Writing about Peter To Rot last weekend reminded me of the huge debt that all Catholics owe the millions of lay catechists who have evangelized, formed, prayed with, and baptized their fellow Christians and often suffered persecution and death for doing so. They have renewed and sustained the faith of millions during centuries of persecution and isolation.
When most western Catholics hear the word “catechist”, we think of the army of volunteer CCD teachers or Directors of Religious Education who work with children in an established parish under the supervision of a priest pastor.
But that hardly begins to scratch the surface since almost all direct evangelization and religious service to the Christian community not conducted by priests or religious is considered by the Vatican to be the work of “catechists”. All lay ecclesial ministers, even parish life directors, would fall under the category of “catechist”. So would people like myself and the Institute’s many lay teachers and Mark Shea and Amy Welborn and Christopher West and Ralph Martin and lay theologians like Scott Hahn – anyone who teaches or communicates the faith in some kind of public setting.
In the current polarized atmosphere in the US, lay catechists, especially lay women who are paid to work in the church, have become the object of withering scorn by many conservatives who regard them as so many ecclesial Trojan horses engaged in ministry in order to destroy the priesthood and its unique dignity and ministry.
My response in brief: nonsense.
Not only is it historical, global, and theological nonsense, it isn’t even true on the ground. Over the past 14 years, I’ve worked with thousands of “catechists”, paid and unpaid, in hundreds of parishes in 77 dioceses on 4 continents. Have I met lay ministers who are ideologues with an agenda? Of course. But I’ve met just as many priests and religious with ideological agendas and they don’t all come from the left, folks. Lay catechists are no more likely to be corrupt ideologues than priests or religious. Like priests and religious, they turn out to be remarkably like human beings: that is, they are all over the map.
Historically, it is a truly wicked nonsense, because lay catechists have held the church together heroically in so many difficult and cataclysmic circumstances that it is impossible to recount them all. It continues to be nonsense today because lay catechists are absolutely critical to the life of the Catholic Church in the global south where the majority of Catholics now live.
In Latin America, Africa, and Asia, lay “catechists” have a huge role. In Latin and Central American, catechists often work as de facto “parish life directors” since there are only 61,000 priests and a “parish” in Latin America can contain 50,000 Catholics spread over hundreds of villages and hundreds of miles . In some rural places in the Andes, a priest may visit a village only once a year. The 1,092,452 catechists of Latin and Central America are literally holding the Church together.
It is indicative of their crucial importance in the Church today that the Vatican has started to carefully track and publish catechist numbers, just like they do those of priests and religious. As of 2002, there were 2.767.451 “catechists” compared to 837,760 religious and 422,952 priests, bishops, and seminarians combined. (via Fides)
Together, that makes a total of 4,028,163 acknowledged “pastoral workers” (It’s clunky but I’ll call them this in aggregate for lack of a better term).
69% of the Catholic world’s “pastoral workers” are lay catechists. Think about that for a moment.
Then consider this: Again, according to FIDES, as of 2002:
There are 12,108 persons per priest and 2,642 Catholics per priest in the world as a whole.
How is a single ordained man, by himself, – even one who is healthy, young, zealous, and exceptionally gifted - supposed to teach, sanctify and govern 2,642 Catholics, the majority of whom are not practicing and are often spread out over wide distances, while simultaneously evangelizing those 9,466 non-Catholics that are his “share” in his spare time? (This is a factor because a pastor, in Catholic understanding, is responsible for every human being in his jurisdiction, not just the Catholics!) It isn’t humanly possible.
But if you consider that there are 2,248 persons in the world per catechist and 386 Catholics per catechist, things start to look considerably better. Admittedly, 1,862 non-Catholics per catechist is still a big number but it is still one fifth of the number that is a individual priest’s theoretical “share”.
And, if we consider priests, religious, and catechists together as evangelists, formators, and apostles, the per person/ecclesial agent ratio is reduced to 1,545 non-Catholics to one, about one eighth of the priest/person ratio alone, and the Catholic/pastoral worker ratio lowered to 265 to one, one tenth of the priest/person ratio alone. No wonder the Vatican is tracking catechists.
The Americas, where half the Catholics of the world live, has the highest number of catechists and a good thing too. In the Americas, there are 7,066 human beings for every priest and 4,402 Catholics per priest but only 529 persons and 330 Catholics per catechist.
To bring life to these numbers and to remind us of what we owe them, I think I’ll make the heroic and creative contributions of lay “catechists” around the world and through history the subject of my personal blogging for a while. I’ve done quite a lot of research in this area over the years so will just have to sort through stuff that has been sitting patiently on my hard drive for years.