Catechists as Mystagogues: Apprenticing Others into Discipleship

Catechists as Mystagogues - text over watercolor background by Sergey Ryumin/Moment/Getty Images

Years ago, it was common for a young person to learn a trade by being apprenticed by someone who was a master in that trade. When it was published in 1997, the General Directory for Catechesis (#67) created some excitement by declaring that faith formation was to be understood as an apprenticeship. What does it mean to apprentice someone into the Catholic faith? To answer that, let’s look at the essentials of an apprenticeship:

  • The goal of an apprenticeship is for the apprentice to work closely with a skilled mentor to learn essential knowledge and skills needed for the trade.
  • Apprenticeships involve hands-on work accompanied by study (classroom learning).
  • Apprentices are considered full-time employees who are learning on-the-job.
  • Apprenticeships last several years but are often competency-based (with specific goals identified) rather than just time-based.
  • The mentor must possess a willingness to share knowledge, skills, and expertise and takes a personal interest in his or her apprentice, developing a relationship of trust.
  • The mentor must be capable of providing guidance, encouragement, correction, and constructive feedback.
  • The mentor shares personal wisdom, tips, strategies, approaches, experiences, stories, insights, mistakes, and successes and introduces the apprentice to other colleagues who can be of assistance.
  • The mentor is not someone with all the answers but is a facilitator of learning and growth.
  • The apprentice is ultimately responsible for his or her own growth.

When a catechist embraces the role of being a mystagogue—one who leads others into the Paschal Mystery—the teacher-student relationship takes on the look and feel of a mentor-apprentice relationship. And that apprenticeship needs to be focused not so much on ministry (which is designed to build up the Church) as on the apostolate (which is designed to transform the world). Our job is not to create mini clerics but rather to empower people to live out their Baptism and transform the temporal order. Our goal is not to get them more involved in the parish but rather to get them more involved in the world, while leading them to see that such works flow from and to the Eucharist and the life of the parish.

This idea of apprenticeship in faith formation is nothing new: the role of the sponsor at Baptism is a long and valued tradition in the Catholic Church. In the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, those who are seeking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church are to be provided a sponsor whose responsibility is “to show the candidates how to practice the Gospel in personal and social life” (RCIA 75), helping by example and support so that the sponsoree might turn “more readily to prayer, to bear witness to the faith, in all things to keep their hopes set on Christ, to follow supernatural inspiration in their deeds, and to practice love of neighbor.” (RCIA 75.2)

If our faith formation efforts are going to have any hope of taking root, our learners must be apprenticed by mystagogues who can immerse them in a new lifestyle. A mystagogue “marinates” new disciples in the thick “juices” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Tradition of the Catholic Church. Since the earliest years of Christianity, Christians have realized that the spiritual journey is best walked with another and not alone. In her book The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Ávila, the great 16th-century mystic, wrote:

It is very important for us to associate with others who are walking in the right way—not only those who are where we are in the journey, but also those who have gone farther. Those who have drawn close to God have the ability to bring us closer to him, for in a sense they take us with them.

Mystagogues are not experts. They are not theologians. They have not achieved some level of perfection. They are simply a few steps ahead of the people they are apprenticing. Just as a carpenter or a chef guides an apprentice into a craft, the mystagogue guides an apprentice—someone who is not as experienced—into the way of life known as discipleship. The first step toward embracing the mindset of a mystagogue is to stop thinking of those we teach as students and instead think of them as partners and co-workers whom we are mentoring and apprenticing. We achieve this by:

  • not only speaking to them, but also listening to them and showing them that we truly care.
  • sharing “inside” information (i.e. not just doctrine, but our personal stories, insights, and wisdom about living our faith in the world).
  • equipping them with strategies for sharing and telling their faith stories and talking about their relationship with Jesus in a way that makes an emotional connection.
  • inviting them to participate in experiences that will make them feel part of a community of like-minded people and part of a movement or a cause bigger than themselves.
  • providing them with opportunities to invite others to experience what they have experienced.

A mystagogue approaches his or her role with this mindset: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

For more information about apprenticeship, check out my book, Preparing Hearts and Minds: 9 Simple Ways for Catechists to Cultivate a Living Faith.

About Joe Paprocki 2728 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

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