Diocesan News

St. Bernard’s Takes ‘Note’ of Catechists On a Special Sunday

MILL BASIN — Teaching the Catholic faith isn’t just the responsibility of priests. Lay persons play an important role, too.

It was in that spirit that the Diocese of Brooklyn marked Catechetical Sunday on Sept. 18 with priests blessing their catechists at Mass to start off a new year of religious education programs for public school students.

Unlike Catholic school students, who receive religious instruction during the course of their school day, public school kids take faith formation classes once a week at their local churches, where they are taught by catechists — volunteers dedicated to passing on the faith to others.

Catechetical Sunday is celebrated all over the world. The theme of this year’s celebration is taken from Jesus’ words to the Apostles at the Last Supper, “This is my body given for you.”

At St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Mill Basin, Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, the pastor, blessed the church’s catechists at the 11:30 a.m. Mass. 

Each catechist was presented with a small gift — a notepad with a quote from St. Teresa of Avila, “Teach by works more than by words.”

“We always highlight the opening of the academic school year. Well, this is a highlighting of our catechetical year,” said Father Joseph Gibino, vicar for evangelization and catechesis in the diocese. Catechetical Sunday is important, he added, because “it highlights that crucial role that the laity has in passing on the faith.”

The diocese had 3,010 catechists during the 2021-2022 academic year. The number of catechists this year is not yet known. Churches usually submit their figures to the diocese in October.

One doesn’t have to have a background as a teacher to be a catechist, although training is required. In fact, rather than “teacher,” the diocese prefers to use the term witness. 

“And that’s what is truly important right now — that everyone gets the sense that it isn’t so much what I know but who I am and how I pray. That is the important message that we want to get to children right now,” Father Gibino said.

Melissa Wagner, director of faith formation at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, said what she looks for in a catechist is a connection to the faith. 

“I love for somebody to attend Mass, who is a witness to the faith, is reliable, enthusiastic, and somebody that has a lot of patience,” she explained.

The parish has 37 catechists — all volunteers — who instruct approximately 240 children from kindergarten to eighth grade every Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Jeannine Turnbill was so impressed with the religious education her two sons, Nicholas, 15, and Daniel, 13, received at St. Bernard, that she decided to become a catechist four years ago. She started out teaching third grade. This year, she will be instructing fifth graders.

Turnbull, a high school teacher, said she has gotten a lot out of being a catechist. “It made me self-reflect and go deeper into the faith,” she explained.

Wagner’s goal is to make sure public school students feel like the parish belongs to them too. “Catholic school children have a natural connection to the church. I didn’t want the public school kids to feel left out,” she said.

Msgr. Grimaldi attributed the program’s success to several factors, including Wagner’s management style, the partnership between her and St. Bernard Catholic Academy Principal Tracy Flanagan, and the parish’s outreach effort. Wagner taught pre-K at the academy before becoming faith formation director.

“She’s really brought to it her own background. She’s been able to attract a good number of quality catechists. The program is run in a very professional way,” he said.  “In a short period of time, we’ve developed some good word of mouth out on the street that it’s a very well run program that holds the children’s well as the parents to accountability.”

Under Wagner’s direction, the catechists try to create a fun learning atmosphere for children. The exercises include such activities as puppet-making, cutting vocabulary words out of newspapers, and creating travel brochures highlighting the regions where saints lived. 

Turnbull plans to have her students create flipbooks dedicated to the Lord’s Prayer so that they can analyze each line of the prayer. The new term begins on Sept. 28.

The program at St. Bernard’s is called the School of Religion. Wagner explained that the title is meant to ensure that families don’t see faith formation as an afterthought but rather a central part of their lives. 

“Other people call theirs a faith formation program. But I want children to know that they’re coming to school and that they should take it seriously,” she said.

And faith formation goes beyond the classroom, according to Msgr. Grimaldi. The youngsters are also taught to serve others. 

“We have a very good program where the boys and girls who are preparing for Confirmation have to do service hours,” he said. “We have programs that involve both the boys and girls preparing for Confirmation as well as younger children preparing for First Penance and holy Communion. We have opportunities for them to work together and to interact together.”

He added, “We really do work hard at getting the boys and girls involved in different aspects of parish life.”