HADDONFIELD — On one level, the Catechetical Convocation was just that, a gathering of adult catechists and teen leaders from throughout the Diocese of Camden for a day of spiritual enrichment and professional development. And the day followed the usual format: worship, guest speakers, workshops.
But the event held at Paul VI High School here on Sept. 29 was a far more energetic and diverse experience than a business-as-usual professional day.
Within the space of a few hours, there were musings on Oreos and rocky road ice cream, a brief sing-along with the Journey anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’,” memes of grumpy cats and sad puppies, and an enthusiastic endorsement of the benefits of Vicks VapoRub.
Superficial? The morning session alone was also filled with references to the examples of Catholic activist Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Saint John Vianney; the philosophy of Jewish existentialist Martin Buber; the guidance of Scripture; the teaching contained in pertinent papal documents; and discussion of angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition. There were subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to the sexual abuse crisis in the church and the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that she was assaulted by U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers.
The talks and discussions ranged from the most frivolous to the utmost serious, but underlying it all was the joy and the often daunting challenge of communicating the Gospel.
And before the day was out, as befitting the convocation theme Walk With Me, the nearly 300 participants had participated in a service project, preparing more than 1,000 care packages for the homeless.
The day began with an impassioned talk by Bishop Dennis Sullivan on the importance of catechists to the life of the church. He was followed by keynote speakers Mike Patin and Jesse Manibusan, and a series of specialized workshops with topics like Athletics and Faith, Stress Management, and Becoming a Digital Disciple.
The day was sponsored by the Camden Diocese’s Office of Faith and Family Life Formation and the Office of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry.
Catechists, the bishop said, do no less than “make the unseen God visible.”
Emphatically, he said that when catechists do their job well, listening not with their ears but with their hearts, they communicate to their students “that God loves them individually.”
“They belong to a church, a community, a people. Then they can understand the deep mysteries of faith,” he said.
The bishop stressed not just the importance of catechetical work but also its difficulty. Also, that religious education is a lifelong project. He cited his own experience as a pastor in New York with a mother whose sole concern for her daughter receiving the sacraments was her desire to one day have a church wedding and dress like a “princess.”
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bishop Sullivan said. “The mother needs to be evangelized before the child can be catechized.”
The keynote speakers, evangelist Mike Patin from Louisiana and musician Jesse Manibusan from California – each often relying on humor to make serious points — worked family dynamics into their presentations.
Manibusan reimagined Luke’s story of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple in a contemporary urban setting, and he recalled his grandmother, who made each of her grandchildren feel important and loved.
A former high school teacher and coach, Patin noted that every family has someone who has left the church for some reason. “My daughter has left and come back, and will probably leave again,” he said.
The job of a catechist, he said, is not to judge another’s spirituality but to be a witness to Christ.
“Everybody that I have met loves somebody,” Patin said. “Everybody has lost something along life’s journey. Everybody struggles with something.”
He added, “Everyone has a story.”
And when he posed a question to the day’s participants — Why stay in the church? — hands went up throughout the auditorium.
Everyone seemed to have an answer.