The ministry of catechist has been instituted as an integral vocation in the life of the Church. The 2021 motu proprio of Pope Francis, Antiquum Ministerium, reminds us that this ministry has existed in the Church from the beginning and is identified by St Paul as one of the gifts of the Spirit for the mission of the Church.
Antiquum Ministerium calls for a rediscovery of this ministry by discernment of the gift of teaching given by the Holy Spirit, through Baptism to members of the Church for the mission of the Church. This ministry of “catechist” is a vocation and is not the same as the volunteer teacher of religion in government schools or in parish sacramental programs for children or the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, although some of these volunteers may also be called to the ministry.
Catechists can play an important part in the task of evangelisation in an increasingly secular society.
The catechist teaches how to live the Christian life, thus leading people to deepen their relationship with Christ. The catechist is not merely a teacher, but someone who accompanies others in their ongoing conversion to Christ. The catechist is someone who has received a call from God to undertake this special role in the mission of the Church. This call or vocation must be appropriately discerned and nurtured.
Catechists continue to play an important role for the Church in such places as our northern neighbour Papua New Guinea. Indeed, it was brought to the attention of many Australian Catholics when Blessed Peter To Rot was beatified alongside Mary MacKillop. Further, the role of catechist is still alive in the memory and experience of many migrant communities in Australia, especially in those coming from Africa.
Ad Gentes, one of the key documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council, recognises that “catechists… imbued with the apostolic spirit… make an outstanding and altogether necessary contribution to the spread of the Faith and of the Church” and, owing to the importance of their work, “their training must be so accomplished and so adapted to advances on the cultural level that as reliable co-workers of the priestly order, they may perform their task well” [AG17]. The ministry of catechist is another example of the co-responsibility exercised by the laity and the ordained.
The Guide for Catechists (1993) says: “The catechist is a lay person specially appointed by the Church, in accordance with local needs, to make Christ known, loved and followed by those who do not yet know Him and by the faithful themselves” (GC 3).
Catechists already working in Australia
The Church in Australia already engages catechists in a variety of roles.
- In Melbourne, there is a ministry exercised by catechists within the South Sudanese community under the leadership of Deacon George Piech Meat, who is the chaplain of the community.
- In September 2020, Archbishop Julian Porteous established the Order of Catechists in the Archdiocese of Hobart. In 2021 the training of catechists commenced through Verbum Domini Institute.
- A pilot project for training catechists to work within their own communities and engaging the Diocese of Darwin, the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC), Catholic Mission, the Divine Word Missionaries and the parishes of Wadeye and Alice Springs is about to launch.
- The Neocatechumenal Way has engaged the role of catechists, working in a team with a priest as a key element of their work. The formation involves three to four years of biblical and existential formation through immersion in the life of a community. Catechists either work with the formation of new communities or may commit to working at an international level and be assigned to working overseas.
Co-responsibility for the Mission of the Church
This is not an exhaustive list. It is possible to imagine many ways of exercising the vocation of catechists in the Church. A marriage catechumenate is being developed for the Church in Australia. There are other programs for accompaniment of those reconnecting with the Church, and more are also being developed. Together with priests, deacons and the lay ministries of acolyte and lector, the ministry of catechist is another way of exercising co-responsibility for the faith formation of the Catholic community.
 Antiquum Sacramentum – Instituting the Ministry of Catechist, Motu Proprio, Pope Francis, 2021