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Catechists' task: 'Create students of Jesus'

Nearly 700 encouraged at annual conference to model faith, teach it across all disciplines

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SOUTHWEST RANCHES | What does religion have to do with math?

Plenty, according to speakers at the 2021 Catechetical Conference, which this year focused on “cross curricular faith integration.”

That’s a fancy way of saying “faith and math, faith and sports, faith and science, faith and fine arts” are all related, said Sister Karen Muñiz, director of the Office of Catechesis. Her office sponsors the annual conference, though it did not take place last year due to the COVID pandemic.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, congratulate Maria Barni Hopkins of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Weston, recipient of the 2021 Esperanza Ginoris Award for exemplifying excellence in catechetical ministry. She has served as a catechist for 14 years.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, congratulate Maria Barni Hopkins of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Weston, recipient of the 2021 Esperanza Ginoris Award for exemplifying excellence in catechetical ministry. She has served as a catechist for 14 years.

This year, nearly 700 Catholic school teachers, catechists and administrators gathered for the day-long event, held Nov. 6, 2021 at Archbishop Edward McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches. Participants represented every parish and school in the Archdiocese of Miami, said Sister Karen, a member of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Among them was 15-year-old Heidi Martinez, who traveled with a group of 25 catechists from Sacred Heart Parish in Homestead. Their trek to Southwest Ranches began at 6 a.m.

Heidi is in her first year, teaching five- and six-year-olds, and said she was hoping to learn more about her faith at the conference “so I can help other kids.”

Rosalinda Hally also traveled from the outer reaches of the archdiocese, St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Big Pine Key, arriving the night before and staying overnight in a hotel. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said of herself and a fellow catechist who traveled with her to the conference.

Hally is the new coordinator of catechesis at her parish. “I feel it’s important to be taught about catechesis, about our mission as catechists to teach and to pass on the faith,” she said.

The more than two dozen presentations at the conference certainly provided plenty of information and inspiration for the catechists, most of whom are volunteers, along with the Catholic school teachers whose lessons encompass not just religion but the gamut of classroom subjects.

For the first time this year, Sister Karen said, one of the breakout sessions focused on emotional literacy. Beatriz Martinez-Peñalver, a licensed psychotherapist, shared techniques for “developing healthy mental habits and thought patterns to avoid self-defeating behaviors,” both among catechists and among the children they teach.

Chris Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, speaks to participants at the Catechetical Conference, held Nov. 6, 2021 at Archbishop McCarthy High in Southwest Ranches. The McGrath Institute provided eight of the breakout speakers for the conference.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Chris Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, speaks to participants at the Catechetical Conference, held Nov. 6, 2021 at Archbishop McCarthy High in Southwest Ranches. The McGrath Institute provided eight of the breakout speakers for the conference.

The McGrath Institute of Church and Life, based at Notre Dame University in Indiana, provided eight of the speakers for the conference. Their talks covered topics such as “Evolution and the Human Soul”; “The Church, Modern Science and the Galileo Affair,” billed as “the true story” of Galileo’s conflict with the Church; “Four Hearts of a Sportsman,” focused on Pope St. John Paul II’s writings on sports, faith and life; “The Atoms Declare the Glory of God,” delivered by a chemist; and “Science and the Bible: The Catholic Approach.”

The last one was presented by Christopher Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute and a member of the executive board of the Society of Catholic Scientists.

“The Catholic Church has a tremendous history of relating and answering that question in ways that do not weaken the faith,” Baglow said, referring specifically to how the creation accounts in the Bible relate to science.

He quoted St. John Paul II, who wrote to the director of the Vatican Observatory in 1988 that “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

The conference’s keynote speaker, Jared Staudt, serves as associate superintendent for Mission and Formation in the Archdiocese of Denver and visiting associate professor for the Augustine Institute. Having fallen ill days before, he presented his talk to the catechists via videotape.

“God is not an add-on to education,” he stressed, noting that the Church for centuries has focused on education as a way not just to impart information or prepare students for the future but to help them “learn to see everything in light of Christ.”

“When you put Jesus at the center, it changes everything,” Staudt said, even how students approach career choices: as something that takes into account service to the community and not just their personal success or satisfaction.

“Education really is fundamental to the very mission of the Church. Jesus tells us make students and teach them,” Staudt said, noting that the Latin root of the word “disciple” means “student.”

“This is our task,” he said, “to create students of Jesus.”

Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, congratulate Regina Medina of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Fort Lauderdale, recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Catechetical Leadership Award for modeling "outstanding ministry, faithful service, and joyful commitment" to catechetical ministry. She has served as a catechist for 34 years.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, congratulate Regina Medina of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Fort Lauderdale, recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Catechetical Leadership Award for modeling "outstanding ministry, faithful service, and joyful commitment" to catechetical ministry. She has served as a catechist for 34 years.

But merely conveying information or facts about the faith is not enough. “We know that doesn’t work. That’s not transformative,” Staudt said. “Going to a class, whether in Catholic school or a parish, is not transformative.”

What is needed is an encounter with Jesus Christ, “it’s meeting someone and falling in love with that person,” Staudt said.

That encounter — evangelization — must precede the instruction — catechesis — which is a deepening of the faith. “But it’s hard to do that if there’s no faith,” he said.

Sharing his own experience as a troubled teen from a non-practicing Catholic family, he said “what changed my life was an invitation” to attend Mass, extended by the priest who accepted him into the parish school despite the misgivings of the school’s principal. Staudt had been expelled from a public school for bringing a weapon, his Boy Scout knife, to class.

That invitation 26 years ago changed his life. “It can be that simple,” he said, urging the teachers and catechists to facilitate their students’ encounter with Jesus through similar invitations and through their lived example.

“You don’t need a textbook,” Staudt said. “It’s just witnessing in everything that we do.”

Two of those “witnesses” were honored at the opening Mass of the conference, which was celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at St. Mark Church, next door to McCarthy High. (Read his homily here.)

Maria Barni Hopkins of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Weston received the 2021 Esperanza Ginoris Award for exemplifying excellence in catechetical ministry. She has served as a catechist for 14 years.

Regina Medina of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Fort Lauderdale received the Lifetime Catechetical Leadership Award for modeling "outstanding ministry, faithful service, and joyful commitment" while serving as catechist for the past 34 years.

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