Lent comes early in 2008—February 6. That means that you only have a few weeks to decide who among your catechumens will celebrate the rite of election.
Unless you have a year-round process, you’ve probably already made the decision. In most parishes, anyone who celebrated the Rite of Acceptance this past fall (or even this past Advent!) is expected to become one of the elect and to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. It is difficult, however, to know if those who have been catechumens for only a short time are really ready for the next step in the initiation process. In this year when Lent begins so early, it might be a good time to look more closely at the shortcomings of a nine-month process (which, this year, works out to something more like a three- or four-month process).
Let’s first agree on what we are looking for. The RCIA gives us a list of criteria.
Before the rite of election is celebrated, the catechumens are expected to have undergone a conversion in mind and in action and to have developed a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching as well as a spirit of faith and charity. (120)
There are three clear challenges listed there. First, what does a conversion in mind and action look like? Well, that’s hard to answer. I’d have to know your catechumens pretty well. I’d have to know what their lives were like before they started coming to your parish. I’d have to know what they said they were looking for when you asked them at the Rite of Acceptance what it is they asked of God and God’s people. I’d have to watch them in the parish and how they interacted with various parish groups. I’d have to listen to them talk about their faith. I’d have to have long talks with their sponsors.
The next challenge is to see in them a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching. The rite says at a minimum, that teaching takes a full liturgical year to unfold. It is not so much a list of precepts and dogmas they have to master. It is a deep understanding of what Jesus meant when he said follow me. Do they know in mind and heart, what it means to follow the cross? I’d have to listen to the catechumens discuss their beliefs. I’d have to observe how they brought their beliefs to bear in difficult times. I’d have to see how they responded to the gifts God has blessed them with. I’d have to see how faithful they were in celebrating the liturgy of the church.
The final challenge is to see in the catechumens a spirit of faith and charity. I’d have to hear them talk about and see them care for those who are less fortunate than they. I’d have to witness an attitude of generosity in them. I’d have to know in my heart that they believed the poor and the outcast are especially loved by God.
Honestly, I just don’t see how it is possible to get to know these things in a few months, especially if you have a large number of catechumens. If you’re feeling the same way, then what can be done at this point? It seems you have only a couple of options. If you have the stomach for it, you might pose these challenges to the catechumens themselves. If you really don’t know them well enough to discern these areas of growth in them (or you know for sure they have not grown in these areas), tell them that. Tell them you cannot in good conscience recommend them for the Rite of Election this year.
Your other option is, perhaps less pastoral, but less stressful on you. Come clean with them about your misgivings. But, offer the catechumens the option of celebrating the Rite of Election in spite of your hesitations. Encourage those who wish, to remain in the catechumenate for another year, but allow those who are determined, to move to the next stage. The reason I suggest this is less pastoral is that those who do go forward will almost certainly fall away after the Easter Vigil. They are the ones most interested in “finishing,” not beginning.
Finally, make a New Year’s resolution that any new inquirers you encounter in the coming year will not be promised a “date” for their initiation until after an in-depth discernment process based on the criteria the RCIA provides.