Linda Porter retires, ending an era in the Diocese of Tyler

An era has come to a close in the Diocese of Tyler.

Linda Khirallah Porter, diocesan Director of Faith Formation since 1994, retired Feb. 28 after more than two decades of shaping how the Catholic faith is taught in East Texas. Under Porter’s leadership, thousands of catechists have been trained and endorsed to teach in parishes, and those catechists have formed thousands more, children and adults, throughout the diocese.

More than 10,000 people have been initiated into the Catholic Church through programs and by catechists under her direction. Diocesan surveys show that more than 80 percent of those “new Catholics” remain in and get involved in the Church, better than the national average. About 90 percent of parishes in the diocese – many of them small, rural, and with chronically tight budgets – offer adult faith formation programs of some kind.

“Linda has truly done the foundational work of catechesis for the diocese,” said Bishop Joseph E. Strickland. “She has provided formation for a virtual army of catechists who are dedicated to teaching. She has laid the foundation on which we will build, and, because of her efforts, we will be able to use tools that weren’t available when the diocese began. It would be impossible for us to move forward without this foundation.”

Beyond catechesis, her office has influenced how liturgy is taught and practiced in the diocese, has assisted in the formation of permanent deacons, and has helped shape how the diocese protects children and vulnerable adults from abuse.

When she wasn’t creating a catechetical system out of thin air, she, with husband Dr. Roger “Bo” Porter, a rheumatologist now retired, raised three children – Josie Huffman, Sarah Robinson, and the late Seth Henry Porter – and earned a Master of Theological Studies from the University of Dallas Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies.

Hired in 1994 by Bishop Edmond Carmody, second Bishop of Tyler, after having been a catechist at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and religion teacher at St. Gregory Cathedral School, she stepped into a world of virtual chaos. Catechists were largely untrained volunteers all doing their own thing, using old textbooks, bad textbooks, borrowed textbooks, or no textbooks at all. In some parishes, priests were still personally directing what was taught and were giving private instruction to potential converts in the absence of RCIA programs.

“It really was the Wild West in terms of catechesis,” said Peggy Hammett, who was director of religious education at St. Jude Church in Henderson when Porter was hired and is now director of faith formation at the Cathedral. “There was no training, no endorsement, no structure, no cohesiveness. Every parish was literally doing its own thing. I know of parishes that had non-Catholics as catechists. They were attending Mass with their spouses and they were willing, so they volunteered, grabbed a Bible, and just taught from that. A couple of parishes were still using pre-Vatican II books.

“But we didn’t know any better,” Hammett said. “The diocese was still relatively new. And most of our parishes had been on the fringes of whichever diocese they’d come from. As a small parish on the outskirts of the Dallas Diocese, (St. Jude) had never had any support. (The diocese) couldn’t have cared less about what we taught and how. And that just carried on after Tyler became a diocese, because we were still trying to figure out how to be a diocese. We were all just making it up as we went along.

“Then Linda got hired, and our whole world changed.”

She made a difference in the lives of individuals. But she also made a big difference in the life of the Church here in East Texas by putting us on a solid catechetical foundation and helping us to develop and grow in that. – Peggy Hammett

Porter made a point of visiting every parish in the diocese, sitting in on classes, asking catechists what they needed, and listening. She became a catechist’s biggest advocate.

“It amazes me how much people will offer up and give, the time and effort they give, without getting anything back,” Porter said of the people she’s come to know over two decades of service. “It’s unconditional service. Watching them struggle and grow and mature in their faith has been one of my greatest blessings.”

She has spearheaded that growth and maturity.

Working with Bishop Carmody and an advisory committee, Porter created the LIFE program, or Lifelong Individual Faith Enrichment, a comprehensive catechetical program aimed at teaching the teachers, and anyone else who cared to deepen their understanding of the faith.

“The idea for education in the diocese was to target adults, all adults, whether they wanted to be catechists, whether they were moms and dads helping their kids, whether they wanted to be just the person in the pew who came to Mass every Sunday,” Porter said. “We wanted to help them grow in their own personal faith, by knowledge of the doctrines of the Church, so they could live their lives better and raise their families better.”

Thus was an education system for the Diocese of Tyler born.

