodle polls are becoming a very dear friend in the uphill struggle of conquering multiple jam-packed diaries to schedule a meeting. Maybe (although I’m not too sure) I have a charism for administration – (is it possible to have a charism for something you don’t enjoy all that much?!) I admit, though, that drawing order out of chaos is satisfying. When days are ordered well and events are well-organised so that their fruit-bearing potential is maximised, you come to appreciate the art of planning. I call it an ‘art’ because it requires creativity, flexibility, dynamism. At the same time, it requires us not to micro-manage so as to suffocate life. I wouldn’t say that I am that great at it, but I am learning more every day.

Why would I say it is a ‘spiritual’ art? Well, I think it flows from Baptism. We know that we have a priestly, prophetic, and kingly aspect to our Christian lives.

In the priestly aspect, we offer up our sacrifices, the small sufferings of our day.

In the prophetic aspect, we speak words of encouragement or teaching to others.

In the kingly aspect, we order our lives towards God’s will.

I think each of these is an art. But the third aspect is what I’m interested in here. We each have a little ‘kingdom’ which is our own life. (And if you are a mum or a dad, the ‘kingdoms’ of your children’s lives overlap with yours, too.) Governing our kingdom most importantly involves governing our hearts – learning wisdom, growing in virtue, being aware of and mastering our passions, deepening our interior life, increasing our self-control.

Governing our outward lives is part of this. How we spend and order our time, how we order our homes and our lives, is intimately linked with virtue and interior life. Who doesn’t feel more at peace when there is order in their life – both exterior and interior? Pope Francis has recently called for us all on the ‘digital continent’ to “slow down!” and in my own life I find it easier to live with “deliberateness and calm” as he puts it, when everything is ordered, when there is space to think, and time to rest. Much of this comes down to planning, in today’s frenetic world.

I’ve found that catechists are among the busiest people I know. I know some absolutely brilliant catechists who are forever saying ‘yes’. They are able to because, thanks to a strong prayer life, their spiritual reserves run deep, and, coupled with the art of planning, they squeeze a lot into their lives.

And yet, we must not forget that our task to order our lives flows from our Baptism. Only someone who is truly rooted in God, knows that, but for Him who is the Source of all this new spiritual life gushing forth, nothing would be possible. The best organisational skills in the world could not produce fruit from a life that was not deeply sunk into Christ. Living from the grace of our Baptism, however, we can learn these skills to make the most of the created goods God has given us – not least, our time.


Discipline in catechesis

Throughout the year, and depending on the children you catechise, this can very quickly become a talking point. One year, a particularly difficult Confirmation group meant that Tuesday afternoons were generally filled with anticipatory dread as we faced the class in the evening. Now we can look back on our experience and laugh, but at the time, we didn’t particularly enjoy Tuesday evenings.

The Church recognises that there is a deeply rooted link between discipline and catechesis, since the word ‘discipline’ comes from the same root as ‘disciple’, and what are we doing in catechesis if not training disciples? The section in the GDC on the Pedagogy of God acknowledges this immediately: “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7) is the opening quotation.

But, we soon find that, like the question of children in church, this can be a charged topic. Parenting is unique in every family, and for a variety of different reasons, adults have different standards about what behaviour is or is not acceptable.

I remember, as a nineteen or twenty-year-old, going back to my home parish to help out with a Confirmation class. For the entire evening, the fifty or sixty participants spoke between themselves, were evidently not listening to the catechists, did not engage with their group leaders, and, as far as I was concerned at the time, may as well not have been there. I wondered how the catechists could simply keep going without addressing this evident problem.

There is a balance that we need to create, and that needs to be in place right from the start. On the one hand, catechesis is not school, and it would be wrong to create the same kind of highly-disciplined school environment that young people have just spent all day in. We need to get the message across that catechesis is something different, a place set apart in which they have come to hear the Word of God. The relationships young people have with their catechists, therefore, will be different from ones they have with their teachers. We begin our Confirmation year of catechesis with a retreat in which to create this community which should draw each young person into a closer relationship with God – where they are loved as well as challenged, where they’re accepted as they are, but also called on to holiness.

Catechesis should awaken in children a desire for God

The other side of this delicate balance means that discipline is completely necessary. In the Confirmation session I attended as a late teen, the young people were not being disciplined and so therefore did not experience the secure environment that both accepts them and expects great things of them. This is a challenging environment to get right, especially if you or your catechists do not have teaching experience, or a great deal of experience with young people.

I would encourage every catechist to persevere in this and do not settle for second best. Insist on maintaining the good procedures and habits that you set out with. Always carry through the consequences if your young people get slack at sticking to the rules. Never tire of praising good behaviour and manners. Always show that this comes from your love and care for them. Pray, pray, and pray to St John Bosco!

