Pope Francis Prayer Intention for December: Catechists – Let us pray for the catechists, summoned to announce the Word of God: may they be its witnesses, with courage and creativity and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pope Francis’ description of what it means to be a catechist is pretty daunting. He says that they are “summoned to announce the Word of God”. Being summoned usually involves urgency and a demand to respond. If we see someone collapse in the street, we summon an ambulance. If a boy is summoned to see the headmaster, he knows that he will have to account for his behaviour. Being summoned to announce the Word of God sounds particularly challenging. It evokes images of speaking at street corners with blazing eyes, of being passionately believing in all that we say. If we are teaching religion in a school or accompanying people in their journey into faith, that expectation is intimidating.
Pope Francis makes the summons seem less fearsome when he prays that catechists should be witnesses. Still challenging, but possible. To be a witness puts less emphasis on us and on what we say and more on the people who hear us and what they will see. If we speak about the Good News, our hearers will look at us to see the Good News expressed on our faces. If people hear anger in our voice and on our face see judgment, they are unlikely to believe our fine words about God’s great love for us. That is why St Francis of Assisi is said to have urged his followers to preach the Gospel, and sometimes in words. Loving actions and attitudes speak more powerfully than elegant or passionate words.
It takes courage, of course, to let our true self be seen and to believe that God can shine through that poor self to others. It is much easier to keep speaking in order to distract people from our own poverty. Yet St Paul saw in his own poverty the strongest witness to God’s love. His whole life was spent speaking about Jesus, and you only have to read him to know that he was a compelling speaker. But when people questioned his right to speak, he appealed to the fact that he begged his living, was often beaten because he followed Jesus, had been shipwrecked, regularly went hungry and was ill. He saw that his acknowledgment of his own weakness and faults spoke powerfully of God’s love for all of us in our sinfulness. In this, he was the opposite of the smooth televangelist who always smiles and never has a hair out of place.
Pope Francis also urges catechists to be creative. He realises that when we speak of faith we might worry about whether we have all the right words. If we leave the script, we fear that we may fall into some heresy. To be creative is to be bold enough to speak freely and enthusiastically and to trust that even if we don’t have the correct words, God will work through them to touch the hearts of our listeners. Truth is always more attractive than error, and it will emerge in the course of our conversations about faith.
The reason for our confidence when we speak out of our weakness is that the Holy Spirit is active in our conversation. We do not have to turn up the volume, act as if we are inspired, or bang the table. Being a catechist is not about what we do. It is more about moving out of the way and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through us. People with whom we speak will be touched by what they hear behind our words, often without our realising it. The power of the Holy Spirit is found in the response of our hearers: their reflectiveness, encouragement and the stirrings of life in response to the Gospel. We are its messengers not its owners.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.