Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment

This is the fifth post in a series on the theological connections between the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and catechesis in the Catholic Church. Previous posts gave an overview of the series,  explored the characteristics of the RCIA, and addressed the precatechumenate and the catechumentate.

Theological Underpinnings

The Period of Purification and Enlightenment is the shortest of the four periods of the RCIA, coinciding with the 40 days of Lent. During this period the elect prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery at the Easter vigil (RCIA, no. 138) by purifying their hearts and minds while gaining a deeper knowledge of Christ. It is a time “of more intense spiritual preparation, consisting more in interior reflection than in catechetical instruction.” (no. 139) This preparation is accomplished in a special way through the rite of exorcism and the scrutinies celebrated with the elect.

Practical Application

Of the four periods of the RCIA the Period of Purification and Enlightenment may have the least direct application for a parish’s catechetical program. And yet it reminds us that the goal of catechesis is not simple knowledge about  Christ, but rather knowledge of  Christ, a deep knowing that comes only from being in relationship with Christ. Like any relationship time must be set aside to walk with the other, and parishes would do well to provide the faithful with opportunities to come away for a time, such as retreats or parish missions.

This is especially true of sacramental prep in parishes. If the elect are to take 40 days to prepare to be brought in to the Church through Baptism, Confirmation, and sharing in the Eucharist, how can we help others in the parish — parents preparing to have their children baptized, young people preparing for First Communion or Confirmation — to spiritually prepare for these sacraments? How can our programs go beyond mere catechesis about  the sacraments and help the faithful encounter the living Christ through them?

Photo by Mike_tn/flickrCC

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate

This is the fourth post in a series on the theological connections between the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and catechesis in the Catholic Church. Previous posts gave an overview of the series, explored the characteristics of the RCIA, and addressed the precatechumenate.

Theological Underpinnings

The second period of the RCIA  is the catechumenate. This is the period most familiar to the average Catholic, due to the dismissal of catechumens that occurs after the Liturgy of the Word during Mass. Like the precatechumenate, there is no definite time frame for this period. While bishops can establish the duration of the catechumenate, it “should be long enough — several years if necessary — for the conversaion and faith of the catechumens to become strong.” (n. 77)

The  Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults  states that the catechumenate “is an extended period during which the candidates are given suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life.” (n. 75) This formation has four  components:

  1. Catechumens should  receive  “a suitable catechesis… planned to be gradual and complete… accomodated to the liturgical year, and solidly supported by celebrations of the word.”
  2. “[T]he catechumens learn to turn more readily to God in prayer, to bear witness to the faith… to follow supernatural inspiration in their deeds, and to practice love of neighbor.”
  3. The Church provides “suitable  liturgical  rites” to “help the catechumens on their journey.”
  4. “[C]atechumens should also learn how to work actively with others to spread the Gospel and build up the Church.”
In addition, the catechesis inherent to this period “should be of a kind that while presenting Catholic teaching in its entirety also enlightens faith, directs the heart toward God, fosters participation in the liturgy, inspires apostolic activity, and nurtures a life completely in accord with the spirit of Christ.” (n. 78)

Practical Applications

This period has the most direct implications for the Church’s catechetical ministry and there is a lot to unpack from these few paragraphs.

First, it is important to note that catechesis is not a “quick fix”; it takes time to be formed in the faith. There maybe circumstances in which children or adults need to be “brought up to speed” (for instance, when a child is brought forth for First Communion without adequate catechetical preparation), but it should be understood that, once the need for expediency is passed, that the individual will enter a process of formation that will complete what is lacking. There are no shortcuts to the faith that leads to conversion.

Second, while it make be tempting to focus solely on doctrine, the teachings of the faith are only a quarter of the content of catechesis. Equally important are formation in prayer, liturgy, and the apostolic work of the Church. (This idea is not limited to the RCIA; consider the four pillars of the Catechism.)  Ideally these four should not be mutually exclusive but should be approached in such as a way as to highlight the integral nature of the faith, for they cannot be understood independently of each other.

