Michelle Nilsson photo courtesy of dioceseofmadison.org

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

The focus on catechism at the Diocese of Superior’s 2018 Fall Conference at St. Joseph, Rice Lake, continued with an afternoon keynote address by Michelle Nilsson, the Diocese of Madison’s associate director of Evangelization and Catechesis.

Titled “The Catechism: Always the same, yet the source of new life,” Nilsson’s presentation emphasized the Catechism as a precious gift to be passed down.

Preserving the Catholic faith is inherently contradictory, Nilsson explained. To guard the deposit, we must share it.

“We learn that to protect the deposit of faith is to give it away,” she repeated. “The only way to protect the deposit of faith is to give it away to as many people as possible.”

At the core of the transmission of faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a collaborative summary of the faith written, revised, critiqued and commented on by Catholics around the world. The book includes texts from Scripture, the Church’s interpretations, commentary on current issues and more. It is the definitive teaching of the Church, and by Nilsson’s measure, to amass all that knowledge without the book would require a lifetime of study.

“That work that we do is assisting father, assisting the bishop of handing on that treasure that has been given to us,” she added. “The Catechism truly is a gift.”

Born into an immigrant family – Croatian/Italian on one side and Slavic on the other – Nilsson is originally from Cleveland. After teaching in a Catholic school, she went on to earn a master’s degree at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, found her calling in religious education, spent time as a missionary with NET Ministries and worked in both parish and diocesan ministries. She is married with three children and lives in Madison.

“I do feel that my call is a catechist, first and foremost,” she said.

Nilsson is not unaware of the challenges complicating the catechist’s vocation. The busyness of life, coupled with the difficulty of living Christianity in a secular world, has created even more need for catechism.
“It’s hard to love Jesus when it feels like the whole world has forgotten him,” she said, adding that people are losing a sense of who – and whose – they are.

Nilsson emphasized the need to “echo down” the word of God, as she has learned over time, versus applying education methodology – benchmarks, standards, etc. – when teaching religion.

“I didn’t understand it as a precious thing that was handed on to me,” she commented, “that it was a gift from God that needed to be entrusted in a way … that it can be given to another.”

Confronted with the task of teaching religion, one’s first response may be practical – How can we do this? We don’t have the tools, resources, etc. – which is akin to Mary’s during the visitation – How can this be? I do not know man.

The first thing Mary does is she goes and serves, Nilsson concluded. She brings Jesus to Elizabeth. When God becomes incarnational in us, we bring Jesus with us whenever we talk about the faith.

“God has a pedagogy,” a way of sharing Himself, she said. It is holistic, graceful, organic, personal, true, attractive, purpose, faithful, evangelizing, scriptural, liturgical and prayerful.

The goal of the Catechism is to catechize, she said. It is neither a theological discourse nor a dumbed-down theology. The Catechism is “not just a place to go to get information,” she added. It is “a place to go to encounter that pedagogy of God.”

It is intended to be a book “that lays us at the feet of the Redeemer.”

Nilsson strongly believes the Catechism must be shared in full – “How will you get people to change their lives with a watered-down version?” – and “cafeteria Catholicism” becomes impossible when one enters fully into the faith.

In ending her presentation, Nilsson issued a challenge – she encouraged all listeners to read the Catechism.