LIFE had four tiers – basic, beginning, intermediate, and advanced – with courses tailored to each of the levels. Catechists received credit hours for each course they attended, and, once they earned enough credits, they were endorsed at that level and moved up to the next. The courses taught Catholic doctrine and theology, Scripture, prayer, and Marian theology, but also such practical matters as classroom layout and management, devising lesson plans, and how to deal with behavioral problems. She taught catechists how to identify different kinds of learning in students and, ultimately, how to recognize and teach to learning disabilities.

Porter also established a resource library at the chancery, collecting a wide range of materials and making them available to parishes that were often too cash-strapped to purchase their own. In the days before the internet became every teacher’s best friend, such a library was a boon to rural East Texas catechists.

“That resource library was invaluable,” said Father Gavin Vaverek, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Lufkin and diocesan Promoter of Justice. He has worked with Porter in a number of roles over the past two decades, but, when she was named diocesan DRE, he was pastor of St. Jude Church in Henderson.

“In those long-ago days before the internet, parishes had to put together their own catechetical materials or, if they couldn’t afford that, borrow them from somewhere else. I’ve seen catechists stand over a copier, making copies of pages from books and handing those out to students. But Linda took on a lot of that work through her office. She would make up slides and transparencies for overhead projectors. She’d order books and videos and make them available. When she went to conferences, she’d bring back all the materials she could and share them. She took a lot of that burden off small parishes that always struggled to provide materials.

“And through her own ongoing formation, as she traveled to conferences and then spoke at conferences, she was able to attract speakers and presenters from outside the diocese to come and lead sessions here,” Father Vaverek said. “She formed these networks that gave us access to really high-caliber teachers and presenters that we’d never had before. Maybe most importantly, she formed a relationship with the leaders at the University of Dallas and brought the diocese into that relationship, so that they were able to work with us through the John Paul II Institute to allow our people to do master’s work at a reduced cost. We’ve got 20 people in our diocese, catechists, who now have master’s degrees in theology or pastoral work because of Linda Porter and her efforts. That is a gift to any diocese, and especially to one as small as ours.”

“Linda worked hard to make sure we had what we needed, especially in the small parishes,” said Hammett. “If we were struggling because we didn’t have money for books, she’d talk to the bishop. We couldn’t afford to go to conferences, so she’d go and bring back to us what she’d learned. Or a group of us would pool our money and go with her, and we’d all bunch up in one room. She’d get in her car and drive all over the diocese just to make sure her catechists had what they needed.

“With Linda, we always knew there was someone at the diocese we could go to. If nothing else, she could hold your hand and pray with you. She was always there for us. She knew what was going on in our parishes and in our lives. She shared her family with us, and we shared ours with her. When we were going through hard times, whether it was in our families or our ministry, she was right there with us. She drew us together into a very large, complicated family.”

That professional and personal commitment paid off.

“People who’ve come into this ministry in the last few years and who weren’t here at the beginning don’t understand just how much Linda did for us and gave to us,” Hammett said. “Back then, we had parishes that were still using pre-Vatican II books. Now, when we go to conferences, people talk in awe about the Diocese of Tyler. They call us ‘the little diocese that could.’ Linda put us on the map.

“She made a difference in the lives of individuals,” Hammett said. “But she also made a big difference in the life of the Church here in East Texas by putting us on a solid catechetical foundation and helping us to develop and grow in that.”

Developing that foundation in those early days was a challenge. While parish catechists had the desire to share their faith, many lacked not only the training but the basic formation as well.

“Historically, the faith formation programs or CCD were taught by priests and sisters,” Porter said. “But the Church has changed and so has society. And vocations have changed. The place that has a priest or sister teaching is very rare now. So when the Church says we still need catechists, who are they going to turn to? Well, the obvious answer was the parents of the kids in the programs. And the Church did that for a long time. The thinking was that if you were Catholic and had all your sacraments, you could teach. But experience has shown that doesn’t work because people can’t give what they don’t have. Or they will give what they do have, and it may not be what we want.”

