Catechists learn from, give support to those who share their ministry
“I didn’t know I was a ‘catechist,’” said Angela del Carmen Phipps, a parishioner of St. Joseph, Hampton. “At first, there were times I panicked. But what God has given me, I knew he did not give just to me, but to share with others.”
Del Carmen Phipps spoke of her experiences in working in children’s and adult faith formation at “Heralds of Faith,” a bilingual celebration held Saturday, Oct. 22, at St. Gregory the Great, Virginia Beach. It was a day to recognize the diocese’s own modern-day heralds, those who go forth and proclaim the Gospel.
The second annual event, sponsored by the diocesan Office of Christian Formation, featured a Mass celebrated by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, and allowed the bishop to meet personally with catechists who serve the diocese’s Eastern Vicariate and to honor their ministry. More than 200 catechists were in attendance, representing parishes from Chesapeake to Williamsburg.
“It’s very much a part of the work of the Church,” Bishop Knestout said, “to — out of love for the Church and its teachings — further the confirmation of the Good News and to hand off the faith to the next generation.”
Steven Schlossberg, a catechist at St. Mark, Virginia Beach, who attended with a large group from his parish for a day of camaraderie, said, “We’re a tight catechist community at St. Mark’s. So, we’ve all come out to celebrate with the bishop.”
Among the presentations given at the event were witness talks by catechists Nancy Poole of Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach, Del Carmen Phipps, and Hector and Lilly Miranda from Holy Trinity, Norfolk.
Like a balloon
Poole has been a catechist for 17 years. She began her ministry, she said, teaching fifth grade.
“The children had a greater depth of their understanding of faith than I ever could have imagined,” she said. “Indeed, I learned from them and with them in our sessions together.”
After several years of teaching, Poole was asked if she would assist with the eighth grade classes, where the ministry had a greater need.
“I was a bit nervous but thrilled with the opportunity,” she said. “Though the eighth graders were older, they were children at heart.”
Watching the students share their middle-school experiences and affirm and encourage one another was a joy, she said.
During one class session, she said, when the students had been discussing how they might be more loving toward others, the group decided that love was like a balloon: that the more you fill it with words and actions of kindness, the more your love will grow.
“We had a little Christmas party the next week, and one young man came in with this huge balloon,” she said.
With a crinkle of metallic foil, she held up a deflated helium balloon, one shaped like a mug of hot chocolate, kept as a memento from that long-ago party.
“You can see it still means something to me,” she said with a gentle laugh.
The Christmas gift, she said, made her realize just how much the message had meant to him.
“When I read the card, it said, ‘Filled with a lot of love. Thank you for spending your time with us and showing us your ways and God’s ways.’”
“What a wonderful gift,” she said.
Sharing the faith
After making her presentation in Spanish, del Carmen Phipps spoke about her catechetical ministry.
“When I was born, there was no one who would have said that I would be a ‘Herald of Faith,’” del Carmen Phipps said, smiling as she gestured toward her name tag proclaiming her as a catechist.
“There was a time when I had been away from God, and Jesus rescued me,” she said. “I had so many people who God put on my path, that I wanted to give back to others in return.”
Originally from El Salvador, del Carmen Phipps had studied theology for three years before coming to the U.S. She is a life-long learner, currently enrolled in online courses with the University of Dayton, completing a certificate in pastoral theology.
“I have a passion for learning,” she said. “How can I answer people’s questions, if I don’t study?”
She is also always learning, she said, from those whom she strives to teach.
“Jesus is always transforming me, transforming all of us,” she said. “We’re all still learning and changing.”
“I wish we could get away from the idea that catechists are unique. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we could all just talk about it? If we could all just share our love for God?”
“Someday,” she said, quietly. “Someday. For now, I have to start with my own community.”
For the Mirandas, serving has been a labor of love and an integral part of their marriage.
“Reflecting on the path of our faith, we realize that the response to the call to serve the Church of Christ as catechists was given to us the first year of the 32 that we have lived as married Catholic Christians,” Hector Miranda said.
Understanding the importance of service, he said, helps us in ways we might not have imagined, taking us beyond our initial answer to the call.
“Always making sure that serving brought us joy,” he said, “ultimately brought us closer and helped us grow in faith.” St. Luke tells us that Jesus bid the apostles to row into deep waters and to cast the net into a specific place where the fish could be found, Miranda said.
“His promise is also for us,” he said. “If we trust in Christ, we will find what we need in taking up his charge to proclaim the Gospel. He has taken us to deep waters, but he has also brought us to the seashore.”
Taking the leap
The event featured live-video presentations from keynote speakers Joe Paprocki, a consultant with Loyola Press, and author Adrián Alberto Herrera, associate director for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
During breaks, the catechists had the chance to mingle — and to share their experiences and their sources of inspiration.
How do we begin the conversation? How do we take that leap of faith that allows us to share our faith with others?
The wish to remain open to the Holy Spirit, to keep growing and to keep learning — both from fellow catechists and from the students themselves — are mainstays cited by the heralds of faith of Hampton Roads.
Longtime faith formation volunteer Mark Shofner of St. Mark, Virginia Beach, said he was drawn to attend the gathering to hear what he might learn from his fellow catechists.
“I feel like you can never know enough,” he said. “I always feel I need to learn more.”
“When you are teaching teens,” said Chris Emsley, a catechist from St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, “so often, they are worried about giving you the wrong answer. It’s amazing to see the light that comes into their eyes when you tell them, ‘No, I want to know what you think.’”
“Religion is not a subject, so much as it’s a way of life,” Kathy Dowdy, a catechist from Holy Family, Virginia Beach, said. “The best way to teach religion is to show them. To learn with them. It’s been a joy, to be a part of it all.”