Catechumenal Ministries–Who Does What?

“Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?” A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” [The Episcopal Catechism in the BCP]

The catechumenate is primarily a ministry of the laity. — [Jim Dunning and others.]

What is the role of the laity and the role of the clergy in catechumenate ministry? I have always ministered in the catechumenate with the perspective that this is primarily a ministry of the laity. By and through baptism, all Christians are called to proclaim the Good News and work to bring others into the Body of Christ. How each participates in catechumen ministry depends upon his/her gifts and role in the faith community. Some are called to be sponsors; others, catechists; still others, musicians. Some laity may be spiritual directors. Clergy often minister in this role. but spiritual direction is not an exclusive gift to clergy. Deacons can catechize about service but so can others. Bishops and priests preach and officiate at the various rites. It is true that both laity and ordained ministers can direct the catechumenate. When I do work with clergy, especially pastors, on the catechumenate, one of the things I emphasize that they do not have to direct another program. They can help identify and train lay persons to direct and catechize.

There is a tension that develops at this point. Do clergy trust laity to catechize “correctly” in the catechumenate? Many priests think that they need to be in charge and lead the catechumenate “classes” because they have a better grasp of the doctrine that needs to be passed on. There are several errors in this. The most important is the assumption that catechumenal catechizing is about passing on ecclesiastical doctrines. Catechizing is about allowing the Spirit to speak Truth through silent listening to the Gospel. In the catechumenate, a good catechists is one who knows how to lead lectio divina. This is not a ministry reserved to the clergy.

What about the Catechumenate Director? Again, this does not have to be a priest or deacon. The minister needs to have good organizational skills and needs to guide evangelism, discernment of sponsors, scheduling of rites and many other aspects of the catechumenate.

At Trinity Cathedral, the clergy told me that they felt excluded from the catechumenate. They felt that the team had decided that the clergy’s only role was to officiate. They didn’t know what went on or what was “taught” in the “classes.” They didn’t feel that they knew the catechumens and candidates that we lay leaders were asking them to bless. They wanted some class or meeting time with the candidates. They want to get to know the candidates better. Their solution for this is to join some of the meetings or “teach” some of the sessions.

I, on the other hand, thought I was doing the clergy a favor by assuming the responsibility for leading meetings and catechizing. I directed the catechumenate, drafted the rites, oversaw the catechists. I interpreted “lay led” or “lay-driven” as meaning that the clergy did not need to be involved in the weekly meetings. And I didn’t trust that they knew what the process and what catechesis were all about.

The clergy do need to be involved with the catechumens and candidates. The question is “how?”, besides those roles that are exclusive to the ordained. In the past several years at Trinity, we have tried various things. One member of the team suggested that we give the clergy beads that the candidates had to request, thus giving them an opportunity to meet and talk with various clergy. That turned out to be superficial. The clergy handed out beads but did to take the opportunity to meet and talk with each candidate. This past year members of the clergy said they specifically wanted to attend some meetings. This is difficult, given that there is an intimacy and trust that develops in the small groups as the weeks and months go by. Our solution was to ask each of the staff and main associate members to lead a meeting on a Baptismal Promise during Lent. It turned out to be a challenge to schedule those.

James Wilde edited “A Catechumenate Needs Everybody; Study Guides for Parish Ministers” in 1988 (LTP). I have used it a lot while training people in catechumen ministry. Various people wrote essays on the various ministries: the Sunday Assembly (i.e. the entire congregation), Evangelism, Hospitality, Prayer,, Discernment, Peace & Justice Minister, Catechist, Catechumen, Sponsor, Sponsor Coordinator, Director, “Ordained Presider,” Lay Presider, Deacon, Bishop, Spiritual Director, Preacher or Homilist, Liturgist, Msic Director, Mystagogue. Many of these ministries get consolidated into several people, depending upon the size and structure of the parish.

There are only a few of these ministries that clergy cannot do: the Sunday Assembly (they can lead this), the catechumen, and the lay Presider. There are ministries that are exclusively reserved to the ordained: Bishop, Ordained Presider and Deacon.

The main criteria for who does what may be defined as identifying the gifts of the Spirit that members of the congregation possess. Numerous works on the catechumenate emphasize that “the primary minister of rites of initiation and the periods around them” is the assembly. (A Catechumenate Needs Everybody, p. 1). It is the business of the entire congregation to participate in the formation of catechumens and candidates. Thus initial task for the discernment minister is to help members of the congregation discern their gifts. The Director needs to coordinate all of the ministries. In a small parish, one person may assume several catechumenate ministries. In a larger parish, there may be more people to assume the different ministries.

All this being said, we come back to the role of the clergy in the process. My concern is that the clergy in a parish not see the catechumenate as another program that she/he needs to direct. The catechumenate is an important ministry. In some ways, because it is about preparation for baptism or renewal of baptismal vows, it is a central or core ministry in the parish. But this does not mean that the clergy-in-charge needs to lead or direct.

The most important role for the clergy is to get to know the catechumens and candidates before celebration of the rites. The preacher can personalize sermons, not only for the occasion but also for the candidates. How the personal connection happens will vary. We have tried several ways at Trinity and will continue to work on it in conversation with the clergy.

About Jerry

Catechumenate ministry is my passion. I have been involved in the catechumenate since 1980 in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal branches of the Church. I am a "progressive," ecumenical Christian who is realistic enough to know that the Church has never been "One"; is often not "Holy"; strives to be "Catholic" and is "Apostolic" only when members respect the Tradition rather than the latest customs. I have been fortunate to be able to focus on various elements of philosophy, theology and Christian history during my studies. I am able to bring them all to bear in catechumenate ministry.
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