Finally, this period reminds us that catechesis is not an end unto itself; it is an ongoing process of preparation for our ultimate destiny, communion with God. While memorizing the Church’s doctrine or mastering the Catechism  is laudable, if it doesn’t lead us to faith the words are nothing more than “a loud gong or a clashing cymbal.” (1 Cor 13:1)

Original photo by PiLoTiTo/flickrCC

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate

This is the third in a series of posts on the RCIA’s implications for catechesis in our schools and parishes. The first two posts were an overview of this series and a brief look at the characteristics of the RCIA.

Theological Underpinnings

According to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, during the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate “faithfully and constantly the living God is proclaimed and Jesus Christ whom he has sent for the salvation of all.” (n. 36) The goal of this period is to bring about “the first stirrings of repentance, a start to the practice of… prayer, a sense of the Church, and some experience of the company and spirit of Christians.” (n. 42)

Interestingly it does not  say that these things must be complete before acceptance into the catechumenate proper; this is the beginning of a process through which the candidates will progress. It stands to reason, then, that individual candidates may move at different paces and be at different points on the journey. There is no “one size fits all” approach; individuals move at their own pace on their own time.

(Incidentally, this is why the rite insists on a year-round process; candidates should be free to join when the Spirit prompts, not on an artificial timetable that suits the parish’s calendar.)

Practical Applications

At first glance this period of the RCIA may seem disconnected from catechesis. With a focus on the evangelization of non-Christians and little to say on the subject of doctrinal instruction, it certainly doesn’t fit the typical catechetical model.  On the other hand, it reminds us of the kerygmatic nature of catechesis: all teaching starts with the good news that God became one of us and died for our sins. If we aren’t drawing people deeper into this mystery, then out catechesis isn’t complete.

It’s also  important  to note that, while the participants in our catechetical programs (and I’m speaking of both youth and adult programs) will overwhelmingly be made up of baptized Catholics who have made their First Communion and most likely their Confirmation, many may functionally be on the level of the precatechumenate: little  knowledge  of the faith and little participation in the life of the Church. From that stand point, introducing Catholics with low participation to those who are more active in their faith may encourage the former.

Similarly, we must do our best not to discourage, embarrass, or  harangue  Catholics who struggle with participation or with specific Church teachings. As this period reminds us, conversion is a process. Rather than pushing “bad Catholics” out the door we should encourage them to further explore the truths of the Church and walk with them on their journey of conversion.

Photo by coba/flickrCC

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics

Theological  Underpinnings

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the “source of inspiration for all catechesis.” (National Directory for Catechesis  no. 35D) If we take this statement seriously, then a solid understanding of the RCIA should be part of every catechetical leader’s toolbox. So just what are some of the salient characteristics of the RCIA?

From the very beginning of the RCIA text the Church affirms that the RCIA is “a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful” and that is “suited to the spiritual journey of adults.” (RCIA, no. 4,5) At the same time this process “varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place” while bearing “a markedly paschal character.” (RCIA nos. 5,8)

Although facilitated by various ministries and offices, “the initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ.” (RCIA, no. 9)

Practical Applications

So what are the implications for catechesis in general?

First we must keep in mind that, like initiation, catechesis is a process that unfolds over time — in fact, it lasts a lifetime! Catechesis isn’t just something that we do for children or youth. Rather, it should permeate the life of the Church. Catechesis draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ and his Church. It is never merely a question of “learning the book” (although book learning may be involved) because we can never plumb the depths of the mysteries of the faith.

This process of catechesis will also vary from person to person. Each person comes to the Church and to God with their own questions, their own longings, and their own needs. There may be common themes, but we can never assume that every adult in the parish is in need of the same formation in the faith. While this should be self-evident, the fact that many parishes run a one-size-fits-all program for adult faith formation would seem to indicate that we’ve lost site of this fact.

