September 13, 2023 at 9:46 a.m.

Lay down your burdens and rest in Jesus — then invite!

Three spiritual components emerge from this year's theme to strengthen our catechetical efforts in parish ministry: invitation, freedom from burdens and rest.
This is an American 18th century painting entitled "Christ on the Road to Emmaus," c, 1725/1730. And just like on that road, catechists share their stories when inviting families to begin a new season of touching Jesus’ garment of hope, faith and love. (OSV News photo/courtesy National Gallery of Art)
This is an American 18th century painting entitled "Christ on the Road to Emmaus," c, 1725/1730. And just like on that road, catechists share their stories when inviting families to begin a new season of touching Jesus’ garment of hope, faith and love. (OSV News photo/courtesy National Gallery of Art) (Courtesy photo of handout)

By Michael Howard | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

The catechetical theme of 2023 comes from Matthew’s Gospel, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Three spiritual components emerge to strengthen our catechetical efforts in parish ministry. These three phases in Matthew’s text — invitation, freedom from burdens and rest — also connect with two popular African-American spirituals while inspiring the second year of the Eucharistic Revival theme, “Parish Revival.”

Beginning with the invitation phrase “Come to me,” Matthew’s Gospel portrays a sensitive Messiah caring for our well-being by extending an invitation to the community. Jesus avoids distinguishing any group or showing favoritism. Jesus’ directive is for everyone to come. His words reflect the sentiments of the Prophet Isaiah when prophesying, “Come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat; Come, buy grain without money” (Is. 55:1-3). Both passages show that the invitation is all-inclusive; your social or financial status is of no concern. This invitation is to everyone.

‘A witness to the faith’
Catechetical Sunday is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the role that each person plays, by virtue of Baptism, in handing on the faith and being a witness to the Gospel. This year, the Church will celebrate Catechetical Sunday on Sept. 17, and the theme is “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened” (Matthew 11:28). Those who the parish community has designated to serve as catechists will be called forth to be commissioned for their ministry. Catechetical Sunday is an opportunity for all to rededicate themselves to this mission as a community of faith.

Why do we celebrate Catechetical Sunday?
In 1935, the Vatican published “On the Better Care and Promotion of Catechetical Education,” a document that asks every country to acknowledge the importance of the Church’s teaching ministry and to honor those who serve the Christian community as catechists. For the first few years after Catechetical Sunday was established, national catechetical congresses were held in conjunction with the celebration. Beginning in 1971, the USCCB’s Department of Education began producing materials to help parishes celebrate the event at the local level. When the Committee on Catechesis, now named the Committee of Evangelization and Catechesis, was named by the conference as a standing committee, it continued to publish Catechetical Sunday materials each year. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the third Sunday in September as Catechetical Sunday.

One ‘who teaches for the Church’
“Catechists are called first to be expert in the pastoral service of transmitting the faith as it develops through its different stages from the initial proclamation of the kerygma (Gospel proclamation) to the instruction that presents our new life in Christ and prepares for the sacraments of Christian initiation, and then to the ongoing formation that can allow each person to give an accounting of the hope within them. At the same time, every catechist must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church.” — Pope Francis

What does ‘catechetical’ mean?
The word might be more familiar than you think. Many Catholics have used the word “catechism” for years, and they know it has something to do with the compendium of the Church’s teachings. The root word, “catechesis,” is from a Greek word meaning “to echo or resound.” Catechesis is the act of resounding or bringing the Church’s teachings to the world. A catechist is one who teaches in the name of the Church.

Why do we have a special day to commission catechists?
Catechesis is a distinct and special ministry in the Church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, “Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life ... her inner growth and correspondence with God’s plan depend essentially on catechesis” (no. 7). This ministry of teaching in the name of the Church has a profound dignity, which is why catechists are formally commissioned by the Church. It is only fitting that we set aside a day to highlight this ministry and invite the entire church community to think about our responsibility to share our faith with others.

How are parents recognized on Catechetical Sunday?
Parents are truly the primary catechists of their children. They prepare the soil and plant the first seeds of faith. On Catechetical Sunday, we not only highlight the work of catechists in parishes and schools, but we also commend parents and guardians and encourage them to take seriously their role of making their Catholic households a place where faith is passed on to the next generation. This is why the rite of blessing of catechists used on Catechetical Sunday includes an optional blessing of parents and guardians.

