Through the years, I’ve covered my share of Catechetical Forums, the gatherings held each October in two locations in the archdiocese. There are a few reasons I like to go. For one, catechists are invested in their Catholic faith. They teach it, certainly, which is the very nature of their work, and they also live their faith actively. They’ve also proven to be, in personal encounters, very good readers of Catholic New York. What’s not to like?
So, when the opportunity comes to cover other occasions when catechists gather, I don’t hesitate to volunteer, as for this past Saturday’s annual Catechist Mass and Communion breakfast. Even better, Cardinal Dolan was the principal celebrant.
The Mass and breakfast both took place at The Riverview in Hastings-on-Hudson, which offers breathtaking views of the Hudson River. More than 220 catechists were on hand, and as Mass was about to start, the cardinal was encouraging people to come forward into the room. According to Sister Joan Curtin, C.N.D., the director of the archdiocesan Catechetical Office, the catechists came from nine of the 10 counties in the archdiocese. Only Ulster County was not represented, if I heard the roll call correctly. You also might be surprised to know, as Sister Joan noted, that there are 8,000 catechists in the archdiocese.
That day, Feb. 23, also happened to be the 10th anniversary of Cardinal Dolan’s appointment as Archbishop of New York.
One of the points the cardinal made in his homily concerned Jesus’ Transfiguration, which was explored in the day’s Gospel reading from Mark.
Cardinal Dolan told the catechists that part of their mission is to “transfigure” Jesus from a personality to a person.
One of the cardinal’s first catechists was Sister of Mercy Mary Bosco, who taught him second, fourth and fifth grades at Holy Infant School in Ballwin, Mo. In those years, the now-94-year-old nun was a master storyteller who kept her charges hanging on every detail of Jesus’ life. “One day Jesus was teaching 5,000 people, and He didn’t have any food,” Sister Mary Bosco would begin. “Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” Then she would go on to explain to her students that Jesus still feeds people with His Body and Blood, the Eucharist, at Masses every day.
“The mandate for you and me is to constantly show Jesus in a new way,” Cardinal Dolan told the catechists, much the way Sister Mary Bosco did.
As the catechists were waiting on the breakfast buffet line, I could hear them swapping stories about what works well in their classrooms. There was a lot of energy in that space as they chatted while helping themselves to eggs and bacon, waffles and potatoes.
A little earlier, Patty Viggiano, a 10-year catechist at Holy Spirit parish in Cortlandt Manor who is also a public school teacher, said she has always enjoyed a good connection with her students. She said she tries to use that connection to build up the faith of the eighth-graders in her catechism classes.
“I try to bring it to their level, telling them stories from Jesus’ point of view,” she said.
In her mind, religion is a practical way to instill traditional values. “It gets them ready for a world that is not always easy,” she said.
Father Anthony Ciorra, vice president for mission and Catholic identity and professor of theology and Catholic studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was the keynote speaker. He’s served in the past at Fordham University and with the archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development.
His talk, titled “Francis, Rebuild My Church!” traveled over some of the common ground in the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian saint, was “an instrument of renewal and reform” in a Church that needed both, Father Ciorra said.
Francis of Rome, as Father Ciorra called Pope Francis, does not come out of the traditional mold, so he can be a challenge to understand.
“It’s my belief that this man was given to us at this moment in time as an instrument of renewal for the Church, and this is precisely what he is doing through his example. He’s bringing us back to the Gospel and how Jesus would have us live. This is challenging. He’s calling us to a new place.”