By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — When Paul Schroeder introduced John M. Stack to about 100 catechists and directors of religious education at the Holiday Inn Northeast on Nov. 11, he probably won the diocesan Understatement of the Year Award.
“Welcome to an experience,” Schroeder said. Then he stepped aside for a human dynamo.
Stack started fast and never slowed down. He came from Pennsylvania to help teachers with ideas and strategies, and he brought with him six prayer tables filled with hundreds of items to liven up the religion classroom. He illustrated every one. He was Juan Diego talking to Our Lady of Guadalupe one minute, a fifth-grader illustrating a talk about Mother Drexel with hand puppets the next; he sang rap spirituals and awarded gold medals, shouted for bread and pleaded for mercy. His tables included costumes, statues, candles, hardhats (for making clear the way of the Lord), stuffed lambs and mice, a prayer bag, a cell phone (for calling God), globes, and more. Each table was framed by a vivid backboard. Stack admitted that his children call the motley collection “daddy’s holy junk,” but the South Carolina catechists were fascinated by it — and by the owner of it all.
“He was awesome,” said Doris Arvelo, the director of religious education at St. Martin de Porres Parish. “He has so many great ideas. I’m taking them back with me and am going to use all of them.”
Stack is a master catechist with two master’s degrees and decades of catechetical experience. He is a consultant with the publishing house W. H. Sadlier, but spends most of his summer and fall weekends traveling the nation as a presenter of dynamic workshops for teachers of religion. He likes what he sees in his travels.
“Catechists are the strongest resource we have. They’re amazing. They are not paid, and they spend a beautiful Saturday like this trying to improve their skills. With people like that taking control, it (the church) can’t fail,” the father of two young children said. “These people live it, and they know what touches families.”
He said that modern children are starved for rituals, so he provides many in his classroom at St. Winifred in Pittsburgh. He calls the room “a peaceable kingdom” and his major push is to build bridges from that class to the home. Jeff LaCroix of Blessed Trinity in Greer thought that the construction effort was successful.
“John is able to energize people. He gives us symbolic ways to teach. There will be some creative instruction going on after this session,” the seventh-grade and confirmation catechist predicted.
Stack’s all-day workshop was called “Okay, I’m a catechist. Now what do I do?” and was co-sponsored by Sadlier and the Diocese of Charleston. Karen Dietz, director of religious education at St. Peter in Columbia and Midlands deanery coordinator for Schroeder’s diocesan Office of Evangelization, Initiation and Catechesis, spent hours setting up the conference. It was a lot of work, yet she wants to do it again.
“We need to have him back for our Catholic school teachers,” Dietz said.
That is the kind of impact John Stack has on people: He enervates them with his non-stop energy but leaves them wanting even more of the experience.