We forget what it is like being a child or young person. This struck me when this year we had a group of older teenagers helping for the first time with our Confirmation class. I saw very quickly that their perceptions of the dynamics and behaviour within the group were far more perceptible and accurate than my own. They understood much more quickly what was ‘going on’. I began to see that their insights and help were invaluable, and I now regularly ask their feedback on how the sessions are going. ‘Inside’ understanding from young people themselves, I have found, is indispensable.

Catechesis needs to create the conditions for children to understandAnd, as we all know, young people are happier with clear boundaries that are insisted upon. A First Communion class which had got out of control recently needed some help. I had no idea it had got so bad when I walked in and discovered children getting up whenever they felt like it and running around the room. After a couple of sessions, we were back on track, and one of the girls, as she worked on an activity, commented, “I really love it when it’s quiet!” She had discovered the real purpose of their catechesis.

So, discipline is not an end in itself. But it’s a necessary condition for catechesis to be effective. We have perhaps lost sight of this in a society which treats little children like “gods” and where parents experience guilt for not giving them what they want. But we discover, with some common sense and perseverance, that children are happier and freer when their catechesis is not centred upon themselves, but upon God.


Contraception, Cohabitation, and the Catechumenate

OK, as promised, here’s a post on tackling these issues in the Catechumenate. January to Easter is the time when we turn towards the deepest changes catechumens need to make in their lives, after they have received much grace, teaching, and experience of community.

I said that these two issues were the ones we are challenged with the most in our Catechumenate, and I must say, it is far easier to write about them then actually deal with them. So, here goes…

Firstly, these are emotionally-charged issues. People feel threatened at a very deep level because the Church’s teaching in this area touches the most intimate spheres of their life. We have to recognise this and not blunder in, all gung ho, like a bull in a china shop. You can argue with them about Humanae Vitae till the cows come home, but this is not going to help them change their life. Rather, this is why I believe the Catechumenate (excluding the earlier Precatechumenate) should last at least a year. Because over that time, the catechists and sponsors have had time to build relationships with the catechumens – you know them as friends, they have shared some joyful times with you, they trust you because they know you care about them and want the best for them. They have experienced the lengths you have gone to to answer their questions, introduce them to the parish, help them in other areas of their life.

The second point I would make is that, while we mustn’t charge in, we can’t skirt around the issues either, avoiding them until the ‘allotted session’. Right from the outset, catechumens will be aware that contraception is a particular area where their lives are currently at variance with the Church. So, if it is a question that comes up in the Precatechumenate, answer it fully and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush. At the same time, acknowledge that the Catechumenate is long, and it has built into it the opportunities to understand and learn in more depth how they can realistically put this into practice in their lives. Emphasise the initiative of God throughout – he is leading them on this journey, he gives everything that is needed at the right times. Assure them that everything the Church asks of us leads us to a freer, more fulfilled life, and that God never demands anything of us for which we are not ready.

Sponsors are 100% key in this area. One woman was aware throughout her Precatechumenate and Catechumenate that birth control was an area she was terrified of changing in her life; her sponsor cottoned onto this early on and provided her with wonderful emotional and practical support throughout. It is also vital that the catechesis given is top quality. Every year, I invite an excellent catechist to teach this session because of the angle from which she teaches it. Her teaching is utterly rooted in her own lived experience of the vocation to marriage, and the joy as well as sacrifice of being open to children. She speaks of the benefits of using natural methods for your marriage (it keeps open conversation, and it means the burden isn’t all on one person – e.g. “you forgot to take your pill!”) Then she speaks about the “grave reasons” a couple may have for not having sex in the fertile period. Throughout, she speaks completely candidly about her own marriage, extremely realistically about the difficulties of marriage, and with homespun, practical wisdom about how this fits into your family’s lifestyle.

It is a perfect example of how conforming our lives to Christ’s teaching does not limit our freedom or obscure our individuality (see previous post).

Friendship needs to permeate the Catechumenate to help effect conversion

So, in summary, it’s good to present the Church’s teaching on openness to life within the context of the beauty of Catholic marriage and family life (not by banging people over the head with Humanae Vitae), and it is vital that the person teaching is a living, joyful witness to this life. (An exhausted, bedraggled Catholic mother who has given up on her hair and make-up is probably a living saint, but is unlikely to fill catechumens with joy at the prospect of their new life…)

I am happy to say that, all the candidates and catechumens this year have decided to begin learning natural family planning methods. It is therefore vital that we also provide them with the opportunities to receive NFP classes, that we support them individually in the conversations they have with their spouse, that we pray with them and for them as they take the courageous step of making this lifestyle change.

The other challenging moral question is cohabitation. People are less aware about this than contraception because it is 100% the norm for young couples to move in with each other as soon as it starts getting serious. I mean, why not? It makes perfect economic sense. They can ‘try each other out’ before committing to anything more definite. If you have young, unmarried people in your Catechumenate, it is likely that this is a subject you will have to broach before long. Once again, the sponsor is paramount: a young woman in our Catechumenate who was living with her boyfriend was matched with a young, twentysomething sponsor who was newly married. It is important that we give catechumens and candidates living witnesses, showing them what is possible, and what will bring them fullness of life.

