When we use the word catechist, who comes to mind? Typically (at least in the United States), we think of catechists as those volunteers who teach in parish religious education programs as opposed to Catholic school teachers who teach religion classes.
Because of this, Catholic school teachers of religion have resisted the title of catechist because it carries the connotation of volunteer as opposed to professional. This is unfortunate, because to be called a catechist is an extraordinary compliment. Here’s what I say about this in my new book,The Catechist’s Toolbox (Loyola Press):
Throughout this book, I use the term catechist to refer to those who serve in the parish religious education program as well as those who serve as teachers of religion in Catholic schools. If you are a Catholic schoolteacher, you are responsible for teaching a variety of subjects throughout the day. Faith formation, however, is more than a subject to be taught—it is an invitation to a way of life. By referring to you as a catechist, my goal is to recognize and affirm your vocation to form disciples of Jesus. To be referred to as a catechist is an honor that the church bestows only on those who have this vocation.
The truth is, in many parts of the world (especially Africa and South America), the catechist is often the most respected person in the Catholic community, especially in the absence of a local priest. The catechist is seen as a leader; the person who forms disciples of Jesus.
To be a catechist is not simply a form of volunteerism. It is a way of life and a vocation. Catholic school teachers of religion should embrace the title catechist, knowing that, in addition to being professional teachers of a variety of subjects (just as many parish catechists are professionals in other fields), they are also called upon to teach a way of life; to form disciples of Jesus.
Catholic school teachers make far less money than their public school colleagues. That sacrifice and dedication should draw attention to the fact that they are not only teachers, they are catechists who model discipleship of Jesus…a life of selflessness. Like parish catechists, Catholic school catechists are called upon to excel in their profession (in this case, teaching a variety of subjects). But they are first and foremost called to deepen their relationship with Jesus, engaging in ongoing faith formation, in order to be better equipped to form disciples of Jesus.
I encourage readers of this post to send it to the attention of Catholic school teachers and principals as they wind down their school year. My hope is that they will see it as an affirmation of the sacrifice and dedication they make year in and year out.