How to teach catechumens the meaning of liturgy

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAThe Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults intends the period of the catechumenate to be “aimed at training [the catechumens] in the Christian life” (RCIA 75). An essential component of that training is our liturgical life. Our participation in the worship of the church is so important that it is the first reform that was undertaken by the Second Vatican Council.

It is in the liturgy, above all, where we “manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 2).

In other words, when we are celebrating the Mass, the sacraments, the Hours, or the rituals of the RCIA, we are the very best image of Jesus and the church that we can be.

A sacred action surpassing all others

It is because of the core primacy of our liturgical and sacramental worship that the Second Vatican Council said: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10).

However, the liturgy doesn’t just magically become the “summit and font.” On any given Sunday, we only have to look across the pews to see that many Catholics are just going through the motions, not truly entering into the spirit of the liturgy. A key reason for the reform of the liturgy was to change this very thing. The Council said that the “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14).

Bringing the catechumens to full participation level

We have done pretty well, in most parishes, moving to “full and active participation by all the people.” And we still have a long way to go. Our job, as RCIA leaders, is to make sure that every new member of the household of Christ comes to the liturgy prepared to participate fully. That means that if we expect the liturgy to have its full effect upon the catechumens, we have to teach them how to “come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 11).

The way that we do that, however, might not be what we first think it is. Pope Benedict XVI, who was a young theologian at the Second Vatican Council, said “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well” (The Sacrament of Charity, 64)

Catechesis starts with experience

Pope Benedict says that the primary way we encounter Christ is through an experience of Christ. And it is in the liturgy where we have the clearest, most profound experience of Christ. The pope says that once we have had such an experience, we have to then enter into a process of mystagogy. (Just a side note here: the pope is saying this mystagogical process is what all of us should be doing, not just the catechumens.)

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According the Pope Benedict, the mystagogical process has three elements.

1. A look back

First the ritual should be interpreted in light of all the blessings we have already been given. Throughout history, God has been drawing us closer, bringing us from darkness to light. If we truly encounter Christ in the liturgy, how do the rites make present for us the death and resurrection of Christ, which is the culmination of our salvation?

2. A look at the present

The liturgy is made up of signs and symbols. In our scientific age, we tend to discount any information that cannot be coded into an app or a program. The liturgy isn’t scientific. We have to learn (or recover) a different language. Pope Benedict says: “More than simply conveying information, a mystagogical catechesis should be capable of making the faithful more sensitive to the language of signs and gestures which, together with the word, make up the rite” (The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission, 64b).

3. A look forward

Every mystagogical process concludes with a “so what?” If we really encountered Jesus in the liturgy, how were we changed? And how will we change the world because of that? Liturgy is never solely about our salvation. It is about the transformation of all creation and bringing the world into unity with the Father.

Remember where to start

The key to all of this is to remember we have to start with liturgy well celebrated so that the catechumens first encounter and recognize Christ in the ritual. It is only after that happens that we can have an effective catechetical process centered on three elements of mystagogy.

Then we keep repeating that cycle until we can discern that the catechumens know the purpose and meaning of Christian worship and enter into it fully.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Find out if your RCIA catechesis is ‘suitable’ for catechumens” Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:

  1. How to teach catechumens the meaning of liturgy
  2. Why dismiss the catechumens before Jesus becomes present?

Photo credit: Jake Ingle |

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  1. Nick, this post is very timely for me. This morning at Mass, my mind was slightly wandering off the great liturgical celebration with the Spirit prompting me to ponder “what is the best time to teach about the liturgy of the Mass within RCIA?” I was reflecting that I needed to seek the counsel of my fellow RCIA practitioners as to when they teach either inquirers and/or catechumens about the Mass and what they actually teach/discuss. I then come home to read your post.

    For some of our liturgy – RCIA rituals and Liturgy of the Hours, our catechumens can follow a “normal” mystagogical experience in that they can actually experience the ritual or liturgy and then discuss their experience of it and its impact on them because they have been able to experience full and active participation in that particular liturgy.

    However, when it comes to the Mass, assuming that any particular RCIA team is generally following the pathway of the Rite, this is not fully the case. During the precatechumenate period, an inquirer is exposed to the entire Mass (liturgy of Word and Liturgy of Eucharist), however is limited in their extent of full and active participation. Once in the catechumenate period, they are exposed mostly only to the Liturgy of the Word with a dismissal ritual. The next time they are exposed to a “full frontal encounter” with the Mass that has a massive impact on them is the Easter Vigil.

    This leads to my pondering at Mass this morning: How much explanation of the Liturgy of the Mass do we need to give an inquirer in the precatechumenate period to adequately prepare them for this period?

    Additionally, during the catechumenate period, as the catechumen becomes more skilled at a deeper participation and is more exposed to the depth of mystagogy in the Liturgy of the Word, do we need to redo an explanation of the Liturgy of the Mass to prepare them better for this period of their journey?

    Further, your post reinforces that effective catechetical process is centred (Ah yes, Aussi spelling!!) on full and active participation and the three elements of mystagogy. So perhaps there is a need to again redo the mystagogical experience of the Liturgy of the Mass (as distinct from doing a mystagogical session on the actual Easter Vigil Mass and its rituals) during the Easter season? This is in line with Pope Benedict XVI’s comments.

    To help me in my planning on this issue, I am keen to hear from others as to when you teach about the Liturgy of the Mass and how much detail do you give. Do you teach different aspects of the Mass at different stages of the RCIA journey?

    If you feel your response is too long or detailed to be fully expressed here, please give the forum a summary and then email me: mnorden at with a more detailed response (Sorry, I’m not on Facebook yet (a long story) but will be joining to participate in the All-access members’ forum).

  2. My short response to this question would be: Inquirers don’t need to be participating in the whole liturgy yet. I would not discourage them or tell them not to attend, but really full, conscious and active participation is almost impossible for them at this stage. The liturgy compels many of us to be part of it-and this is how many people come to the Church-but I would not be urging them to attend mass on a regular basis until we have place for them in the Order of Catechumens. I know many people will not accept them as catechumens until they commit to mass attendance, but I prefer to present the liturgy as a call, a blessing and a privilege-not an obligation to people who cannot fully take it in at their stage of development.

  3. Nick:

    Thanks so much. We’ve met . . . at one of “Beginnings and Beyond” workshop in Dallas years ago. I was administrator of St. Joseph Catholic Community in Arlington, and was able to bring six of our Team Members. My wife, Vicki, is coordinating the team for our parish. As Max Norden mentioned above, this is extremely timely for me, also, as I’m the catechist for the discussion on liturgy next week, and I was looking for something “new and exciting” for the group. Some of this is new, and with the help of the Holy Spirit I should be able to make it at least somewhat exciting.

    Thanks for all the wonderful work you and your bride are doing. We were very disappointed when the Forum was disbanded.

    In His Peace,

    St. Margaret Parish, Otsego, MI
    St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, Byron Center, MI

  4. I’ve never understood this. For me, God is most powerfully and intimately experienced in daily life and through through a life of prayer and discernment. Then the liturgy becomes a celebration of that experience of God. The relationship needs to come first.

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