There’s one story I will share with you from this particular genre of Catechumenate obstacles… There was a wonderful catechumen who had had a big conversion and was beginning to discover the joy of life in Christ: she was getting up early to pray before work, she was devouring every Catholic book she could find, she was eagerly evangelising her friends. When we went on retreat, she experienced another beautiful experience of God’s love. But she lived with her boyfriend, was completely oblivious to the fact this may not be a wise idea, and eventually, I had her over to my house for lunch to broach this subject once and for all. We had a lovely lunch, very long conversation, we prayed together, we discussed ways forward, we decided to pray a novena for the next nine days. What a grace that this young woman was open to what God was asking of her. How amazing that the grace of our joint novena began to bear fruit in her life, and she is due to be baptised at Easter.

I admit it, being British we’d run a mile before ‘intruding’ into other people’s lives. But this is the importance of friendship. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have had that conversation with someone I barely knew, or who I didn’t consider a friend. And what’s more, as catechists and sponsors, this is truly a part of our call, what God is asking of us – to care so much for the people he has entrusted to us, that we do all we can to ensure they receive the fullness of life. It does cost us. It is a difficult apostolate. But it is one way we can lay down our lives for our friends.


The Year of Faith

I am already excited about the Year of Faith. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently published a Note with proposals for living the Year. It is a great Note, with some very concrete suggestions for everyone from the universal Church to episcopal conferences, and from dioceses to parishes. What is significant is the frequent mention of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (woo hoo!), given that the Year of Faith begins on the twentieth anniversary of its promulgation. Catechesis is at the heart of the Year of Faith and the Church in this country is like a dry land when it comes to catechesis… Although for the most part she does not know she is dry.

Faith in Christ brings healing and life - From a Roman catacomb, 3rd Century

So, what gifts does God want to give the Church in this Year of Faith, and how best can we be disposed to receive and respond to them?

There are some more general proposals, such as for each diocese to review its reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and this means both its structure and content) particularly in its catechesis. Two big areas arise here – both the materials we use, in schools and parishes; and the theological formation received by our catechists. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful sign if dioceses took this particular call seriously? Not just ticking a box – but looking at the real need for catechetically sound materials and authentic, theological formation of catechists.

I would love to hear your own ideas for the Year of Faith! Here are two very practical suggestions I have taken from the CDF’s note:

1. It is desirable that each Diocese organise a study day on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly for its priests, consecrated persons and catechists. I hope Dr Petroc Willey will be in high demand in this Year of Faith to teach such days – his knowledge of the Catechism is second-to-none (perhaps to the Holy Father 🙂 ) – he is truly an expert on this book and this doesn’t seem to be recognised enough.

2. The Note calls for groups of the faithful to work towards a deeper understanding of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Again, Maryvale offers a fantastic Certificate in Studies in the Catechism which would be a superb undertaking for groups of lay people in parishes.

What other ideas do you have? Both within dioceses and within parishes?


The Challenge of Conversion


This weekend saw our Catechumenate retreat at Ampleforth Abbey. The retreat comes at just over halfway through the year-long Catechumenate and is a wonderful way to deepen conversion, enter more fully into prayer and make resolutions regarding one’s spiritual life ahead. Ampleforth was a perfect setting – silence, beautiful liturgy, wonderful hospitality, and some good walks – for our Catechumenate to open their hearts to God.

For me, the RCIA process constantly throws up questions around the dynamics of conversion. Every single person in any given Catechumenate is different. Someone’s conversion to Christ may have happened very deeply, and now they need some doctrinal understanding to make their conversion firm. Some people may want the Catholic Faith – but on their terms – not ready or open to making too many changes to their lifestyle. This requires some work, and a retreat is a wonderful opportunity for such a person to come away from all the things that ordinarily consume their consciousness, and face both God and themselves. Some people may have accepted everything in their faith – authentically and wholeheartedly – but there may still be one obstacle which for whatever reason they cannot face to change. Hopefully a retreat will given such a person perspective, an ability to perceive that this change is actually possible because of the abundance of God’s grace, and that no problem, no obstacle is bigger than God. The truth is that, God has so much he wants to give to an individual in the Catechumenate – as catechists, how can we lead people to an awareness of this?

Two of the things which helped over the weekend we just ran were, firstly, an hour of Adoration with guided meditation on the Gospel. Only when a person experiences the love and grace God pours out in Adoration – only when they sit there for an hour in prayer – do they begin to realise how much God wants to give them in the Eucharist. The second example was lectio divina we did with one of the monks from the abbey. This experience awakened the candidates to the inexhaustible depths of Scripture. These two experiences were ways that God revealed to the catechumens and candidates the limitless abundance of his love and grace, in sources (Adoration and Scripture) that they can continue to return to. Only through this love and grace can seemingly difficult conversion be made possible.