Teaching children the faith brings unexpected blessings
Teresa Lattouf says that living with a disability has not stopped her from living her childhood dream of being a teacher and sharing the most important lessons she has ever learnt.
The 37-year-old leads two full days of scripture classes each week during term at Bankstown Public School and Condell Park Public School, with the aid of her mother Jackie and support from the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
“Bringing Jesus to the little ones is such an honour and while my disabilities bring daily challenges, my ministry as a catechist brings great joy to my life.”
In her spare time, Teresa prepares reflections and digital presentations for her classes from her peaceful home office. A parishioner of St Brendan’s Catholic Parish in Central Bankstown, she also coordinates all of the parish’s catechists.
“Bringing Jesus to the little ones is such an honour and while my disabilities bring daily challenges, my ministry as a catechist brings great joy to my life,” she told The Catholic Weekly.
“I normally speak with a stutter, but when I am in front of the children the Holy Spirit takes over.” Jackie agrees, “When we have a great lesson we feel like we’re flying, and the children love it, they tell us they can’t wait for us to come back next week.”
When Teresa was a baby, her parents were told she was unlikely to ever walk or talk due to a congenital heart condition. With her family’s fervent prayers and against all the odds, she proved the doctors wrong but her next big hurdle came when she needed heart surgery in her teens.
“They told my parents that I might not get through it, and I said to God that if He wanted to give me a second chance then I would serve God all my life,” Teresa explained.
““When I saw how much they loved learning about Jesus it gave me confidence to take on more classes.”
An opportunity came up for her to volunteer as a catechist and inspired by St Mary MacKillop she took part in the training and began with one class in 2007.
“When I saw how much they loved learning about Jesus it gave me confidence to take on more classes,” she said. “They respond so well to us, they love seeing us every week.” One of the principals said he noticed the students’ behaviour had improved over the year because of the pair’s influence.
Teresa is one of over 1700 volunteer catechists and helpers currently serving more than 26,000 students in public schools across the Archdiocese of Sydney who are enrolled in weekly Catholic “Scripture” classes.
That may seem an adequate number, but only a small proportion go into high schools and it doesn’t take into account the varying availability among the volunteer cohort; for example, while Teresa and Jackie can take on more than 10 classes each week, others can offer time for one, plus there are the inevitable gaps to fill from absences due to illness, maternity leave, or other reasons.
The ministry has also taken a hit from the pandemic. While an encouraging 200-plus parishioners stepped up to answer the call last year to serve as public school catechists or helpers, there is need for the same number again to join the ministry this year.
Physical distancing requirements in schools now also mean that there may need to be more classes given, with less students in each, adding to the current shortfall of catechists and helpers. Therefore, parishioners are being called to offer their God-given time to “do something of eternal significance” for less than an hour each week by becoming a catechist or a catechist’s helper.
“Catechist and Helper training is good for you. It is good for your family as well as for the community,” said the archdiocesan director of the CCD Doug Mawhinney.
“Physical distancing requirements in schools now also mean that there may need to be more classes given, with less students in each, adding to the current shortfall of catechists and helpers.”
“Heartfelt comments from those who ‘discover’ this training resound in my heart, especially as a dad, when they say: ‘I wish we had been taught this when we first became parents.’
“The skills and resources opened up to you as a catechist or helper will enrich your own family faith life and the lives of our parish children in public schools.
“The Federal Education Declaration, NSW Education Act and Student Wellbeing Framework explicitly recognise the importance of nourishing our mind, body and spirit,” Doug added. “The aim is to promote good, creative and resilient life-long learners. Being a catechist or helper in our public schools grounds this aim in the reality of God’s love. You help to build up families of faith who have freely chosen Special Religious Education.
“As Pope Saint Paul VI said, ‘The family, which has the primary duty of imparting education, needs the help of the whole community’ (Gravissimum Educationis, n. 3, 1965). Become a catechist or helper – you will do good and receive more than you give.”
Three seminarians from the Seminary of the Good Shepherd were recently commissioned to serve as catechists in high schools, and faith education officer Vincent Haber said that other ideal candidates are retired teachers, university students, part time workers or those who work from home for all or some of the week.
Cynthia Argana, 53, coordinates the catechists who serve the three public primary schools within the parish of Good Shepherd at Hoxton Park. She’s a full time professional normally based in the CBD but long before COVID had negotiated a day to work from home so she could lead a scripture class during her lunch break.
“I love bringing the Catholic faith to my Year 5 class in ways that they can understand, and they teach me as well sometimes,” Cynthia said. “Sometimes they surprise me with their deep questions and later, on reflection, I think of another way I could have answered them so I am learning and growing as well.
“Last year was challenging for us but the good thing that came out of that was that we made friends and collaborated more with catechists from neighbouring parishes, we supported each other and shared resources.
“If anyone feels some interest or that they are being called to it, I encourage them to take that leap of faith. To spread the Gospel is every Christians’ calling yet less than one percent of Catholics are catechists. Be assured that there will be plenty of support.”
Teresa agrees that anyone who is interested and has an hour a week to spare should feel encouraged to consider joining the ministry in schools. “We often focus on the many disabilities and excuses that prevent us in life, but we should instead focus on the talents and abilities we have to help bring Jesus to others and most importantly to the little children.”
In a recent statement, the NSW Catholic Conference of Religious Educators in State Schools (CCRESS) said that the NSW Department of Education was working closely with the Catholic Church and other providers of Special Religious Education to ensure a COVID-safe return to classes.
“The provision of Special Religious Education (SRE) has been integral to NSW public education since the Public Instruction Act 1880,” the statement said. “This partnership between faith communities and local public schools reminds us that education is for the development of the whole child and that schools reflect and serve the community within which they reside.”
Interested in being a catechist?
Speak to your local parish priest or catechist coordinator or call CCD Sydney 9307 8330 or email [email protected] More information is also at ccd.sydneycatholic.org