Catechetical Institute draws people into the story of faith

| October 26, 2017 | 0 Comments
Catechetical Institute

Jeff Cavins, left, and Kelly Wahlquist join students of the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute during the opening Mass Sept. 11 at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Cavins is the founder and Wahlquist serves as assistant director. Dave Hrbacek/
The Catholic Spirit

Barbara Heil, a Pentecostal pastor, had been looking into auditing a class on Church history at the University of St. Thomas in 2011 when she stumbled upon an unfamiliar institute on its St. Paul campus at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

“I couldn’t even say ‘catechetical,’” said Heil, a 2013 graduate of the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute. “I started it not intending to become Catholic but loving the Church, and I ended it having become Catholic.”

Heil and more than 2,000 other lay people, clergy and religious have been formed in the Catholic faith over the past decade since the institute launched in 2008. For two years, students study the Catechism of the Catholic Church in depth through presentations, reading, small group discussions and writing on reflection questions. When finished, they receive catechetical certification.

“I really felt that we needed to create something that would introduce them into a life, which is what the Catechism is all about,” said Jeff Cavins, who founded the Catechetical Institute.

Cavins said the Catechism — a summary of the Church’s beliefs — begins with introducing that life, “a plan of sheer goodness,” which the Lord offers for each person. A local biblical scholar with a national following, Cavins had observed through leading his Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study series that lay people need to see the Catechism as a complete story, too, as they can with Scripture.

“Each instructor keeps bringing them back to that [story] every time and [at]every opportunity,” said Kelly Wahlquist, the institute’s executive director.

Barry McCullough, 44, a graphic designer and parishioner of St. Stephen in Anoka, originally thought of the Catechism as more of an encyclopedia. He said the course helped him better understand the connection “between the Catholic Church, the Bible and God’s heart.”

“I finally started seeing how it all fit together like a wonderful unit,” McCullough said.

Wahlquist, a former assistant for the Great Adventure series, worked with Cavins to develop the institute in 2007. Cavins had also been meeting with now-Deacon Joe Michalak and Chris Thompson of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul to discuss the idea.

“We were in the early discussion phase of starting an institute, and at the same time, found out that Archbishop Flynn was interested in starting an institute,” Cavins said. “He wrote us a letter/mandate about how one could be created at the seminary. At that point, we realized that the seminary would be the home.”

Seminarians participate in the Catechetical Institute, and it serves as a prerequisite for the permanent diaconate program. Catholic schools also use the institute for formation of their teachers through a partnership with the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence.

The institute also has strengthened parish staff, with some lay graduates moving from secular work to serving in the Church.

“With the deepening love of God and his Church I experienced through my time at the Catechetical Institute, it became ever clearer to me and my wife that God was asking me to work in a parish setting at this point in life,” said Eric Cooley, a pastoral minister for
St. John the Evangelist in Little Canada.

Linda Harmon, a financial planner and parishioner of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, said her experience in the Catechetical Institute has influenced how she approaches her work. She’s seen it reflected in her clients.

“They’ll refer to me more as a counselor than financial advisor,” Harmon said. “Not that I’m a counselor. That’s just how I sit across from people.”

Catechetical Institute alumni also tap into the institute’s ongoing formation opportunities. The naming of classes for saints, which began with the class of St. Paul during the Church’s Year of St. Paul in 2008, creates a bond among alumni.

“We have that intercessor, but we also have that identity,” Wahlquist said. “One of the most powerful things is the relationship among the classes, and the people in the class.”

Since beginning in St. Paul, the Catechetical Institute has spread around the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and beyond. Outer ring suburb parishes of Epiphany in Coon Rapids and Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville have been host sites for the course. That helped alumni such as McCullough take the course and build community with Catholics at neighboring parishes. He would go with a group after class to a nearby restaurant “to talk about, chew on what we learned,” he said.

The Catechetical Institute has also spread to St. Andrew in Elk River in the St. Cloud Diocese, and the institute has gone south to Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, Iowa, for the Diocese of Des Moines. Heil, now an Iowa resident, played a support role in getting the institute started in Des Moines, and her husband, Jeff, has joined the course.

Whether in Des Moines, St. Cloud or the archdiocese, the institute follows the same structure. Teachers make a promise to instruct according to Catholic Church teaching, and the students have to adhere to the attendance guidelines and complete a short, semester-end paper in order to graduate.

“It tells the archbishop [or bishops] that these people have wrestled with and have walked through, prayed through all of the Catechism,” said Cavins. It also gives a bishop a body of formed laity with whom he can work, he added.

Wahlquist said the institute’s leaders hope it spreads to other neighboring dioceses and elsewhere in the country in the coming years.

Read more about Barbara Heil’s experience with the Catechetical Institute

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