When a white van pulled into the courtyard of Chitula Parish in the Archdiocese of Lilongwe, Malawi at the beginning of December 2023, the reception was so joyful, so raucous, that you could be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis himself was about to step out!

Women in colorful, matching outfits danced, sang, and chanted as the door swung open to reveal the visitors: a group of regular American Catholics representing The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States (TPMS USA). Instead of deflating the crowd by our ordinariness, they got louder!

As we left the van, the crowd surged and surrounded us, leading us to a small building constructed of locally made and fired bricks. It was their church – built years ago when they were still an outstation of another parish. They had long ago outgrown it but were so proud to show it to us. 

Now a full-fledged parish dedicated to Saint Bernadette, they have three outstations of their own. This means that the faith has been spread far beyond their original borders. Small Christian Communities exist in places that are many miles from the parish proper. Members of these communities meet regularly to pray, study Scripture, and learn more about the tenets of Catholicism. As a parish grows, it will develop many of these so-called outstations.

The lynchpin of this whole scenario is the catechist.

This is my twenty-fifth year of service to TPMS; I have been privileged to witness the growth of the young mission Church on every populated continent. In all my travels, it is the catechist whom I have come to admire most.

The ministry of a catechist in the missions is quite different from that of one in our Western society. We may think of this position as someone who volunteers a Sunday morning or a weekday afternoon to teach faith formation to children for an hour or so. In the missions, a catechist’s ministry is an all-encompassing, full-time commitment.

In Malawi, to become a catechist, one goes to live at a training center with their family for a couple of years. They are given a small plot of land to farm to feed themselves. The catechist-to-be attends theology and teaching classes. Their children go to school, and their spouses (not all catechists are men!) devote themselves to a different type of education. They learn economics, basic hygiene principles, farming techniques, land conservation skills, and more. This is so that once the catechist is commissioned, the spouse can also be active in the community, helping people to better manage their households, and farms, and participate more fully in the life of the Church.

This program is just one of many supported by The Pontifical Mission Societies.

After graduation, the catechist is responsible for the faith formation of everyone at their assigned outstation – children and adults alike. They prepare people for sacraments, run Liturgy of the Word services, and help to bury the dead in the absence of a priest. Some outstations are so remote that they may see a priest four or five times a year at most. In these cases, it is the catechist who is the glue that does whatever is necessary to hold the faith community together. 

One catechist I met, while on a mission trip to Zambia some years ago, walked thirteen miles each way to the outstation she served – a marathon of faith each weekend! She fell to her knees before me in tears when she discovered that I represented TPMS; she had just received a gift of a bicycle, at the cost of $250, from our General Fund. She would now ride the miles, giving her more time for her ministry!

At Chitula Parish, towards the end of the beautiful liturgy that day, celebrated by priests who would not have been ordained without the scholarships from our Society of St. Peter Apostle, there were many speeches. One was from a young girl who represented the local members of our children’s Society, the Missionary Childhood Association, which the village’s first catechist had introduced to them while they were still an outstation. The girl spoke of her pride in knowing that by sharing her faith with others, she was a true Catholic. 

Then, the parish’s three catechists were introduced. These men travel many miles every week to bring the faith to Small Christian Communities in Saint Bernadette’s outstations. 

As the catechists stood in front of the parishioners gathered, dressed in their “Sunday best,” the dedication to the Lord and their prophetic ministry emanated from their very beings. It was as if the heavens opened, and we saw the call of Isaiah living in our midst: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying. ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’”

Because I saw many bicycles parked at the church, I knew these catechists were the lucky owners of some of them. I could picture them traveling to their outstations, with their wives riding sidesaddle on the back, holding whatever new faith formation materials they had managed to gather. With each push of the pedal, they would thank God for The Pontifical Mission Societies for their transportation, education, and most importantly, the opportunity to say “Yes!” to their calling to bring the faith to people in some of the most remote areas of our world.

Whenever I am tired or discouraged in my work, I pray for the catechists whom I have met. They persevere through some of life’s most unthinkable hardships. The three I met in Chitula live in an economy that the World Bank ranks as one of the poorest in the world. Life expectancy at birth is sixty-three years. Over 70% of the population lives on just $2.15 a day. Yet, their love of God and their willingness to overcome whatever life throws at them to share our Catholic faith is immeasurable.

Their steadfast, tenacious fidelity to their vocation inspires me, after twenty-five years, to continue to raise my hand every day and say, “Here I am. Send me!”