Porter discovered that a large percentage of parish catechists hadn’t gone through any faith formation since confirmation. They were refreshing their knowledge from parish materials as they taught, staying just one step ahead of their students, and, in many cases, tailoring their parish’s formation program to what their pastor wished to emphasize. It was a haphazard system with no consistency from parish to parish.

She had her work cut out for her.

The first challenge, she said, was to convince priests and catechists that “everyone needs to be literate in their faith.” The second was to teach the teachers how to teach.

“So there were two things to create – the adult faith formation program and classes that dealt with doctrine and theology, and the praxis. We got the catechist endorsement off, but the others didn’t really develop after that. But we had a lot of people who came to those classes, thousands of people, and from that group, we began to endorse catechists.”

The next step was to bring consistency to what was being taught, to make certain that children in Carthage were getting the same formation as those at the Cathedral and in Lufkin. She tackled that problem in collaboration with Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, the third Bishop of Tyler.

“The idea was that there are certain doctrines that everyone should know,” Porter said. “Everyone should teach the same information, all four-year-olds would get the same information, all 10-year-olds would get the information, and so on, across the diocese. That’s where the 15 (now 16) goals originated. They were basic tenets of the faith, starting with the Trinity, then the relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then continuing through faith, Scripture, discipleship, all the way through prayer and, finally, the Marian doctrine.

“Those 16 goals became the basis for all faith formation in the diocese, for Christian Initiation, for teams bringing people into the church, for adult catechesis. It gave everyone in faith formation consistency, but it also gave catechists, most of who were not trained teachers, the tools they needed. They needed to be trained, they needed the doctrine, and then they needed the framework to teach from.”

When you look back at where we started and how far we’ve come, it is in no small measure due to Linda’s commitment and dedication to educating a vast number of adults in the Diocese of Tyler in their faith. We have a richness in ministry that would never have been possible without her work. – Father Gavin Vaverek

It wasn’t, of course, always easy. A big obstacle was convincing parish catechists and ministers, almost all of who were volunteers giving the Church time not already taken by families and jobs, to give up still more time by coming to classes.

“In 2002, Bishop Corrada mandated that endorsement was required, which was a challenge because the priests and the parishes had difficulty finding people who wanted to go through training,” Porter said. “The feeling was, ‘I’m already volunteering, why do I have to go through this when I have to do everything else?’”

Still, Bishop Corrada was adamant, and Porter was willing to give it a try.

“My feeling was, let’s try this and see if it works, see if it makes things better. If it doesn’t, then we’ll go to Plan B.”

A funny thing happened on the way to Plan B. The volunteer catechists and ministers who came, grudgingly at first, to those required classes discovered something astonishing – they worked. Because the catechists were getting a better understanding of their faith, they were able to teach it more effectively and were no longer scrabbling on Saturday night to prepare a lesson plan for Sunday. They learned to set up classroom environments that were conducive to learning. They learned how to manage problematic behavior and to recognize learning difficulties that were often mistaken for bad behavior.

Teachers learned to teach. But they also discovered in themselves a hunger to learn.

“As catechists started learning more about their faith, they realized they were growing as individuals,” Porter said. “A lot of my catechists go to faith formation classes, even go to catechist classes, and they’re no longer active catechists. We have about 815 active catechists in our 70 parishes and missions, but we have about 3,000 catechists who continue to attend classes.”

Continuing formation has been a boon to the diocese, too, she said. Catechists able to teach the faith clearly provide an obvious benefit. But a hidden benefit is that, as many catechists have gone through the endorsement process, they have discovered a love for the Scriptures and a desire to teach that, thus leading to an increasing number of Bible studies throughout the diocese. They have discovered a love of liturgical ministry, or of ministry to the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, and have gone into those areas of service. They have become youth ministers, parish musicians, altar servers and acolytes, and deacons. Continuing formation has also led to a thirst for knowledge for its own sake, a desire to deepen personal devotion and holiness, and has created an “army” of disciples throughout the diocese, people witnessing the faith to family, friends, and perfect strangers simply by their behavior.

“Catechesis is the basis for the way we live,” Porter said. “The word itself means to echo the faith in one’s life. There are two sides of the cross. One side is me and God; that’s my prayer life, my spiritual life. But the other side is me and others, the communal. And we can’t do one side without the other. As we grow in our faith, as we learn what the teachings are, then we become disciples. Our baptism calls us to discipleship. It’s not an option, it’s an expectation. And that discipleship means I have to share my faith with everyone because of my baptism.

