ASIA - In the wake of "Antiquum Ministerium": the key role of catechists in the Salesian mission in India

Saturday, 22 July 2023 catechism   catechists   mission   evangelization   laity  

by Stefano Lodigiani

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - "It is our firm belief that the catechetical mission in India is only as strong as the preparedness of the lay catechists and catechism teachers who play a vital role in nurturing and sustaining the faith of our young. Hence, we need to continue the tradition handed down by our early missionaries in training and equipping the laity in the important mission of evangelisation and catechesis". This was emphasized by Father Sivy Koroth, Salesian (SDB), Coordinator of Education to Faith Dimension for the Salesian region of South Asia, which includes India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. "The Apostolic Letter Antiquum Ministerium of Pope Francis has been well received in India, and the Episcopal Conference has organized an online training program for catechists", notes the Salesian priest, also recalling the meeting held in Hyderabad (see photo) on "Antiquum Ministerium", which brought together the Coordinators of Education to Faith Dimension of the Salesian region of South Asia, as well as the two Provincial Superiors. Father Sivy Koroth underlines for Fides Agency the importance that catechists have had, and have even more today, for evangelization, and the commitment of Salesians in their formation, which dates back to the first missionaries of the Salesian Society of Saint John Bosco, who arrived in this land a century ago.

Don Bosco - explains Father Sivy Koroth - began his mission for the young with a simple “Hail Mary”. For him, teaching the young the truths of our faith, was the most essential task in the mission to the young. The Salesian missionaries who came to India over a century back, carried in their hearts the same apostolic passion of Don Bosco for evangelization and catechesis. The Salesian missionaries who set out to preach the Gospel across the length and breadth of this Country, particularly in the north-eastern part of India, which comprised of a wide variety of cultural and linguistic groups, needed the help of some committed laymen who could accompany them and later sustain the missions established by them. The missionaries followed the style of the Apostles by touring the villages and staying in a place for few weeks or for a month, teaching, preaching, and conferring the sacraments. Once the missionaries left the village, the lay catechists accompanied the faithful in their faith journey. Hence, it must be said that right from the beginning of the Salesian mission in India, the lay catechists were its ‘backbone’.

In his memoirs, Mgr. Mathias, the first Salesian provincial in India, describes how in the early 1920s he would take groups of young Salesians on those famous “missionary tours” across the hilly terrains of Meghalaya. They would move from village to village, carrying on their heads foodstuffs, blankets, musical instruments, visual aids for teaching catechism (pictures, posters and cut-outs), and a primitive film projector for showing biblical movies. The arrival of the missionaries would be a feast for the village - music and singing, fun and frolic and, of course, a lot of catechetical instruction, followed by confessions and a solemn celebration of the Eucharist. The ones who assisted these missionaries on these journeys were the local catechists.

With the arrival of the Salesians, the local catechists received a renewed face. They were no more merely teachers of prayers, but they were like a substitute parish priests who looked after the spiritual and pastoral life of the people of a village. It is said that in 1932, Fr. Alessi setup specially trained ‘catechist-inspectors’ in Tezpur, who would move from village to village to supervise and guide the ministry of other catechists. They would give a monthly report to the missionaries and in turn will be trained again with new plans and strategies for continuing their mission. They would also make available to people the books and pamphlets published by the missionaries. Unfortunately, we do not have the number of catechists engaged by the Salesians in our missions in India. Undoubtedly, there must have been hundreds of them.

There is a spurt in the catechetical activities in the Salesian India from the 1970s, motivated by the request of the Special General Chapter (SGC 1972), which indicated that ‘catechesis of young people’ was to be the first and foremost activity of our apostolate, and it called for a ‘re-thinking and reorganizing’ of all other activities in terms of young people’s faith formation (Cfr. SGC 279). The Chapter insisted that introducing Christ to the young was the very reason for the existence of the Salesians. The Indian provinces welcomed this invitation of the Congregation and set out to implement this call. The catechetical centres set up at Kolkata (NITIKA) in 1976 and at Bangalore (Kristu Jyoti College) in 1977 were just the beginning of the many other catechetical centres that would develop in the Country. Salesian India today has several other faith-formation centres both in cities and in rural areas of the various provinces. Deepakam in Chennai, Kapadvanj in Gujarat, Bosco Ashram at Ponnur in Andhra, Alaihal in Tiruchy, and the Salesian Catechetical Centres in Pune, Lukme and Shillong merit special mention for their creative and contextualized approach to faith formation. These catechetical centres primarily focus on the training of lay catechists and catechism teachers, while also engaging in providing specialized courses in Catechetics for priests and consecrated men and women, as well as in the production of catechetical materials for effective utilisation by the catechists in their ministry.

Every Salesian province in India prepare their catechists and catechism teachers by providing catechetical training on an annual basis at one of their own catechetical centres. The Catechetical centre at Bangalore (Visvadeep) offer a one year diploma in catechetics. The centre has already trained more than 600 consecrated religious, mostly women, who engage in the mission of evangelization and catechesis throughout India. In 2021, the province of Guwahati organized a year-long training and faith formation of 125 catechists of the north-eastern states of India. Through the regular short-term training and animation programmes held at all the other catechetical centres in India, hundreds of lay men and women catechists are regularly prepared for an effective involvement in catechesis and evangelization.

At the level of the Salesian Provincial Conference of South Asia (SPCSA), in 2023, the Commission for Salesian family organized two catechetical training programmes (Guwahati and Bangalore) for fifty members of the Salesian family who are engaged in catechesis and evangelization. The SPCSA Youth Ministry Dimension for Education to Faith organized an animation programme for the province coordinators of Education to Faith Dimension on “Antiquum Ministerium”. As a follow up of that programme, in August 2023, the Education to faith dimension is organizing a three-day training programme for trainers of catechists so as to equip them to offer a more effective catechetical training of the laity in the various provinces of the South Asian Region". (Agenzia Fides, 22/7/2023)