Homily of Cardinal Justin Rigali
Mass for Catechists of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul
Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
January 25, 2009
Praised be Jesus Christ!
Regional Vicars, Priests, Deacons and Religious,
Award Recipients, esteemed Catechists and your families,
Dear Friends in Jesus Christ,
It is a joy and, indeed, a privilege to join with you in giving thanks to God for all that He accomplishes in and through the catechetical ministry of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Catechists are esteemed and loved by the Church. By teaching the faith, you proclaim the word of God and share in an essential ministry of the Church. The National Directory for Catechesis points out that "The single most critical factor in a parish catechetical program is the catechetical leader" (54-B-5). You are vital to parish life and ministry. A vibrant parish depends on the generous and caring people who are part of parish religious education programs. Without you a very important part of the parish’s ministry would be missing.
The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul commemorates an event on the road to Damascus. Saul, after falling to the ground in astonishment, encountered the risen Savior. He then arose as Paul, to become the Apostle to the Gentiles. He who formerly blasphemed, persecuted and insulted Christ would become one of Christ’s most zealous disciples.
The conversion of Saul was a pivotal event for the early Church. So much of the story of the early Church can be traced to the intimacy with Jesus that was ignited in the heart of Saint Paul. His conversion gave him insight into the workings of sin, but even more into God’s power to transform completely the human being.
At the heart of Paul’s conversion was a surrender to the love of the risen Lord. The experience of being loved by Jesus was the motivating force behind his missionary activity. To the Galatians he wrote, "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). It was the awareness that Christ died out of love for him that overwhelmed him to his depths and totally transformed him. He came to see God, other people and even himself in a new way, with the eyes of Christ. He was emboldened to reach out to others and communicate to them, the love he had experienced and the truth that he had come to know. He became a teacher of faith to the gentiles and a herald of Jesus Christ to the world. He defended and offered Christ to anyone who would listen.
Two thousand years ago Paul was a vessel, chosen to share with others, the treasure that God had given him. His goal was: "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" (Philippians 3:10). Today, you too are vessels God has chosen to bring the knowledge and truth of Christ to others so that they might come to accept salvation in Him.
Your role as catechists is a response to the words that Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel. "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). Christ’s command has resounded through the ages, calling men and women of every race and nation, in every time and place to join Him in announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom. Christ taught individuals, small groups, and great crowds. He taught from hillsides and boats, in towns and synagogues, on mountains and seashores, on Sabbaths and feasts, early in the morning and in the dark of night.
You too, in a variety of settings, are called to communicate Christ to others. By familiarizing them with the Scriptures, teaching the truths of faith and preparing them to receive sacraments, you bring them into a deeper relationship with Jesus and His Church. Their growth in the knowledge of the Catholic faith brings them greater awareness of God’s infinite love for them. Their experience of this love transforms them, much as Paul was transformed through his encounter with the risen Christ.
Jesus Christ is the heart of catechesis. When you offer authentic instruction about Jesus, you convey Truth itself. He is "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). By sharing the Catholic faith with others, you keep the person and message of Jesus alive. You help people live according to the teachings of Christ so that they might be made new in Him.
As you know, the ministry of catechesis is not always easy. It often entails proclaiming the person and message of Jesus to a culture that is not always prepared to hear and accept the message. We are reminded of Saul’s own companions. They did not understand the voice that spoke to Saul. There are many reasons that hinder a deeper and richer encounter with Christ, his Gospel and his Church. Powerful and attractive messages contradict the Gospel. Secularism, moral relativism, distorted notions of freedom, materialism and individualism are just some of the obstacles that you encounter.
However, Jesus’ death on the Cross and the struggles that Saint Paul faced are reminders that teaching the faith has always encountered opposition. This should not diminish our enthusiasm for bringing Christ to others. Today’s challenges are also enormous opportunities. Tradition, Scripture and Church teaching are all gifts of God. They must be presented clearly and reasonably and in an attractive manner. It is necessary for you to demonstrate that a commitment to faith does not diminish freedom and happiness but offers the fullness of life, including eternal life. You are called to explore the new possibilities offered by new technologies. The Gospel message has to penetrate the culture, make sense to a new generation and bring about a response of faith.
More persuasive than words are our actions. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus directs Paul to be "his witness before all" (Acts 22:15). The most effective catechesis is a life that is lived in conformity with faith. Through your witness, others see that your life has meaning, joy and fulfillment. They are drawn to want to share the Catholic faith and become followers of Jesus on the "Way" to eternal life.
During his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI described America as a "land of great faith and remarkable religious fervor" (Homily to Bishops, April 16, 2008). Much stronger than the apparent religious indifference is a yearning in the human heart for God. Many do not contest what the Church teaches, they simply do not know it or think that it is something other than it is. Their search for meaning in life is an occasion for us to teach Jesus and the fullness of life that He brings.
The success of the Church’s catechetical mission does not depend merely on human effort. Were that the case, there would be cause for concern. Christ’s presence in the Church is the guarantee of success. Recall that as Saul lay on the ground at the moment of his conversion, Jesus did not ask, "Why do you persecute my followers, my Church?" He asked, "Why do you persecute me?" Jesus identifies Himself with His Church. He is one with His Church. As a consequence, the victory that Jesus had over sin and death He shares with us, His body, His Church.
All those who aspire to present Jesus and His teachings to others must themselves enter into an interior encounter with Christ. Saint Paul persevered as a witness for Christ through his union with him. He writes, "For to me life is Christ.... I long to... be with Christ" (Philippians 1:21,23).
Your personal relationship with Jesus, dear friends, energizes your service and provides continuing motivation, vitality and force in all your catechetical activity.
The foundation of your role as catechists must be a life that is nourished by the sacraments. This enables you to be God’s instruments in communicating Christ. Catechists water the seeds of faith, but God gives the growth. When you are sustained by prayer and by the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, your ministry is vital and effective. The success of your mission depends on your close union with Jesus Christ.
We are part of an exhilarating time in the life of the Church. The renewed emphasis on catechesis encourages each of us to introduce others to Christ. The task that God gave Paul was far beyond his own ability; yet he fulfilled his mission with the help of God’s grace. Dear catechists: the Church depends on you in the essential task of handing on the treasure of our holy Catholic faith. What a magnificent mission you have! What an incredible dignity is yours! God will accomplish great things through you, if you allow his grace to act in you.
Today we offer thanks to God for so many blessings. On my part I express profound gratitude to all of you who participate in the catechetical ministry of the Archdiocese. You offer time and talent to share the faith that you have received and cherish.
In addition, I am thankful to the parents who attend to the religious education of their children at home and encourage their children to participate in religious education programs. I deeply appreciate the effort of pastors and other priests to ensure that the catechetical needs and goals of the parish are met.
I am grateful to Directors and Coordinators of Religious Education and to all catechists for the assistance that they provide to their pastors. Know that I support you all in this great ecclesial ministry.
In particular, I congratulate our award recipients. Know that the Archdiocese treasures the many years of faith-filled service that you have provided. May you be specially blessed. And may the Blessed Mother Mary be always your life, your sweetness and your hope!
Finally, together we thank the Lord for having chosen Paul and for making him the apostle to the nations and the teacher of us all. Through the prayers of Saint Paul, the witness of our lives and the grace of the Holy Spirit, may the Gospel of God take ever deeper root in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.