“If (my faith) doesn’t intersect with how I live my life, the decisions I make with my children, my grandchildren, my husband, with my coworkers, with the lady at McDonald’s, if all of those decisions and choices and actions that I’m making aren’t affected by what I believe and what I’ve learned as a Catholic Christian, then something is missing in terms of my development. Catechesis helps every person understand themselves as a human person first, what their strengths and weaknesses are, the areas they need to work on, but it also helps them become spiritual through studying doctrine and Bible study. It helps us understand what God’s message is not only for me, but also for the world.

“At my age of 68, I understand the liturgy and the Eucharist very differently than I did at 7 when I made my first Communion, or even when I was 14 and was confirmed,” she said. “As we grow, we have to continue to study our faith because it doesn’t stop until we die.”

I have grown so much in holiness and grace because of the people I’ve encountered in this diocese – the average person in the pew, the catechist, the Christian Initiation newbie. Every year, when we do the Presentation of the Elect, I see those people coming down the aisle and it’s hard for me not to cry because I am so moved by the journeys they’ve made. – Linda Porter

Good catechesis can also help the faithful, and the Church herself, deal with painful issues. In 2001, the clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted, rocking the Church in this country to its core. In 2002, the U.S. bishops met in Dallas to craft the Charter for the Protection of Young People. That same year, under the direction of Bishop Corrada, the Diocese of Tyler began honing its own policies for responding to allegations of abuse. Bishop Corrada appointed Father Vaverek as diocesan Promoter of Justice, and Father Vaverek worked with Porter to create the Ethics and Integrity program, the training and certification program required of all Church employees and volunteers who work with children.

The program, now in its 15th year, has been tweaked and fine-tuned over the years and has trained countless Catholics in East Texas in recognizing the signs of potential abuse before it happens and in reporting any allegations of suspected abuse. The program exceeds the requirements of the U.S. bishops’ charter, and is steeped not just in civil legalities, but also in an understanding of the Code of Canon Law, the law that governs the church, and theology.

Father Vaverek said Porter’s expertise has been crucial to the program’s success.

“Her experience as a master catechist and trainer was essential in putting together materials for the program,” he said. “And through her work with the LIFE program, she had cultivated a group of people we could use as presenters and trainers in the parishes. So we didn’t have to start from scratch. We had already available to us people who had studied theology, who knew Church teachings, who were familiar with the Code of Canon Law. We had a body of trained people well formed in their faith who understood what we were doing and why. And we had that because of her work in promoting adult faith formation in the diocese.

“For so long,” he said, “the Church depended on people of good will to carry out her ministries. Now, due largely to Linda’s efforts, we don’t just have people of good will to depend on. We have people of good, solid training in theology, in doctrine, in how to do the work of the Church, in how to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ every day. That’s a gift to this diocese, and to the Church as a whole.”

Linda Porter, far left, instructs her grandson, Jordan Huffman, during the 2016 diocesan Mass for those with special needs. Jordan, who is severely autistic, was the driving influence behind Porter’s work in launching the Diocese of Tyler’s special needs catechesis program two years ago. Porter retired from her position as diocesan Director of Faith Formation Feb. 28, but will continue her work in special needs catechesis. Also pictured are Dr. Roger “Bo” Porter and Dr. Josie Huffman, Porter’s daughter and Jordan’s mother.

That body of everyday Catholics formed in their faith is the legacy Porter leaves behind. But even as she settles into retirement, there is one aspect of her work that she hopes to continue, and hopes to see grow – catechesis for those with special needs.

It’s a very personal mission to her, one born of her own family’s experience. Her grandson, Jordan Huffman, almost 22, is severely autistic. The son of Porter’s elder daughter, Josie, Jordan and his family moved back to Texas two years ago, and Porter has come to understand firsthand the struggles faced by families of those with special needs.

“He hasn’t finished his sacraments, but he has a really difficult time when he goes to church, so we don’t take him,” Porter said.

But she began working with him one on one, and, the more she did, “the more I realized that we need to have something in our diocese for special needs.”

