Long before he became pope and took the name John Paul I, Albino Luciani was already a gifted catechist. Although he earned a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, he had the charism of expressing the truth of faith in the simplest of ways.

When he was still a young priest, Father Luciani wrote “Catechetica in Briciole” (“Catechism in Crumbs”), intended to help instruct those in the faith with less formal education. When he was elected pope nearly 30 years later, he introduced himself to the world with words that reflected the humility of his vocation.

“I can assure you that I love you, that I desire only to enter into your service and to place the poor powers that I have, however little they are, at the disposal of all,” he said at the end of his Inauguration Mass homily.

Pope John Paul I was beatified earlier this month by Pope Francis. As we celebrate the sending forth of catechists to our faith communities this Sunday, Sept. 18, Catechetical Sunday, this new Blessed’s approach is worth learning from. These catechists are being sent out to bring Christ in a new way, and invited to collaborate with an ecclesial renewal recognizing where old catechetical customs and practices are no longer relevant.

First and foremost, we should remember the source of the call to the ministry of catechist: the joy that comes only from an encounter with Christ himself. Our call to ministry stems from having witnessed the joy of a disciple, a joy that is contagious. This joy and relationship with Christ and others help us understand those we minister to, to love them as Jesus does, regardless of their experience with faith. By taking this opportunity to meet them where they are and help them discover Christ in their joys and struggles, we invite them to a personal relationship with Christ.

In this sense, the charism of catechist is not only to communicate truths, but to let themselves be servants of the Holy Spirit by inviting others to become disciples of Christ. In collaboration with the magisterium of Christ and by virtue of their catechetical call, be witnesses of faith and keepers of the memory of God.

In this call the catechist becomes not only a teacher but a mystagogue, helping others put into words and actions what a particular experience of faith means for them and the difference it makes in their lives, bringing them to a new understanding of faith.

Another important aspect of being a catechist today is learning what Pope Francis calls “the art of accompaniment”: being able to listen to the stories of others without judgment, to their joys and hopes, struggles and disappointments (“Gaudium et Spes” 1). In this way, the catechist becomes a traveling companion who situates people in a relationship to the Gospel of Jesus (“Directory for Catechesis” 2020).

Pope Francis has also invited catechists — as sharers of the memory of God — to rediscover the fundamental role of the announcement of the “kerygma” (“proclamation”), the message of salvation: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”

This essential message, Pope Francis tells us, is the first proclamation — the kerygma — because it is the principal proclamation, the first, the one that we must hear again and again in different ways through the process of catechesis.

This proclamation needs to be at the center of all evangelization activity and all efforts of Church renewal. The kerygmatic message needs to be heard by all to transform their lives, particularly in the way we carry out our pastoral activity with them. The kerygma is at the center of our evangelizing catechesis. This first proclamation centers and encourages us to adapt our ministries in the Church, to adjust our parishes, to understand parish life differently, to enter relationships where the art of accompaniment is at the center of our ministerial action.

The kerygma must be embodied in us as we rediscover our Christian identity. To be effective communicators of the kerygma, and servers of the word of God, catechists must take their own formation and transformation seriously to respond to their vocational call.

Every year we probably hear church announcements of the need for catechists in the parish’s religious education program. We have also likely heard that those who can respond do not need to worry about how to prepare because the coordinator will help them with anything they need for the task.

But the transmission of faith goes far beyond teaching classes or memorizing prayers; it needs to be a mystagogical process (one that initiates people into the mystery). There are behaviors that need to be learned and that will become part of a discipleship lifestyle that the catechist must be able to transmit with word and example. In his 1990 encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” (“The Mission of the Redeemer”), St. Pope John Paul II described catechists as “specialists, direct witnesses and irreplaceable evangelizers ... whom represent the basic strength of Christian communities, especially in the young church.”

The needs and the challenges that our communities face in the transmission of faith, the innumerable Church documents, pastoral theologians’ contributions, and the times we are living in today is a great opportunity to rethink the way we do ministry in our parishes. In May 2021, Pope Francis took the step of instituting the Ministry of Catechist as a formal vocation in the Catholic Church.

In his apostolic letter “Antiquum Ministerium” (“Ancient Ministry”) announcing this new ministry, he states that its vocational aspect calls for “men and women of deep faith and human maturity, active participants in the life of the Christian community, capable of welcoming others, being generous and living a life of fraternal communion. They should also receive suitable biblical, theological, pastoral, and pedagogical formation to be competent communicators of the truth. ...”

Today, there is a clear need to understand parish life differently, to adapt our ministries and adjust our parish models. Catechists are partakers of creating a new catechetical culture where accompaniment is essential; one that is relational instead of organizational; one that accompanies people in their joys and struggles; one dedicated to helping those in need, welcoming the immigrants, those of diverse backgrounds.

To build that culture, the Church needs bold catechetical leaders, open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit.