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Celebrating the faith in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Celebrating the faith in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. 

Catechists: The African Church’s unsung heroes.

Pope Francis’ decision to institute the lay ministry of Catechist should hopefully bring about long-overdue recognition to an essential segment of the African Church often eclipsed by priests and religious sisters.

Paul Samasumo – Vatican

Welcoming Pope Francis’ decision to institute the lay ministry of catechists in the whole Church, Ivory Coast-based, Father Donald Zagoré, a priest and theologian of the Society of African Missions, underscored to Agenzia Fides the importance of this papal decree.

In the shadow of priests and sisters

“Catechists in Africa have been the cornerstone of evangelisation. They have carried out an extraordinary job. They were (and are) not mere collaborators of the missionary fathers, but important actors in the work of evangelisation in Africa, said Fr Zagoré. He added,” With few resources, both spiritual and material, catechists accompany and carry forward the hope of their brothers and sisters with determination and faith. I believe that without them, evangelisation in Africa would not have had the impact it has had. Unfortunately, when talking about the 'heroes' of evangelisation in Africa, catechists are mostly forgotten to the benefit of religious missionaries,” observed the SMA priest.

Recognising these men and women of virtue

On Tuesday, 11 May 2021, Pope Francis issued a new Apostolic Letter “motu proprio” that established the lay ministry of catechist in the Catholic Church. The Apostolic Letter called Antiquum Ministerium (Ancient Ministry) is intended to respond to an urgent need for the evangelisation of the modern world, undertaken by laypersons.

A decree “motu proprio” in the Catholic Church refers to a document issued by the Pope on his own initiative and is one personally signed by him.

Pope Francis said, in the decree, that the new ministry of catechist will give recognition to “those lay men and women who feel called by virtue of their baptism to cooperate in the work of catechesis.” The decree clears the way for catechists around the world to be formally installed into this ministry by the local bishop.

Clericalism

Elaborating on the Pope’s decree, Vatican Media’s Editorial Director, Andrea Tornielli, emphasised that Pope Francis’ decision to institute the lay ministry of catechist is not meant to “clericalise” the laity. On the contrary, it is hoped that this further step will actually help to counter the return of clericalism so often publicly denounced by the Pope, Tornielli said. 

What is Clericalism? It is that attitude that sometimes clerics (Bishops and priests), displayed especially in the past, in our church structures. It is a way of doing things, that sense of self-importance and thinking that clerics are a special class of people set apart and are therefore above everyone else in the Church. Though still alive and well within some church circles today, clericalism was more prevalent in the past. Pope Francis has often railed against this misguided sense of superiority and abuse of clerical power.

The vocation of Catechist

Catechists did not and still do not become catechists by chance, but do so as a generous response to Christ’s call, in the same way as priests and sisters are called. “The hope would be to ensure that the vocation of a catechist in Africa will no longer be considered ‘second-rate’ compared to the priestly one,” emphasised Fr. Zagoré.

Fr Zagoré further emphasised that the vocation of catechist must be promoted as a vocation in its own right if the papal decree to take root. The idea will be to put in place structures that make this precious gift God himself offers to his sons and daughters grow, said the SMA priest.

Our unsung heroes and heroines of the faith

Africa’s full-time catechists keep alive the Catholic faith in remote rural areas. For years they have taught the faith, walked long distances to conduct Sunday Services, buried the dead, defended their vulnerable flock against new religions and prepared the faithful to receive Sacraments. Though full time, their allowance or salary is usually small. Many of them, still have to create time to tend to their farms and provide for their families. Sometimes, Christians make an offering to sustain the catechist, but it is almost always never enough.  

There is also the urban catechist, usually part-time, in the cities. The profile of a part-time catechist in an African city is one who works a full-time job Monday to Friday but still dedicates the weekend to teach the faith at his or her parish. Sometimes, the catechist is a housewife who feels the urge to contribute to the mission of evangelisation at her parish or in a Small Christian Community. There are also many school-going teenagers whose immense contribution to parishes is sometimes grossly undervalued.

The recognition and institutionalisation of the vocation of catechist can only be good for the universal Church but more so for Africa. Logistics and geographical challenges mean that for years to come, the Church’s best ally in evangelisation will be, as has always been, these unsung heroes and heroines of the Catholic faith.

(paul.samasumo@spc.va)

12 May 2021, 13:04