MILL BASIN — Teaching the Catholic faith is not just the responsibility of priests. Lay people also play an important role.
It is in this spirit that the Diocese of Brooklyn marked Catechetical Sunday on September 18 with priests blessing their catechists at Mass to begin a new year of religious education programs for public school students.
Unlike students in Catholic schools, who receive religious instruction during their school day, children in public schools attend faith formation classes once a week in their local churches, where they are taught by catechists – volunteers dedicated to transmitting the faith to others.
Catechetical Sunday is celebrated all over the world. The theme for this year’s celebration is taken from Jesus’ words to the apostles at the Last Supper: “This is my body given for you.
At St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Mill Basin, Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, the parish priest, blessed the catechists of the church during the 11:30 a.m. mass.
Each catechist received a small gift – a notepad with a quote from Saint Teresa of Avila, “Teach by works more than by words”.
“We always highlight the opening of the academic school year. Well, this is a highlight of our catechetical year,” said Fr. Joseph Gibino, vicar for evangelization and catechesis in the diocese. Catechetical Sunday is important, he added, because “it highlights the crucial role the laity have in transmitting the faith.”
The diocese had 3,010 catechists in the 2021-2022 academic year. The number of catechists this year is not yet known. Churches typically submit their figures to the diocese in October.
It is not necessary to have a teacher’s training to be a catechist, although training is necessary. In fact, rather than “master”, the diocese prefers to use the term witness.
“And that’s what’s really important right now – for everyone to feel that it’s not so much what I know but who I am and how I pray. That’s the important message we want pass on to children right now,” Fr. Gibino said.
Melissa Wagner, director of faith formation at St. Bernard Parish in Clairvaux, said what she looks for in a catechist is a connection to faith.
“I like someone attending Mass who is a witness to faith, who is reliable, enthusiastic and has a lot of patience,” she explained.
The parish has 37 catechists – all volunteers – who teach about 240 children from kindergarten through eighth grade every Wednesday from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
Jeannine Turnbill was so impressed with the religious education her two sons, Nicholas, 15, and Daniel, 13, received at St. Bernard, that she decided to become a catechist four years ago. She started teaching in third grade. This year, she will be teaching fifth-grade students.
Turnbull, a secondary school teacher, said she got a lot out of her career as a catechist. “It made me reflect on myself and deepen my faith,” she explained.
Wagner’s goal is to ensure that public school students feel like the parish belongs to them too. “Catholic schoolchildren have a natural connection with the Church. I didn’t want public school children to feel left out,” she said.
Msgr. Grimaldi attributed the program’s success to several factors, including Wagner’s management style, the partnership between her and St. Bernard Catholic Academy director Tracy Flanagan, and parish outreach efforts. Wagner taught pre-K at the academy before becoming director of religious education.
“She really brought her own experience to it. It has been able to attract a good number of quality catechists. The program is run very professionally,” he said. “In a short time, we have developed good word of mouth on the street that this is a very well run program that holds children and parents to account.”
Under Wagner’s direction, the catechists try to create a fun learning atmosphere for the children. The exercises include activities such as making puppets, deleting vocabulary words from newspapers, and creating travel brochures highlighting the areas where the Saints lived.
Turnbull plans to have his students create flipbooks dedicated to the Lord’s Prayer so they can analyze each line of the prayer. The new term begins on September 28.
The program at St. Bernard is called the School of Religion. Wagner explained that the title is meant to ensure that families don’t see faith formation as an afterthought, but rather as a central part of their lives.
“Other people call theirs a faith-training program. But I want the kids to know they’re coming to school and they have to take it seriously,” she said.
And faith formation goes beyond the classroom, according to Msgr. Grimaldi. Young people also learn to serve others.
“We have a very good program where boys and girls preparing for confirmation have to do service hours,” he said. “We have programs that involve both boys and girls preparing for Confirmation as well as young children preparing for First Penance and Holy Communion. We have opportunities for them to work together and interact together.
He added, “We work really hard to involve boys and girls in different aspects of parish life.”