The Bishop as Catechist

Friday, Jul. 23, 2021
The Bishop as Catechist + Enlarge
Bishop Oscar A. Solis, shown here with youth at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Mission in a 2019 photo, is the chief catechist for Utah?s Catholics.
By Special to the Intermountain Catholic

Susan Northway

[A reflection based on material from the Directory for Catechesis (USCCB, 2020 p. 75-76.)]

“The bishop is the first preacher of the Gospel by his words and by the witness of his life.” – Saint Pope John Paul II, Oct. 16, 2003

A bishop’s role encompasses preaching the Gospel and ministering to his people as the chief catechist of the diocese. The Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, D.D., 10th Bishop of Salt Lake City, witnesses to the faith and passes it along to the people of God in Utah. He presents reflections on the Word of God in many settings. He offers his life as an example to others. His message flows out of his love of Christ and his compassionate concern for the people of God in Utah.

As chief catechist, Bishop Solis receives assistance with catechetical planning from the diocesan offices. Occasionally, bishops may seek the expertise of theologians, master catechists and consultants in psychology and human formation. One of a bishop’s duties centers around ensuring that those who teach the Catholic faith are well prepared for the task. He recognizes that effective preparation often involves collaboration with formation experts. Our bishop enlists the help of gifted instructors from the Congar Institute for Ministry Formation in San Antonio, Texas. Their priests, religious and lay ministers assist our catechetical leaders as speakers and workshop leaders at the annual Diocese of Salt Lake City Pastoral Congress. Bishop Solis supports faith development by requiring advanced formation classes for laity who serve our parishes and missions as master catechists.

A bishop makes certain that the Gospel message is proclaimed faithfully. Because faith is passed along through the process of inculturation, a bishop must familiarize himself with various cultures present in the diocese. To do this, Bishop Solis makes frequent pastoral visits to parishes, missions and stations throughout Utah’s vast territory. By listening to the people of God, he discovers more about their catechetical needs and ensures that diverse cultures gain access to effective teaching and proclamation of the Catholic faith.

Fulfilling their roles as chief catechists, our Utah bishops have developed specific goals for faith formation within Utah. By studying demographic research and engaging in wide consultation with clergy and laity, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, ninth Bishop of Salt Lake City and now Archbishop of Santa Fe, formulated catechetical goals based upon current and future needs of the diocese. In that process, he fostered the development of the diocesan lay ecclesial ministry formation program.

Continuing the work of his predecessor, Bishop Solis now makes decisions about faith formation in fidelity with the diocesan pastoral plan he promulgated and now oversees. As chief catechist, he supports local plans for parishes based on a vision that flows in harmony with the catechetical guidance offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Directory for Catechesis (USCCB, 2020) points out that a bishop must possess a “real passion” for catechesis. During pastoral visits, Bishop Solis observes how a local parish offers faith formation and, when needed, he directs personnel and financial resources to assist local teaching ministries.

For many years, our bishops have advocated formation of catechists who possess skills and adequate knowledge of the Church’s teachings. I asked our vicar general emeritus, Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, about the catechetical legacy of some of our Utah bishops. He responded, “Bishop Duane G. Hunt (fifth Bishop of Salt Lake) was a master teacher, having been a professor of communications at the University of Utah prior to his conversion to Catholicism and his eventual ordination as priest and then bishop. He had a weekly KSL radio program, explaining the teachings of the Catholic faith, for many years. He was a renowned preacher and teacher, called on to speak on behalf of the U.S. Bishops on occasion. (Such as the inauguration of the United Nations in San Francisco). His catechetical homilies were published in pamphlets now and again. Like with other bishops, his Confirmation homilies were very catechetical in nature.”

During the 1960s, shortly after the Second Vatican Council, the Most Rev. Joseph L. Federal, sixth Bishop of Salt Lake, founded the annual Diocesan Congress. It continues today assisting catechists, clergy and interested adults to develop their skills under Bishop Solis’ enthusiastic guidance.

“Bishop Federal bestowed the St. Pius X awards every year in the cathedral, honoring a catechist from each parish who was helping him fulfill his responsibility as primary catechist,” Msgr. Fitzgerald said. “Bishop Federal also opened the Diocesan Resource Center where catechetical materials he approved of were made available for parishes.”

 A bishop leads faith teachers by example. He is a master catechist who promotes continuing education and advances understanding of sound practices of educational psychology. His preaching, catechesis and personal testimony model effective teaching methods. With fluency in Spanish, the Most Rev. William K. Weigand, seventh Bishop of Salt Lake City and Bishop emeritus of Sacramento, recognized and responded to the growing need for Spanish language evangelization and catechesis within the diocese. He encouraged parishes and missions to offer religious education and liturgies in Spanish and Vietnamese so all the people of God could participate fully in the life of the Church. “Likewise, Bishop Weigand sent clergy to study Spanish to facilitate their support of the growing Hispanic population,” Msgr. Fitzgerald said.

The Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, Ph.D, eighth Bishop of Salt Lake City and Archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, was a master catechist who occasionally shared his scholarly knowledge of American literature with students at Saint Joseph, Judge Memorial and Juan Diego Catholic high schools. He had great facility with words. As a faculty member, I remember hearing his deep faith shared beautifully with a class of JDCHS seniors who were analyzing short stories by a famous Catholic author.

 A bishop witnesses to the Gospel through his actions on its behalf. Bishop Solis ensures that catechists use approved textbooks and other teaching materials that are written and reviewed by experienced religious educators in consultation with respected theologians. He ensures the ongoing formation of the laity through the lay ecclesial ministry program. As our faith leader, he designates special times for catechesis during the liturgical year. With his advocacy and promotion of the Congress, retreats during Advent and Lent and support of the R.C.I.A. Program, Bishop Solis continues to lead and inspire our catechists.

Susan Northway is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Faith Formation.

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