Accompaniment is the key to addressing modern catechetical challenges, a method that's at the center of a new entity being created under the direction of Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on the Catechism.

A proposal to create an Institute for the Catechism was presented at the bishops' spring meeting in June, which took place virtually. Rather than a physical structure, the institute will be a new process by which publishers of catechetical materials and the developers of catechetical content will work with the subcommittee to address modern challenges to catechesis.

The second main component of the institute will be a yearly, in-person training conference and retreat for diocesan catechetical leaders, with a separate track for publishers.

Current challenges to effective catechesis are many, Bishop Caggiano said, including the fact that parish resources often don't allow for extensive formation of catechists and that catechetical resources in Spanish lack crucial cultural considerations.

The influence of the secular world, the strain families are under, and the fact that many parents, teachers and catechists were part of a generation that was not well catechized, he said, also are significant barriers to catechists' ability to lead others to a genuine encounter with Christ through catechesis.

"They need some support," said Bishop Caggiano.

Although he presented the idea of launching the institute on the last day of the bishops' June 16-18 virtual spring assembly, it has been in discussion since 2017. Publication of the new Directory for Catechesis in 2020 added to the certainty of those involved that the time to launch the institute was in 2021.

Through the Institute for the Catechism, the process for evaluating new catechetical materials as to their conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church will change. Instead of evaluating a finished print curriculum and recommending changes, theological consultants will be involved earlier in the process, weighing in on the scope and sequence, glossary and the writing stage of production, for example, and reviewing digital products as well.

The publishers of catechetical materials used by parishes have always been conscientious about ensuring their products are theologically sound, Bishop Caggiano noted. Since the mid-1990s, annual meetings have taken place between publishers and the subcommittee, and a review process to ensure that printed catechetical materials are theologically sound has been in place.

"The relationship has been good and collaborative. Publishers want to do what's right, what's in conformity with the church. "This is the next evolutionary stage," Bishop Caggiano said.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, the bishop added that he feels there has been a natural evolution in the landscape of catechesis and catechetical materials.

"The catechesis has changed in that the larger society has become more secular, and catechetical materials have migrated to different forms of materials that were not common 25 years ago -- particularly the electronic platform," he said. "It's entirely possible that already, for example, a majority of catechetical resources a parish uses could be online versus in print. We're in a whole new world."

The difficulty of reviewing digital catechetical resources is that there are two kinds: static and dynamic, the bishop said. Some materials, once posted or printed, do not change much over the following months; but dynamic ones are interactive and frequently updated, posing a challenge to evaluation by the consultation team.

The solution will be for theological consultants appointed by the subcommittee to work with publishers during the process of creating print and online materials, instead of asking them to submit finished products.

Sabrina Magnuson, a catechetical consultant for Loyola Press, has worked in development of catechetical content for publishers William H. Sadlier, Our Sunday Visitor and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She was among the first group of publishers to meet with the Subcommittee on the Catechism when the process to review catechetical materials for conformity with the catechism was inaugurated.

Since then, not only have the methods of delivery for catechetical materials changed, so have many of the faces who generate those materials, Magnuson said. Wanting to get everyone back on the same page, she added, is understandable and needed in the face of increased disaffiliation, secular pressures on young people and the cultural diversity of the United States.

But for publishers, there are still more questions than answers. Magnuson is certain that having a theological consultant involved in earlier stages of the process will add time to that process and increase costs, making it hard for publishers to be responsive to the needs of ministry.

"On the plus side, if it's found that a publisher has skipped some foundational parts, those can be corrected early on. I can see the consultants' involvement on the front end, the accompaniment in those early stages, as ensuring authenticity," she said. "It will make it easier for them to achieve conformity later in the process. That balance will eventually be achieved, but it will tricky."

Ongoing direction and formation for Catholic catechetical publishing will take place at the annual conference. If questions arise during the creation of materials, the consultants also will be available as a resource.

Mike Raffio of catechetical publisher Plaum agreed that the vision for the institute has the potential to change the fundamental relationship between the publishers and bishops into a process that's less reactive to a finished product and more collaborative.

However, leading people to a meaningful encounter with Christ through catechesis and an understanding of their role in the mission of the church is something many catechetical materials attempt, "but we must admit our own limitations," said Raffio, who also is president of the Association of Catholic Publishers.

"Any person's faith development is a lifelong journey. That journey, even for young people, includes so many more variables than catechetical texts can be expected to provide," he said.

Magnuson agreed, noting that forming leaders who will in turn inspire and form parents, teachers and catechists in their home diocese is always a daunting prospect.

"At the end of the day, the textbook is a resource, a tool. Encounter is so much more than that," she said.

Mindful of lingering pandemic restrictions, this fall an initial group of publishers and diocesan catechetical leaders will be invited to a virtual formation conference. Next year, likely in November, the first in-person conference will take place. The cost of realizing the event is expected to be shared among dioceses, donors and publishers, Bishop Caggiano said.