In our following freedom phrase, Jesus singles out those toiling under a load, “all you who labor and are burdened,” come to me. These people need the euangelion, the good news. And the good news is that Jesus makes it possible for us to “Cast (our) burden(s) upon the Lord, and He will sustain (us) …” (Ps. 55:22). Jesus is inviting all of us to take the burdens off our shoulders and lay them on him. We can all sing along with the African-American spiritual, “Down by the Riverside:” ‘I am gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside.’ When we come to Jesus, laying down our burdens and casting them upon Him, there is a spiritual awakening at the riverside where we find rest from our burdens, we are free from our worries.

The final phase allows us to rest because Jesus freed us from carrying heavy burdens. Examples of these burdens are Church hurt or perhaps the sinful acts of unending strings of gun violence, racism, redlining, sexism and poor health-care programs, to name a few. We experience God’s love by resting with Jesus, who promised, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). This is the ultimate rest, to know Jesus will always be with you. The Spirit teaches in the Book of Revelation, “Let them find rest from their labors …” (Rev 14:13). With Jesus, we can rest from carrying our burdens.

Juxtaposing Matthew’s text with another African-American spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” we glean the same three components from the Gospel: invitation, freedom from burdens and rest. This spiritual is a resource for adding a historical and spiritual context to our catechetical theme. Unpacking this spiritual through the lens of African-American history, we see that the soloist in this spiritual is similar to our catechist today as they both model the actions of Jesus. The soloist in “Wade in the Water” sings out an invitation that was originally addressed to a people that had been kidnapped, sold and brought in chains to a different continent to toil in the fields for the enrichment of others: “Wade in the water, children/Wade in the water/God is gonna trouble these waters.”

Underscoring this critical piece to this spiritual is vital. Like the soloist singing this song, catechists are called to share their own stories. The soloist in the spiritual knew something about the water being chilly and cold. He or she knew their body was cold, but his or her spirit was on fire because God stirred the waters, leading to freedom. Today, the pearl of wisdom in this spiritual is how the soloist, after experiencing freedom, did not forget the other enslaved people after traveling through troubling waters. He or she returned and extended an invitation to freedom. The singer tells those burdened to “Wade in the Water” because God will be there: “God is gonna trouble these waters.” Those who composed the spirituals, such as this one, shared their faith story of how God helped them to lay down their burdens by the riverside, freeing them to rest with Jesus.

The catechist’s responsibility is also to reach out to their faith community. Pope Francis said, “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” A faithful catechist will be a kind of shepherd with the “smell of sheep” when present with the parish’s adults and children. Catechists must be like shepherds who invite everyone to celebrate the sacraments. The lost, disgruntled, confused and those affected by Church hurt need someone to ask them to meet Jesus in the sacraments so that they may lay down their burdens and rest.

For this reason, catechists must be ready to explain why they have hope. Catechists are to share their stories, in the same way as the disciples on the Emmaus Road, who were wounded followers of Christ. Their hurts, struggles and burdens blinded them spiritually. They forgot their encounter with Jesus before the crucifixion. Jesus reminded his disciples, with their damaged faith, of the scriptures and of their previous conversations. The disciples found relief from their burdens while talking with Jesus at this juncture. They walked out of their darkness and rested with Jesus by the riverside. The journey starts with the catechist’s stories of how they came to Jesus and found relief from their burdens and rested with Jesus.

For this reason, during the year of Parish Revival, our catechetical theme from Matthew’s Gospel challenges us to look for creative ways to invite people to our faith community. The bishops divided the Parish Revival into four invitations: the Art of Celebration, Monthly Encounter Nights, Preaching Series and Small Groups, and Missionary Sending. Here, pastors, church leaders and catechists are called to invite everyone to come to Jesus through our liturgy, monthly gatherings, messages from the pastor, small group gatherings and other events that help individuals come to know Jesus in the breaking of the Bread.

Upon further reflection, Matthew’s theme is apropos. When responding to the bishops’ prayerful instruction for the year of Parish Revival, we must be intentional. Everyone should receive the invitation to participate in the celebration of the Mass and to encounter Jesus, to “learn from (Him)” for “(His) burdens (are light)” (Mt. 28:29,30). Flyers are good and bulletin announcements are okay, but being intentional means also physically looking our parish members and unchurched friends and neighbors in the eye, saying, “Come!” People need one-on-one invitations and conversations to help them to wade in the water and find rest because Jesus is the Way! Let us proclaim these words from the rooftop, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).

Reflection questions: What obstacles can you remove in your life to come closer to Jesus? Who helped you recently to turn to Jesus to find relief from your burdens? How can you be a better inviter when inviting others to your parish?

Michael Howard, a well-known Black Catholic writer and educator, is a fellow at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. This reflection was provided by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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