Jem Sullivan, an associate professor of practice and expert in the history and theory of catechetics, joined the School of Theology and Religious Studies (STRS) faculty in 2019. She has worked for 30 years on initiatives at the national and diocesan levels that have transformed the way the Catholic Church forms others in the Christian faith. A member of the International Council for Catechesis, her research explores the role of beauty and the arts in catechesis and evangelization. She is the author of four books on catechetical themes and host of the podcast “Echoing Faith Today.”
You’ve referred to your parents as your first “living catechisms.” What role did your upbringing play in your desire to study theology?
I grew up in Bombay, India, where the Catholic community is small and close knit. My parents were active in our parish and our extended faith community and shared with me, by the way they lived, what it means to be a person of faith. I decided to study theology in college at a time in India when women didn’t pursue it unless they wanted to become a religious sister. I was drawn to catechetics because I was curious about how the Church communicates the journey of faith to children, youth, and adults.
How has the Catholic Church’s most recent Directory for Catechesis impacted the way the faith is taught today?
This directory, which presents how-to guidelines for catechesis, is the third one published since Vatican II. In it, we see a paradigm shift in the teaching of the faith and the role of catechesis in the Church’s mission of evangelization. Many Catholics associate catechesis with CCD classes. Catechesis cannot be reduced to classroom instruction. It’s an experience of encountering Jesus Christ — a remarkable moment — for all members of the Church to accompany each other, to walk with each other on their journey of faith. The directory also emphasizes the role of beauty in catechesis and evangelization as a source of inspiration on that journey. Beauty in the arts or in nature can point us to transcendence, drawing us out of ourselves, filling us with joy and peace, and bringing us closer to God. As Pope Francis advises in The Joy of the Gospel, “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty.’”
For many people, evangelization can be a loaded word. What does it really mean?
Evangelization is not proselytizing. The Church never imposes her beliefs on others. As people do when they’re in love, the Church proposes that a life of faith in Jesus Christ is the most authentic and deepest way to live as a person. Pope Paul VI said evangelization is the reason the Church exists. The Church lives to share the good news of the gospel.
What was the impetus for starting the podcast “Echoing Faith Today”?
When the new directory came out in 2020, we were discussing ways to promote it with Father Mark Morozowich (dean of STRS). But we were in the thick of the pandemic, so we couldn’t have a conference or any kind of in-person event. We decided to create a podcast and invite experts to talk about key themes in the directory. At the opening of each podcast, we invite listeners to our “table of conversation.” Our guests are Church leaders and scholars on the front lines of catechesis and evangelization. They’ve included the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, poet Dana Gioia, and Sir James MacMillan, a Scottish composer of sacred and classical music. It’s a way of engaging people in our digital world.
— Catherine Lee