The Church, then, should offer opportunities for faith formation across age groups and for different types of people. But that doesn’t mean the parishes needs to be all things to all people. Rather, the pastor and catechetical leaders should have a clear understanding of the demographics of the parishioners. A parish made up primarily of elderly and retired parishioners will need a very different program of catechesis than one that has a large population of young families or large numbers of new immigrants. Understanding who is “in the pews” should be the first step before making decisions about catechesis.

Since catechesis is “the responsibility of all the baptized,”  the Church should also seek to invite members of the community to assist and lead portions of the catechetical program. This includes DREs, CREs, and youth catechists, or course, but it could also mean asking “average” Catholics to share their faith stories with others or talk about their understanding of certain doctrines and practices. Imagine, for instance, asking a nurse who works with the dying to talk about their understanding of the Paschal Mystery, or the mother of a priest to talk about her understanding of vocation.

Finally, the catechesis offered should always draw the faithful into a deeper understanding of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Paschal Mystery stands at the center of our faith; it informs our prayers, our teachings, our sacraments, our apostolates — everything! No catechesis is complete if it doesn’t touch these foundational elements of our faith.

I hope this has stimulated some thoughts on how the RCIA can inspire catechesis in our parishes. I’ll expound on some of these characteristics in future posts as we examine the four stages of the RCIA, beginning with the pre-catechumenate.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction

The General Directory for Catechesis  (and the  National Directory for Catechesis  echoing it) states that “Given that the  missio ad gentes  is the paradigm of all the Church’s missionary activity, the baptismal catechumenate, which is joined to it, is the model of its catechizing activity.” (90)

For those of us in the catechetical ministry there is real value in having a working knowledge of the RCIA.  Two years ago I was blessed to participate in a Beginnings Plus workshop put on by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, which challenged my  preconceptions  about what catechesis is and how it is done. More recently  my diocesan department  (which consists of seven different offices) engaged in some shared study on the four periods of the RCIA and their implications for our work.

Unfortunately, in many parishes and dioceses the structure in place for catechesis is removed from the structure for initiation and catechists are not familiar with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This is a shame because the two are so closely related and, as the GDC intimates, the Church’s understanding of  all  catechesis is heavily informed by her understanding of the baptismal catechumenate.

Starting next week, over the course of four or five posts, I will share some reflections based on those experiences. Looking at the individual periods of the RCIA, I will draw out some themes for catechesis in general. I hope that you will add your own thoughts so that this can be a conversation rather than a lecture. (And if you are a catechetical leader and don’t have a copy of the RCIA — get one!)

Photo by  CameliaTWU/flickrCC

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)

An Unusual Request: Reason #3

I’ve given my “practical” and my “negative” reasons for asking my pastor to consider allowing my son to be confirmed before First Communion; today I’d like to offer the theological reason.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the restoration of the adult catechumenate has been one of the greatest fruits of the Second Vatican Council. In the RCIA the Church recognizes that the ordinary way people enter into full communion with the Church is as adults — just as they did in the early years of the Church. This full communion is best symbolized in the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, the culmination of the process and the only Sacrament of Initiation that is repeatable.

The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) goes so far as to declare that “The baptismal catechumenate is the source of inspiration for all catechesis.” (p. 115; emphasis mine)  The Church recognizes the great wisdom inherent in the catechumenal process.  Yet we ignore that wisdom when we alter the order of the Sacraments  of Initiation for Catholic children baptized as infants.

Funny thing is, were these same children to approach the Church for the full range of initiation after turning seven, they would be required to go through the RCIA (in an age appropriate manner, of course) and receive Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

(Yes, I know this proscription is not universally observed in parishes. No, there is no such thing as the RCIC. Yes, these are pet peeves of mine.)

I think part of the reason we do ignore the inspiration of the RCIA is that we don’t trust the Church’s insistence on sacramental mystagogy as a vital and necessary part of catechesis. We get so caught up in making sure that kids are “ready” for the sacraments that we ignore the call to help them reflect on the experience and meaning of the ritual after the fact.

