By Tom Maguire and Katherine Long | Catholic Sun staff

Catherine Mackey’s journey to teaching young people about the Catholic faith began more than 20 years ago with a request from her young daughter: “Will you please be my teacher?”

“Had she not said that, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Mackey recently told the Sun.

Today, Mackey is one of just a handful of parish catechetical leaders in the country who have been certified by the Alliance for Certification of Lay Ecclesial Ministers and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. “Your professional competence and achievement is publicly recognized by the Alliance, by members of this organization, and by those who collaborate with you in ministry,” her letter of certification reads. “We are pleased to acknowledge that you are well prepared for and personally committed to service in and for the Church.”

Mackey didn’t feel well prepared when her service to the Church began, though. Her daughter was a second-grader, about to begin preparing to receive the sacraments at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville, when she asked her mom to be her teacher. Mackey held a bachelor’s degree in education but felt “unprepared” and “unworthy” to teach religious education, she recalled, explaining that, at that time, she was devout in her prayer life, but not in attending Mass every single week. With encouragement from the head of the parish’s faith formation program, however, Mackey dove in.

“I loved it,” she said. She loved it so much she continued teaching every year, even taking on new classes as each of her three sons entered the program.

In 2011, Mackey became part-time director of faith formation at St. John the Baptist and Holy Trinity Parish in Syracuse. She “loved every single second” of building the parish’s faith formation program, she said.

Dedicated to ensuring that she was well-formed in the faith herself, Mackey completed level one and level two catechist certification through the diocese’s Office of Faith Formation. Courses and workshops offered through the certification program provide catechists with both practical skills and theological knowledge to help enhance their ministry.

Mackey went on to pursue certification as a director of faith formation, which required 12 credit hours in college-level theology. She took a master’s-level course through St. Joseph’s College of Maine and enjoyed it so much she decided to complete her graduate certificate in theology. Once she finished that, it was on to a master’s degree in pastoral theology. Mackey earned her certifications and degrees in about six years. She also worked throughout this period; Mackey is currently the director of faith formation at St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville and as a theology teacher at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse.

Mackey’s dedication to her faith and her ministry was well-known to Andrea Slaven, Director of Catechesis for the Diocese of Syracuse.

Last September, she approached Mackey with the suggestion to apply for national certification because “I was confident in all of her strengths that I have seen over the years,” Slaven told the Sun in an email. “I have known her to be so dedicated, putting 110% into all she did, whether it was school, work, or family.”

The national certification offered by the Alliance for Certification of Lay Ecclesial Ministers is “a portfolio-based process that allows the candidate to share their knowledge, demonstrate their skill and express their spiritual and theological reflections. Certification is the next step after degrees, certificates and formation programs and serves as a tool for an individual to synthesize their experience and learning,” according to the organization’s website.

Mackey applied for certification as a Parish Catechetical Leader. The rigorous process included submitting letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, an extensive portfolio containing evidence of success in numerous core and specialized competencies, and a paper applying “personal, spiritual, theological, pastoral and specialized competence to the practice of pastoral ministry.” Following rounds of review by certified peers, the National Certification Review Committee, and the Alliance Commission, Mackey was granted certification in June.
“I am so humbled to have been awarded this certification and I will do all that I can to continue to grow in my faith, professional development, knowledge, and service to our Church and to our diocese,” she told the Sun in an email.

Mackey “so much deserved to be recognized for all of her achievements and her abilities,” Slaven said. “As Pope Francis refers to those in this ministry, Cathy truly has ‘the heart of a catechist’ and is a natural leader as she leads others to Christ.” Her achievement also “recognizes and affirms on a national level the competencies and integrity the diocese requires for catechetical leadership,” Slaven noted.

Mackey does not define herself or her ministry through degrees and certifications, however. “I define myself as incredibly pastoral, because I want to be in the trenches,” she said. “I want to be constantly helping others, I want to make a difference in a person’s life, and I want to help children learn the immense joy of helping others. Because if I plant that seed and they feel that immense joy, then I’m hoping that this will be exponential.”

As the school year begins, that means bringing her knowledge, skills, energy, creativity, organization, passion, and goofy humor to her classrooms in order to spread the light of Christ. “If I light that flame, it can spread like wildfire. And that’s what I really hope for.”

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