Sunday, September 23, 2012

Catechetical or Commissioning Sunday

This Sunday the parish recognizes and commissions our catechists—the women and men who help teach the faith to young and old alike.

We have already commissioned the staff of St. Anthony’s School, and today I will commission the coordinators and teachers in our Parish Religious Education Program, RCIA, Liturgy of the Word for Children, Adult Faith Formation Program, and Youth Ministry.

The Gospel today is perfect for the occasion. First, the final passage shows Jesus to be a great teacher, a model for catechists. Look how perfectly He presents the lesson—he picks up a little child, and with a very few words he teaches the disciples something they’ll never forget: Christianity is about service, not power. Humans don’t become important: they’re born with value and dignity.

It’s not as simple a lesson as it seems. A fine new book on Mark’s Gospel reminds us that children were viewed as non-persons in ancient society, without “legal rights or status of their own.”  With one gesture, Jesus shows human affection for the child, while “at the same time teaches his disciples to have a whole new esteem for and responsibility toward those who seem the most helpless” or unimportant. (Mary Healey, The Gospel of Mark, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 186)

The second lesson, of course, is that children matter a great deal to Jesus, as we know from His words in the next chapter of Mark: “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.”

It should be obvious why the parish devotes such great resources to its younger members, and why so many of our dedicated catechists are devoted to teaching the faith to children.

At the same time, we shouldn’t miss that Jesus isn’t talking to children in this Gospel text: he is teaching his apostles, all of them adults. And he’s doing so classroom style: St. Mark tells us that Jesus sat down, and called the twelve around him. Again, scholars tell us that sitting down was “the customary posture for a teacher in the ancient world.” (Healey, 185) Certainly Jesus taught by example, but he also taught many lessons in an effective and memorable way.

Adult faith formation, therefore, is no less important than the religious education of children—and it was no surprise that our Archdiocesan Synod’s third recommendation was developing an adult faith formation strategy for parishes, something we have done quite successfully here at Christ the Redeemer thanks to the creative energies of our coordinator and many volunteers, assisted by resources and leadership from the Archdiocese.

The Synod also recommended that the Parish Religious Education Program be extended beyond grade seven to the end of high school, something we’ve also been able to accomplish in the parish through the hard work of our youth ministry coordinators and Lifeteen volunteers.

Given the importance of the catechists’ mission, the annual rite of commissioning is a major moment in the life of our parish. Through it the Church blesses these faithful servants, assures them of our prayers, and offers official recognition of their ministry.

But there is a very important group of catechists who will not be commissioned today, because they’ve already been commissioned to teach the faith. I’m not referring to the school teachers who were commissioned at the school Mass; I’m talking about parents. They got their commission the day they were married, and had it renewed the day their children were baptized.

Parents need no special rite to recognize the privilege and duty they have as the primary catechists of their children. Our Catholic schools and the Parish Religious Education Program exist to help parents teach the faith, not to replace them. Even the best of catechists are no substitute for parents.

I’d like to tell you a story that makes this point, and that offers something of a challenge to parents.

This week I met a brand-new lay missionary who has come to Vancouver to work with Catholic Christian Outreach. He’s a big smiling guy in his twenties, visibly in love with God, and I am sure he will be very effective sharing the Good News on the university campus.

I always want to know where someone got such vibrant and visible faith. The young man told me a beautiful story of God’s work in his life, culminating at a CCO event when he truly experienced God’s love poured into his heart. But that wasn’t the part of his story that really captured me.

What I found most powerful was this: every Sunday for an hour, his Dad (and sometimes his Mom) spent an hour teaching him catechism. Maybe that doesn’t sound dramatic to you—but hearing it from the lips of a serious young disciple, and seeing the fruits of such a simple decision, it took my breath away.

Because it’s something any parent could do. With small children or with teenagers. With one child or several. A simple decision that would sow seeds that would sprout ten, maybe twenty years later.

I’m not naive: simple doesn’t mean easy. The young missionary told me that he didn't necessarily look forward to the lessons, and confessed that if his Dad forgot he wouldn't have reminded him!

But he also said that those hours of catechism in the living room “laid the foundation for my understanding of church teaching, and looking back, I’m extremely grateful for it.

Today, the whole parish family is extremely grateful to all those who generously hand on the faith—and not only our catechists. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God gave gifts so that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for ministry, for building up the Body of Christ.

Although we do not commission people to evangelize—we all got that commission at Baptism—we recognize today the hard work of our Alpha volunteers, who are so important to the work of evangelization in the parish.

As we prepare to celebrate the Year of Faith, I pray that each member of the community reflects on his or her individual call to share in the mission of Jesus, the one perfect Teacher of us all.

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