Religious educators receive inspiration at Catechetical Congress

LAWRENCE — Over 800 catechists, youth ministers, directors of religious education and catechetical leaders gathered at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence for the 2004 Annual Archdiocesan Catechetical Congress.

The daylong event, held Nov. 15 under the theme “Sowers of God’s Peace,” began with an opening prayer service, led by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley.

The service reflected the ethnic diversity of those attending the conference, with the archbishop addressing the assembly in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Intercessions were read in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole and Cambodian. The entire liturgy was also translated into sign language, as was the keynote address given immediately following the service.

During the prayer service, the archbishop asserted that “those who devote themselves to the ministry of catechesis play a vital role in the Church’s pastoral activity. Enlightened by God’s word and the teaching of the Church and inspired by their own life of prayer and witness, catechists lead others to know the living Jesus Christ through word and deed.”

"We live in a world where celebrities are very important ... but I must say you are my celebrities and my heroes. I am here to say 'Thank you,'" Archbishop O'Malley told the assembly.

"What you do is so important," he continued. "It is a privilege, and I know it is a challenge, but it is also a joy."

Archbishop O’Malley underscored the need for catechists “not just to be teachers, but witnesses of Jesus Christ,” by transmitting their faith to the children they instruct.

As the liturgy came to a close, Susan Kay, assistant director for catechetical leadership and regional consultant for the Central and West Regions, presented the Sister Marion O’Connor Award to two catechetical leaders within the archdiocese.

Instituted in 1998 to honor a former member of the Office of Religious Education, the award recognizes leaders who have served their parishes with distinction and excellence. This year’s recipients were Anne Fennel, director of religious education at St. Bridget Parish in Abington, and Deacon An Ros, catechetical leader at St. Patrick Parish in Lowell.

Immediately following the prayer service, the assembly divided into separate English- and Spanish-language sessions.

Carole Eipers, director of catechetics at educational publisher William H. Sadlier Inc., addressed the English-language session.

Dressed in stereotypical 1960’s attire and wearing a wig festooned with flowers and beads, she questioned the assembly, “What does peace look like? Years from now, will we be known as peacemakers in a time of terrorism and war?”

"Peace is first of all, a gift from God," she began. However, she continued, "there are obstacles to peace. Sometimes the obstacles are the very ones in our pockets or in our hearts."

Her speech, which was interwoven with the Eight Beatitudes as well as with excerpts from the prayer of Saint Francis, stressed the importance of the six basic facets of religious education: moral education, prayer, promotion of the knowledge of the faith, liturgical education, education for community life and missionary preparation.

In addition, Eipers exhorted the assembly to carry out their mission as catechists with great love.

"People are hungry for the spiritual," she declared. Eipers went on cite many instances of people "finding apparitions in odd places," stressing that often these are people searching for the presence of God in their lives.

"It is fashionable today -- have you noticed -- to be a doubter," she stated. "Despair is a real temptation ... when we are a people at war, when the economy is faltering ... Hope is a gift of faith. It is not a personality trait."

Eipers stressed the importance of and need for catechists who are listeners as well as teachers. “There are sadnesses in life, for sure. How do we journey with those who are sad? How do we journey and allow people to come to their own ‘Alleluia’?”

"Peace begins between us, as we learn to listen," she concluded.

Following the keynote address, the participants divided into workshops on topics such as children’s liturgies, how to speak with parents, adolescent catechesis and spirituality of the catechist.

In addition, exhibits were on display throughout the gymnasium highlighting a wide variety of religious education materials and publications. Those who attended the congress were invited to peruse the displays at various times during the day. Exhibitors included the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Pauline Books and Media, the Archdiocesan Institute for Ministry and Harcourt Religion Publishers.

The catechetical congress ended with a plenary session entitled, “Tickling the Soul of the Catechist.”

"Unless you take care of you, there's no way you can take care of anyone else," began Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, CSJ, author and executive director of the Counseling for Laity Center in Albany, N.Y., addressing the plenary session.

"We need to concentrate on today. There's no power in yesterday. Seize the moment -- think of all the people on the Titanic who skipped dessert," she exclaimed.

Sister Anne repeatedly moved the audience to laughter with personal anecdotes stressing the importance of “accepting life as it comes.”

"If you laugh ... you bring health into your own body," she said. However, "laughter is like a vacation: If you don't plan it, it can't happen."

“I’m absolutely convinced we can all reduce the stress in our lives if we know there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Things happen that are supposed to happen,” continued Sister Anne.

Accepting life as it comes, she said, enables people to appreciate even the difficult events in everyday life.

"As a Church we are supposed to be a resurrection people, but so many of us are stuck in the crucifixion. We need to be a people who are alive," Sister Anne declared. "What we must do is attend to ourselves so that we can tend to others -- so that we can be an alive people, so that we can minister to others."

“Live fully,” she concluded. “Every single moment. We need to inhale life.”