“The specific vocation of the catechist ... has its root in the common vocation of the people of God, called to serve God’s plan of salvation on behalf of humanity.” (Directory For Catechesis, p. 72)
All Christians receive special gifts from the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, Saint Paul helps us understand that we are given a variety of talents to build up the body of Christ. Through prayer and encouragement from the community, some Christians discover that they have gifts for passing along the faith. They are known as catechists. A catechist is defined as “... a Christian who receives a particular calling from God that, when accepted in faith, empowers him for the service of the transmission of faith and for the task of initiating others into the Christian life.” (Directory for Catechesis p.73)
Catechists are teachers who present Church doctrine, but there is more to their vocational call. They have encountered the love of Jesus Christ and they know Jesus. Their relationship with him deepens as they follow pathways traveled by Jesus Christ the Teacher. Besides instructing others, catechists witness to the faith.
These religious educators share their spiritual journeys and help others understand that our Lord is a God of love, mercy and forgiveness. To become more skilled in this vocation, they study the faith and delve into the Scriptures. Formation and training help catechists accompany people into the mysteries of our beliefs. They speak of Christ’s saving grace and they walk with seekers through the joys and challenges of life. With hope-filled hearts, catechists echo the faith in their roles as priests, prophets and kings, thus fulfilling their baptismal promise to help others recognize and embrace the love of Christ.
Recently, I heard a homily that addressed the laity’s role in living out the Christian faith. The priest explained that all laity are called to serve in particular ways as priests, prophets and kings. He reminded the congregation that our vocations as Christians come to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, who pours out unique gifts during Baptism and Confirmation.
Continuing, he affirmed that all the people of God receive a calling to become “missionary disciples.” Words matter. To Catholics living in Utah, the connotations of “missionary” surely caught the congregation’s attention. A few listeners might have mused, “How can lay people be priests? What does he mean, I have a calling to be a missionary?”
The preacher offered clear explanations. The priesthood of the faithful involves proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to others. At Baptism, we (or godparents on our behalf) promise to share the Gospel message. Each of us is called to use our gifts daily, in imitation of Christ by living humbly with hope and presenting ourselves as examples for others. The Holy Spirit is mysteriously present, stirring things up and constantly guiding, inspiring and empowering us.
To underscore his point about faithful living, the priest recited a familiar adage: “Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words.” The Christian vocation requires sharing the Gospel message within our homes, in interactions with neighbors, and in the marketplace. I imagined a mother tracing the sign of the cross on her child’s forehead and blessing the little one while leading prayers at bedtime. I thought about the ways in which we embrace priestly roles by providing quiet words of reassurance to others, or by looking after our neighbors.
During this Eucharist, we were gathered with an ordained priest who was speaking certain words and performing sacred rites as our local shepherd. Together as the people of God, we were offering ourselves to serve the Lord. In our community that day, some were called to offer their talents as greeters and lectors. Some were signing up as catechists for the religious education program, but after we received the blessings of Eucharist, all of us would go forth out into the world to love and serve as missionary disciples.
Besides the priestly aspect of our vocations, the preacher continued, laity are called to become prophets who speak the truth to others and by grace, live out that truth in our lives. Words do stimulate powerful images, and I wondered about people sitting in the pews, imagining the role of prophets. When surrounded by a crowd seeking justice, what would happen, I mused, if a modern Christian prophet suddenly decided to grab a microphone and speak truth to a powerful, corrupt leader and some volatile followers? Catholic imaginations might give rise to further questions: “Does a prophet’s courage to speak the truth lead to martyrdom? Does being a prophet mean I have to speak publicly about controversial issues? Am I using my prophetic gifts when I confront my boss about an unjust policy involving someone in the factory?”
A prophet’s martyrdom may occur in our times. But later, recalling the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophet Micah, I thought about his message. As the Lord’s faithful ones, we should act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with the Lord. Micah delivered the Word of God that perfectly foreshadowed Jesus’ holy example recorded in the Gospels. The Spirit provides courage, wisdom and prudence as we share the truth, acting as prophets in our homes, parishes and workplaces.
Contemplating the priest’s homily, some parishioners might have thought about how a Christian serves in a kingly manner. Jesus modeled royal leadership when he washed the feet of his disciples, responded with love and kindness to the outcasts of society and chose peaceful ways instead of leading violent uprisings. Following Christ the King, a leader must serve as a compassionate ruler who provides examples of what love has us do in various circumstances.
Not everyone receives the specific vocational call of a catechist to teach and accompany others, but all the baptized are called forth to build the Kingdom by daily witnessing to others in our roles as priests, prophets and kings. I left Mass that day grateful for a pastor’s homily, and suddenly thinking more about the priest’s role as catechist.
Susan Northway is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Faith Formation.