An exploration of the Institute for Church Life catechism program
“Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:15).
Such is the call of every Christian, but it is particularly relevant for those acting as catechists, teachers of the Catholic faith to youth of all ages.
Eighty Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students participate as volunteer catechists in seven parishes in South Bend and one in Granger, serving students in preschool through high school. The Institute for Church Life (ICL) works closely with Holy Family, Our Lady of Hungary, Little Flower, Sacred Heart, St. Adalbert, St. Joseph and St. Pius X parishes.
The catechism program is a crucial way in which the ICL carries out the mission of Notre Dame as a Catholic university. Lenny DeLorenzo, director of ND Vision and a doctoral candidate in theology, told the Rover about how he helps lead the catechism program down this path.
“Part of the mission inherent in the very identity of [a Catholic] university comes through as ‘an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life’ (Ex Corde Ecclesiae). The catechist program helps to embody this missionary identity in taking the resources of the University … and giving them back in gratitude and service to the Church from which the University itself comes,” DeLorenzo explains.
He goes on to tell how an overwhelming number of Catholic children do not attend Catholic schools, making this program at Notre Dame extremely important.
“All children,” DeLorenzo affirms, “deserve a good education, and since the Gospel is the common good of all, the Church has a responsibility to educate its young people in the saving mysteries of the faith, presenting them in all their beauty and subtlety and unceasing relevance. In keeping with this responsibility, the University offers one of its greatest treasures—its own students—as educators in faith.”
The Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s catechists are very important for this program, for without them, many children would be left untaught in matters of the faith.
Erin Seeley, Director of Religious Education at St. Joseph, expressed concurrence to the Rover: “I think having Notre Dame students is good for our parish children because it shows them good models of faith in older kids who are not quite adults on the same level as their parents or school teachers. It shows them that there are young people for whom faith is still so important that they want to teach it to kids.”
Most importantly, however, the catechism program is a two-way street. Many affirm that the student teachers end up learning just as much or more than their students. Teaching the faith can only be done properly if the teacher herself fully professes her beliefs. Several students shared their experiences with the Rover.
“Being a catechism instructor has given me the opportunity to re-examine central tenets of my faith, reminding me to integrate the simplest teachings about God, salvation, human dignity, and childlike trust into my often over-complicated faith life,” says Jenny Poth, a sophomore business major volunteering at Sacred Heart.
Carter Boyd, a sophomore biology and Spanish double major teaching at St. Adalbert, agrees: “I grow along side my students. Seeing them learn, ask questions, pray, and reflect in their faith journeys’ helps me move along mine. I am able to bring God to these students, but they in return bring Him back to me.”
The work, however, does not always come easily. Mysteries of the faith are perplexing for inquisitive youth and hard to explain in simple terms. Often, the children do not have much background in the faith, it is not practiced regularly at home or there is little incentive to participate. At St. Adalbert, there is even a cultural difference that can be difficult to take into account when teaching.
Rita Kopczynski, the Director of Religious Education at St. Adalbert, comments to the Rover, “[Notre Dame] student volunteers face these challenges with an openness to personal growth and, I believe, even an increase in their own spirituality and faith commitment. They attempt to understand cultural difference and at best walk with their students.”
“It can be challenging discussing the complex teachings and doctrines like the mysteries to these students,” Boyd says. “While we want to teach them the doctrine of the faith, we also want to nurture them and impart them with the Spirit to go out and live their lives so that they can be strengthened through Christ.”
Alongside any difficulty always comes joy, and the joy is especially invigorating when its source is children.
Poth has experienced the depth of this joy. She says, “When a student spontaneously whips out a prayer, story, or verse from last semester (or even last year) during class, I feel so rewarded. My students have retained some of the most fascinating details of our class discussions and often pull together connections I never understood before. Especially during hands-on craft time, they come up with the most compelling analogies and ideas. Seeing them inform my faith while I try to inform theirs is humbling and allows me a staggering glimpse at the gift of human intellect God has graced us with.”
Teaching catechism is not just waking up early on a Sunday morning and telling children about things in which you already believe; it is a full engagement of the mind and heart, leading to incredible joy and an increase in faith. Any person serious about growing in the faith should consider becoming a catechism teacher.
“I think students should serve as catechists first and foremost as an expression of gratitude,” says DeLorenzo. “We only ever cherish what we receive when we offer it as a gift to others.”
He continues, “I think that undergraduates should commit to the service of catechesis because it provides for real human encounters that open up to the encounter with God in Christ. Because Christ heals and teaches us, we have the privileged responsibility of healing and teaching one another.”
Boyd agrees wholeheartedly, saying, “We are all called to be catechists. Faith is not something we attain, hold on to, and keep to ourselves. Faith is something that is alive, active, and something that we must pass on. Whether we bring the faith to students on Sunday mornings or to our friends and families we see every day, we are all called to teach, to catechize, and to evangelize.”
There truly is a deep need for more faithful college students to act as catechists. This is an amazing opportunity not only to pass on the Faith to others but also to grow in your own personal convictions. As this year comes to an end, consider volunteering as a catechist for next year. Enrich your mind and allow your heart to reach out to others.
John VanBerkum is also a catechist. If you have any questions about the program, please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.