by Stefano Lodigiani
Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (today Dicastery for Evangelization, Section for the First Evangelization and New Particular Churches) has always had a "special concern for catechists, convinced as it is that these are, under the direction of their Pastors, a factor of prime importance in Evangelization" (Guide for catechists, CEP, 1993).
The Plenary Assembly of the Congregation, which was held from April 14 to 16, 1970, had as its theme "Catechists, situation, problems and prospects for the future", and was based on the results of a questionnaire sent to the Bishops of the mission territories. In his opening speech, the Cardinal Prefect, Gregorio Pietro Agagianian, underlined the importance and timeliness of the theme, recalling the particular attention that the Missionary Dicastery has always given to catechists. In this regard, he cited the Instruction sent to the Apostolic Vicariates in China on December 18, 1883, which highlights the need for catechists, the criteria to be followed for their selection and formation, as well as for their material and spiritual support. The three main speakers at the Plenary were Cardinal Stephen Kim, Archbishop of Seoul; Cardinal Julius August Dopfner, Archbishop of Munich and Freising; and the Archbishop of Yaounde, Monsignor Jean Zoa.
Some indications about lay catechists emerged from the debates and from the work of the groups. They were distributed, at the end of the Assembly, as a "Letter" and not as an actual Instruction: 9 points in 3 paragraphs and a conclusion. The first 4 points define the catechist: identity, vocation, importance and role. With regard to formation, the spiritual and doctrinal aspects are discussed, and finally "the necessary conditions for an effective apostolate". The last paragraph is devoted to the accompaniment of catechists. The Plenary Assembly of the Congregation asked the Pontifical Mission Societies "to continue to provide subsidies to catechists". The priority was the creation and operation of regional, national and international training centres. The conclusion also recommends the creation of a "temporary commission" within the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples for a more in-depth examination of the subject, in consultation with the local Episcopal Conferences, in view of the directives to be given for the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
More than twenty years later, in April 1992, the Plenary Congregation of the Missionary Dicastery again had catechists as its central theme: the theme was "Orientation for Catechists in the territories dependent on the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples". About fifty members took part, including Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, national directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies, Superiors General of religious and missionary institutes, gathered under the presidency of the Prefect, Cardinal Jozef Tomko.
In the same year, a few months later, with the Apostolic Constitution "Fidei depositum" of October 11, 1992, the Holy Father John Paul II ordered the publication of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church", drawn up at the request of the Extraordinary Assembly of Synod of Bishops, celebrated in December 1985 and whose theme was the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and its implementation. After six years of intense work, this "reference text" " for a catechesis renewed at the living sources of the faith" (Fidei depositum, introduction).
As Agenzia Fides reports at the time, during the work of the Plenary Assembly of the Missionary Dicastery, several reports were presented on the first draft of the "Guide for Catechists", drawn up after a long process of consultation and confrontation with the different missionary realities to which it is addressed. Jesuit Father Albert Vanhoye, secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, explained how the vocation and mission of the catechist are rooted in the New Testament. Father Francesco Pavese, Missionary of the Consolata, Rector of the Urban College, quoted the answers to a questionnaire sent to all the particular Churches dependent on the Missionary Dicastery to know the reality of catechists, identify their problems and seek solutions. "The 258 responses from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania reveal that the role of catechists is still considered indispensable for the growth of young Churches and for missionary activity", underlined Father Pavese.
The need to clarify, in the Guide currently being drafted, that the catechist is "a specific call of the Holy Spirit", "recognized by the Church", "for an ecclesial mission at the service of the Word, worship and the community", was expressed by the Bishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso, Monsignor Anselme Sanon. In missionary realities it is a question of a "specific vocation, dedicated to catechesis". The catechist is therefore a lay faithful of Christ, called to the prophetic proclamation of the Word to non-Christians and to the transmission of this Word in the Christian community to lead his brothers and sisters on the path of faith and the sacraments.
In his analysis, Jesuit Monsignor Paul Shan, Bishop of Kaohsiung, highlighted the primary need to "place the catechist within the Christian community", clearly specifying the various responsibilities of the community itself, of the bishops and of the priests. It is then necessary to use clear "selection criteria", "looking more at the quality than the number". The apostolic activity of the catechist must have "a missionary perspective", both in the dialogue with non-Christians and in the work of inculturation of the Gospel, in the commitment for human promotion and the option for the poor, as well as in the action against the proselytism of sects, in the formation of those responsible for catechists in each diocese and parish.
The group work and the debates of the general sessions brought out other elements which made it possible to enrich the final version of the Guide. These are aspects relating to the identity, formation and support of catechists; to relations with the priest and with the own community for the religious; to the mandate of evangelization, especially missionary, "ad tempus"; to the position of catechists in the local Church and to relations with other evangelizers. A point on which all agree is that of the qualified, integral and permanent formation, both of catechists, for an evangelization attentive to dialogue and inculturation, and of formators of catechists, emphasizing the necessary human and spiritual maturity. For all these aspects, the support of the universal Church was deemed necessary, in particular through the Pontifical Mission Societies.
Welcoming the participants in the Plenary assembly on April 30, 1992, the Holy Father John Paul II, satisfied with the chosen theme, "a topic of great relevance, for which the Church's concern is constant", underlined: "During the During my apostolic journeys, I was able to see firsthand that catechists offer, especially in mission territories, a singular and irreplaceable contribution to the propagation of the faith and of the Church". In his speech, the Pope stressed that it is a "rich and diversified service" and that, for this reason, it is necessary to focus "with all possible energy, above all on the quality of the catechists", that is to say on "adequate basic formation and constant updating". "It is a fundamental commitment which tends to ensure qualified personnel, complete programs and adequate structures for the mission of the Church, embracing all the dimensions of formation, from the human to the spiritual, doctrinal, apostolic and professional".
On the feast of St. Francis Xavier, December 3, 1993, after extensive consultation with local Churches and catechetical centers in mission territories, and taking into account the observations made by the Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery, the "Guide for Catechists" was published, with the hope that its application in the Churches dependent on the Missionary Dicastery, "while promoting in a renewed way the figure of the catechist, will contribute to guaranteeing a unified growth of this vital sector for the future of the mission in the world" (excerpt from the presentation of Cardinal Jozef Tomko).
In 37 points, divided into three parts, seven chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, the "Guide" first outlines the profile of the catechist, under various aspects. These are vocation, role, spirituality, missionary zeal, coherence of life, inculturation, human promotion, ecumenical sense, dialogue with other religions, attention to the propagation of sects, etc. The second part is devoted to the choice and formation of the catechist, indicating the selection criteria and the formation path, which must include multiple areas: human, doctrinal, pastoral, missionary... The last part is devoted to "Responsibilities towards the catechist" of the people of God, bishops, priests, formators.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the missionary activity of the Church Ad Gentes (n.17), cited "the group, so deserving of missionary activity, constituted by catechists, men and women" and, recognizing that "the task of the catechist is of the utmost importance", he underlined the commitment necessary for their formation, suggesting the opening of diocesan and regional schools, the organization of conferences and refresher courses. He then wished that "the formation and subsistence of catechists be adequately ensured by special subsidies from the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide".
The Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith allocates an annual contribution for the formation of catechists and their support in mission territories, mainly intended for Africa and Asia, and to a lesser extent in Latin America and Oceania. The Pontifical Society of the Holy Childhood, whose objective is the missionary openness of children and young people, is also constantly involved in the formation of catechists at the local level, the production of guides and aids for catechists and young people, as well as the creation of structures where catechetical activities can be carried out. (Agenzia Fides, 23/5/2023)