Imagine a religious education program where children are confirmed and receive the Eucharist in 2nd or 3rd grade and then have the next 5-9 years to unpack what they have been initiated into! Would children still anticipate “graduating” from religious education without Confirmation on the horizon? As fully initiated members would they (prompted by the Holy Spirit) be more likely to participate in the life of the parish? Would they be more inclined to view faith formation not as something leading up to a sacramental end, but a life-long pursuit?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I’d sure like to find out.

So those are my three reasons for making such an unusual request of my pastor. I don’t expect an answer until this fall, but I will be sure to let you know when an answer is forthcoming. And thanks to everyone who has added their comments to this conversation — your thoughts are appreciated!

Book Review: The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a sucker for free books. Even given the pile of unread material sitting in a milk crate on my living room floor, I’ll take any opportunity to snatch up free books. So when I saw that Nick Wagner was giving away 20 copies of his new book, The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates, in exchange for a written review, I quickly sent in my request.

Interest in freebies aside, I can justify my request on professional grounds. To be sure, my interest in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is fairly new. However, since the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC), echoing the General Directory for Catechesis, states that “The baptismal catechumenate is the source of inspiration for all catechesis,” it seems self-evident to me that catechetical leaders need at least a basic understanding of the RCIA in order to fulfill the bishops’ vision for catechesis in America.

Which brings us to The Heart of Faith. Mr. Wagner is clear from the beginning that his book is not a catechetical textbook or program for the RCIA. Anyone looking for an outline of the Church’s doctrine, a theological explanation of the liturgy, or a guide to Sacred Scripture will be disappointed. (The book does end with appendices dedicated to postures of prayer, particular Catholic customs, and the annulment process, but they are hardly exhaustive.)

Rather it’s a companion book for those entering into the RCIA. It outlines in a general way what will happen during the periods of the rite, what to expect at particular times, and offers suggestions for symbols, gestures, and stories that catechumens and candidates should keep an eye out for. (In this respect, calling the book a “field guide” is very apt!) Indeed, the book invites the reader multiple times to “pay attention” to what is going on during the RCIA process: “Most of what you’ll be doing   in the catechumenate is learning how to pay attention… [S]eeing God is mostly a matter of paying attention. And the first step in paying attention is knowing what to look for.”

The meat of the book is Mr. Wagner’s outline of four disciplines of the Church: Worship, Word, Community, and Service. In these chapters Mr. Wagner invites the reader to reflect on the liturgy, Sacred Scripture, the Church, and poor. Again, while not exhaustive, the material is presented clearly and concisely. Several times I started to take exception with some language or use of terms, only to remind myself that the book is aimed at those without a lifelong grounding in the Church’s tradition; from that vantage point, the book is a good “first step” into the faith.

Mr. Wagner does a nice job of differentiating between catechumens (those who have not been baptized) and candidates (those who have been baptized outside the Catholic Church). Too many parishes simply lump the two groups together, ignoring the clear directives of the rite. While the majority of the book is applicable to catechumens, candidates will find lots to reflect on and good questions, suggestions, and advice for their particular situation.

I have two main critiques of The Heart of Faith. First, while it impresses on the catechumens the importance of Baptism and Eucharist, it has less to say about the other sacrament of initiation they will participate in at the Easter Vigil. A little more explication on Confirmation would be a welcome addition.

My second concern is that the book — like many parish RCIA programs — stops with the Easter Vigil, neglecting the final period of the rite: the period of mystagogy. I’m sure that Mr. Wagner, as a member of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, is aware of this; my hope is that a future book will present a mystagogical catechesis on the initiation rites to compliment this preparatory book.

These concerns aside, The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates would be an excellent gift from a sponsor or family member to someone entering the Church. More information on the book is available at faithfieldguide.com/the-heart-of-faith.