Two years ago, with the blessing of Bishop Strickland, she began working on a diocesan effort to address the catechetical needs of this often forgotten segment of the population. The first year was spent mainly on raising awareness, on, once more, teaching the teachers.

“It was just a year of awareness, of education, of training, of helping people understand what the disabilities were. What is Tourette’s syndrome? What is ADHD? What is autism? What is Asperger’s? What is Pervasive Developmental Disorder? It was a year of introducing the language, the terminology, of what we mean by special needs and what that means for catechists. Not every catechist can do it. And that’s okay. But we wanted to identify those who thought they could.”

Again, the training paid off.

“The more that people became aware of this, the more they could recognize it,” Porter said. “I’ve had faith formation leaders say they now recognize children with special needs in their classes. Now, it may not be as obvious as Jordan’s. It may not be autism. It may be a learning disability or a sensory difficulty where they need some kind of object or a color overlay. A lot of times, those kids were labeled behavior problems, but now our catechists recognize that they have some kind of neurological or physical difficulty inhibiting them.”

From there, she has worked to develop specific training sessions for those who feel called to work with special needs students. She has gathered resources for the library, brought in speakers who specialize in the area, and videoed her own work with Jordan for demonstration purposes.

Several parishes, including the Cathedral, now offer special needs catechesis. Last year, Bishop Strickland celebrated the first annual Mass for those with special needs. The Mass, a modified liturgy, will be offered again this year on Saturday, April 29, at 10 a.m. in the Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul in Tyler.

“Her work with special needs is a beautiful gift to the diocese,” said Bishop Strickland. “It puts real faces and stories on the meaning of the sanctity of life. Life as sacred from conception to natural death is not just true for certain categories of God’s children but for every human being.  Linda’s work highlights this message which is vital to our society.”

Father Vaverek said the Diocese of Tyler owes an enormous debt to Porter’s years of service.

“When you look back at where we started and how far we’ve come,” he said, “it is in no small measure due to Linda’s commitment and dedication to educating a vast number of adults in the Diocese of Tyler in their faith. We have a richness in ministry that would never have been possible without her work.”

Porter said she has gotten far more from that work than she put into it.

“My favorite thing to do in the diocese is to teach,” she said. “I love teaching, I love sharing the faith, I love being out in the parishes and deaneries much more than being in the office. When you interact with people, you see the changes in their lives. They bless me far more than anything I’ve done for them.”

The people she has met, worked with, and trained have become part of the fabric of her life, and an integral piece of her prayer life.

“I have grown so much in holiness and grace because of the people I’ve encountered in this diocese – the average person in the pew, the catechist, the Christian Initiation newbie,” she said. “Every year, when we do the Presentation of the Elect, I see those people coming down the aisle and it’s hard for me not to cry because I am so moved by the journeys they’ve made. Some of them have been outcast by their families (for choosing to become Catholic). And I envy them a little bit because they have struggled through all this and asked for this, where I was a cradle Catholic and just kind of given it.

“It’s been a blessing to work for three bishops, three very different bishops, but it’s been interesting to watch the different stages the diocese has moved through with each bishop. I look forward to watching to see what’s going to happen in the next 30 years.”

Bishop Strickland said the work of the future rests squarely on the foundation built by Porter.

“This community of catechists enables us to take the next step of providing them with direction that will nurture their lives and the lives of those they touch,” he said. “My vision is to establish a catechetical institute for the diocese. I envision this institute as an entity that will be in direct service to every catechists, priest, and parish. All of this is only possible because of Linda’s hard work and that of all the catechists in the diocese.”

Father Vaverek said the Diocese of Tyler owes an enormous debt to Porter’s years of service.

“When you look back at where we started and how far we’ve come,” he said, “it is in no small measure due to Linda’s commitment and dedication to educating a vast number of adults in the Diocese of Tyler in their faith. We have thousands of people involved in ministry in this diocese, or just being full and active participants in their faith, because of what she has done. We have master catechists who could lead programs in any of the larger dioceses in this country.

“That’s not bad for someone who, as a high school student, walked into a church and volunteered to teach CCD because she just wanted to help.”

 

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