By Robin Gomes
Indian Catholics have welcomed the institution of the lay ministry of catechist by Pope Francis to encourage greater participation of men and women in the Church’s evangelizing mission in the world.
“Fidelity to the past and responsibility for the present are necessary conditions for the Church to carry out her mission in the world,” Pope Francis says in his Motu Proprio Apostolic Letter Antiquum ministerium (Ancient ministry), with which he instituted the lay ministry of catechist on May 11.
Church’s foot soldiers
“We wholeheartedly thank the Holy Father and welcome the gesture by him for recognizing our foot soldiers who are the actual personnel helping in evangelization and spreading the Good News of the Church,” Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow told UCA News.
A member of the Office for Laity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Bishop Mathias said that “by constituting the ministry of catechist, Pope Francis has given them full authority to go out without any hindrances and proclaim the Gospel.” “Lay catechists,” he pointed out, “are the people who actually bring the first message of Christianity to the ordinary people before the priest or religious people come and carry forward the works done by the catechists.”
In his Apostolic Letter the Holy Father says that when the catechist now receives the lay ministry, he will “emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person”. He insists it is “a commitment that must, however, be carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any form of clericalization.”
In many parts of the world, especially in communities without a resident priest or religious men and women, catechists are the leaders nurturing the faith of the local Catholic community, evangelizing, convoking and guiding their fellow Catholics in prayer and works of charity.
“We are at the forefront and have engaged in evangelization work for years, but we are hardly recognized by the Church and faithful, so Pope Francis’ reorganization of lay catechists will give us a status in the Church,” said Sanjay Tirkey, a catechist in the Archdiocese of Ranchi. “Lay catechists are paid the very minimum and, in some places, they are not even paid, but they acknowledge their work in the Church will at least refresh their energy to work religiously and give them inner satisfaction,” he told UCA News.
According to Father Manikya Raju, secretary of the Commission for Catechetics in the Archdiocese of Delhi, the new ministry will give lay catechists a morale boost to their hard work. “Priests and religious nuns also engage in catechist work but they have limitations in far-flung areas in transport, language and culture where the local catechists become handy,” he said.
Not an easy job
According to Tirkey a catechist’s job is not easy as people think. In some places, where people are opposed to Christianity, he said, catechists are even threatened. “Some have even been killed for their faith.” But for him, “Being a lay catechist is a vocation. It comes from God. The job is quite challenging but satisfying.”
Among the blesseds, saints and martyrs
While holding meetings with ecclesial groups during his journeys abroad, Pope Francis often includes catechists
. In his Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis underscores the effectiveness of the mission of catechists in the history of evangelization over the past two millennia. He says they were “men and women of deep faith, authentic witnesses of holiness, who in some cases were also founders of Churches and eventually died as martyrs”. "The long line of blesseds, saints and martyrs who were catechists,” he says, “has significantly advanced the church's mission and deserves to be recognized, for it represents a rich resource not only for catechesis but also for the entire history of Christian spirituality," he writes.
Even though the Holy Father does not mention names of catechists, the Church has many shining examples of holiness. One of them is St. Pedro Calungsod, a teenage Philippine catechist who accompanied Jesuit priests to the Mariana Islands in 1668 and was martyred in Guam in 1672. Pope Benedict XVI declared him a saint in 2012.
Lay catechists also were among the Korean martyrs canonized in 1984 and the Japanese martyrs canonized in 1987.
Last month, in April, the Catholic Church in Guatemala celebrated the beatification of the 10 martyrs of Quiché, 6 of whom were catechists, including 12-year-old Juan Barrera Méndez. They were killed for their faith between 1981 and 1991.
In 2002, St. John Paul II beatified Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, two Ugandan teenage catechists who were stabbed to death in 2018 for not refusing to catechize.
In 2014, Pope Francis beatified Italian PIME missionary Father Mario Vergara and lay catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, both of whom were martyred in Myanmar on May 24, 1950.
Among the group of 34 martyrs of Cambodia who were killed for their faith between 1971 and 1978, were 3 lay catechists. The sainthood process of these as well others from around the world are underway. (Source: UCA News)