"I have been a missionary in Cameroon since 1971," Father Silvano Zoccarato told the Italian newspaper Avvenire. "After a few years of mission, I understood the extreme importance of the formation of our catechists. Since then, this has been one of my greatest commitments."
The "effectiveness of our work lies in providing constant formation to people who are a bridge between the priests and the communities," he said in an interview.
Father Zoccarato works in northern Cameroon. The local bishop has released him from fixed commitments so that he can train the catechists. A missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME), the priest is back in Italy for a year to work in diocesan seminaries.
Q: Why are catechists so important?
Father Zoccarato: The missionary and the local priest are impotent in vast missions with dozens of villages and thousands of baptized persons and catechumens.
Catechists are the first witnesses of Christ and the Church's first pastoral agents in preparing for baptism, for the sacraments, for marriage, in directing prayer and Sunday celebrations when there is no priest. They visit the sick and persons in difficulty, and organize charity for the poor.
Wherever there is a good catechist the mission flourishes -- Protestants, pagans and Muslims also ask for their advice. In addition, they often act as guides and interpreters of the local dialects for the missionaries.
Q: Is the formation of catechists a diocesan endeavor?
Father Zoccarato: Certainly, like the seminary. At present I am in the Diocese of Maroua, but I was in charge of the catechists in the Diocese of Yagoua for 20 years or more. And at intervals I have helped in other dioceses and in Chad, always in this work.
I often say to the catechists: when I talk, I feel that you are looking at me to see if I really do or do not believe. The same happens when you talk to your faithful or catechumens. The Gospel passes through the person of the catechist.
Q: Do you form the catechists in a specific place or by going to the missions?
Father Zoccarato: There is initial formation for two or three years in the center of the diocese. Then the parish priests call me for the "formation weeks of the catechists"; in one year, I go to nearly 20 parishes.
It is important that a priest be present at these meetings. ... I have gone through many such weeks and refined my technique. The priests have realized that this annual week gives catechists a taste for reading and reflection on the Word of God. We have some marvelous catechists, but a serious work of formation must be carried out.
Q: Who pays the expenses?
Father Zoccarato: This is one of the problems for parishes that have African priests. It is a pity that many of these black priests, because they lack resources, at times do not have what is necessary for this work of formation of catechists.
They must be helped with travel, accommodation, and necessary aid. Catechists are not paid, but helped in different ways by their communities.
When I returned to Italy in 2001, with the contribution received I was able to help more than 30 parishes in the formation of catechists. But money alone is not enough.
My initiative aims also at sensitizing for the work of the formation of missions, which I think is very ignored. If one asks for help for lepers or orphans or to excavate a well, one receives much -- but little to form catechists or priests.
I hope that the friends of the missions will return to the true missionary spirit and recover the enthusiasm of the faith that our catechists and Christians have. Material help is necessary, but not enough. There is a need to share, to understand the problems of the nascent Churches. And, therefore, to also cultivate missionary vocations and lay volunteers.