The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was born in the heart of the Second Vatican Council and hails back to the ancient days of the Church. Yet far too many Catholics have only a vague idea of the meaning and import of the RCIA.
On the First Sunday of Lent, thousands of women and men across the country celebrated the Rite of Election, preparing for Baptism or full Communion with the Church. The joy and happiness on their faces spoke volumes about the flowering of their faith and their deepening connection to Christ and to the Church which is ever ancient and ever new.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned the RCIA, not as a program, but as a spiritual journey of the heart.
The RCIA emphasizes the three inter-related Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, called the “portal to eternal life,” Confirmation or second anointing, which seals and strengthens the promises of Baptism, and Eucharist, the source and summit of the life of the Church.
Following patterns in the early Church, that journey is comprised of four distinct periods:
Period of Evangelization and Pre-Catechumenate
The pre-catechumenate is that graced period of inquiry and evangelization, a time for introduction to Gospel living. This is a time of profound encounter with Christ, who changes the hearts and lives of all who meet him in faith. The individual stories of faith that come from this period are profound and marvelous. It is in this period that the pre-catechumens also speak lovingly of that special someone who inspired them, encouraging them, influencing them to consider baptism or full communion – a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor or a family member who served as a direct instrument of God’s grace. The late Pope John Paul II wrote, “The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission.” (Rm 41).
The beginning of the catechumenate proper is celebrated liturgically by the “Rite of Acceptance,” when candidates express and the Church accepts their intention to respond to God’s call to follow the way of Christ.
Period of Catechumenate
The catechumenate is the second stage of the journey, a two-fold period of formation. Here, the Church attentively forms the minds of the catechumens so they can “think with the Church,” understand its mind and mission, its teachings and traditions and become lifelong students of the faith.
The catechumenate also involves the formation of the heart. Here the candidate’s heart is formed and transformed by the Word of God, by immersion into personal and communal prayer, by introduction to the power of Liturgy, and by works of charity and service. The two-fold conversion process prepares both mind and the heart for the graces that await the catechumens and the candidates at the celebration of the Easter Vigil.
On the First Sunday of Lent, the Church, in the presence of the Bishop, formally ratifies the catechumens’ readiness for the Sacraments of initiation. The catechumens, now called Elect, express their will to receive the Easter Sacraments as they sign the Book of the Elect. Here the Church also welcomes those who, already baptized, seek full communion with the Church.
Period of Purification and Enlightenment
Prior to the Easter Vigil, throughout the days of Lent, the Church wisely and intentionally assists candidates and catechumens to confront the struggles, temptations, obstacles and barriers that await every Christian on pilgrimage. This period of purification, marked by celebration of the Scrutinies, engages the whole community in prayer, so that doubts and distractions are transformed into graces and blessings, and relationship with the believing community is strengthened.
At the Easter Vigil, the whole Church rejoices and celebrates its new members reborn in baptism, confirmed in the Spirit, and received at the Lord’s Eucharist Table. They are living signs of the Church’s eternal springtime in Christ. The excitement and joy are palpable as the Church’s arms are opened wide to receive the newly baptized, along with the candidates whose desire for full communion becomes a reality on that Night of Nights.
Period of Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy
The period of time following the Easter Vigil is called Mystagogy. It is the Achilles heel of the RCIA process. The Mystagogy is designed to help prepare the newly baptized and initiated to live and experience the transforming power of the Catholic faith.
The Mystagogy flows from the vision that “Christian initiation … is not the concern of catechists or priests alone, but of the whole community of believers … so that from the outset the catechumens will have a sense of being a part of the people of God.”
I will ask our Diocesan Liturgical Commission, the Presbyteral Council and the Department of Faith Formation for their perspectives as we evaluate the effectiveness of the post-baptismal period of Mystagogy. My particular concern focuses on the question, “Have we prepared the assembly adequately to assume their rightful role as formators in the lives of the newly initiated?”
In a word, the community’s warmth and welcome, their personal re-engagement and interest, coupled with the example of holy lives and a supportive presence will make the RCIA process dynamic, lifelong and sustainable. Conversely, the community’s indifference, lack of engagement or ignorance of their important role can discourage or confuse the newly initiated, and unintentionally place them at risk in their transition into Ordinary time.
In short, the RCIA is everyone’s business, and the role of the assembly as primary formators cannot be overemphasized. This is a place where new questions need to be asked, and new energy directed so that the Mystagogy will bear abundant fruit.
The RCIA is truly a blessing for the Church and those preparing for baptism and full communion are living signs of the Church’s eternal Springtime. We are indebted to them for renewing and deepening our love of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” faith.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 25, No. 3, March 20, 2009.