The vision and purpose of sacramental initiation are summarized in the first paragraph of Christian Initiation, General Introduction (you can find this right at the very beginning of your RCIA book). It is a vision that is profound and challenging, inspirational and life-changing. It is radical in its description of who we, the baptized, are called to be.
In the sacraments of Christian initiation we are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We receive the Spirit of filial adoption and are part of the entire people of God in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection. (Christian Initiation, General Introduction, 1)
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults goes on to describe the journey of the catechumen who seeks full initiation into this Paschal Mystery as one that 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.” (RCIA, 5) Note that it is the gratuitous initiative of God’s grace that calls one to embark on such a journey, and it is by God’s help that one finds the spiritual strength to walk the path of faith and conversion.
In a very practical sense, however, parishes are responsible for the preparation and formation necessary for full and fruitful participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The Rite tells us that before someone is brought to font and table, that individual must be known 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.” (RCIA, 120) In addition, there must be assurance of the catechumen’s will, faith, and intention to faithfully participate in the sacramental life.
How can we possibly know all this about a person? How will the individual know? A tremendous responsibility lies at the feet of the parish community that is true to its calling as the primary minister of initiation. What are we to do so that the variability of the journey is honored, the integrity of the journey as envisioned by the Rite is maintained, and the profound vision of the Rite is kept in focus?
In a word: Discernment!
Many parishes report that they “do discernment.” Indeed, a key element of the catechumenal journey is discernment, and teams and sponsors often participate in a meeting or retreat for this purpose prior to the Rites of Acceptance and Election. Each Rite is the celebration of a significant decision made by both catechumen and Church. Such decisions are not to be made lightly, and catechumenate teams struggle with questions, such as:
- “How will we know the person is ready for this Rite?”
- “What if we don’t think she’s ready, but she does?”
- “What will we do if we don’t all agree about someone’s readiness?”
Discernment, ultimately, is about “reading the story” of one’s life in the light of the great Story of God in Scripture and in the life, practice, and mission of the Church. It takes place in the context of relationships—primarily in the context of the initiating community represented by pastors, team members, sponsors, spiritual companions, and others. Guiding questions will help unfold and bring to light the patterns of God’s action in the life of the individual and in the community. God’s will for the full development of each person is revealed in the patterns of relationships lived and probed.
Rather than focusing on “getting ready” for a Rite, discernment is part of the journey where every gathering, every story, every liturgical action, every act of service, every new learning,—indeed, every daily experience at home, work or play—is a source of reflection, discovery, prayerful response, and change of heart. Key questions that become “standard fare” throughout the catechumenate can help incorporate and integrate discernment into the ongoing conversion journey.
- How does what I see, hear, feel, taste, touch, and learn from this experience reveal something of God to me?
After her grandmother’s death, Cindy doubted “the resurrection and life everlasting” with a profound visceral doubt. The hands of her pastor, sponsor, and pastoral team members during a blessing of the catechumens literally touched her and revealed God’s presence and promise even in the darkness.
- How does what I see, hear, feel, taste, touch and learn from this experience spill over into my life so that I better know and understand the meaning and cost of the cross, of resurrection, of discipleship?
Leah was disowned by her parents when her life-path rooted in the Jewish tradition led her to seek initiation in the Catholic Church. Her faithful presence in the community was both a challenge and witness and inspired many conversations about the cost of being Christian.
- What do I hear and what do I learn from the great Story of God in the Scripture? Where do I hear the echoes of my own story there?
Sarah passed a crowd of day laborers each time she drove her children to school. At the Sunday assembly when she heard the Gospel proclaim that in the vineyard all received a full day’s wages, she was compelled to refresh her high-school Spanish skills, make sandwiches, and devote a day a week to sharing food and companionship with the waiting workers.
- What do I discover about my relationships with God, with others, and with the Church through my daily life experiences? Through my gathering with the Sunday assembly? Through my participation in the mission of the Church?
Kevin and Kate had traveled to a Catholic church in another state to be married. They felt their marriage was truly blessed when they returned, dressed in gown and tux, and gathered other catechumens, candidates, sponsors, team and parish companions to share in the story of their wedding as well as cake and champagne. The wedding was indeed a significant celebration, but this couple recognized that the sacrament was to be lived in the midst of the community.
- What is happening now in the world, in the Church, and in our community? To what does that call me?
After the terrible Tsunami disaster, a group of catechumens and candidates engaged in a discussion about stewardship of earth and material goods that resulted in a parish project to support the victims.
- What do I hear in the music, homily, and in my interactions with others at our liturgical gatherings? What of God’s will is revealed to me in those words? How am I willing to respond?
Bill shared that each time he heard the gospel and homily he felt like “an onion that’s being peeled layer by layer,” becoming more and more the person he knew God created him to be. The year after his initiation he built an immersion font for his church.
In learning to integrate ongoing discernment into a parish catechumenate process, it may be helpful to remember the three “Rs” of discernment: Relationships ” Reflection ” Response.
Relationships are always the context for life experience, whether they are loving or broken, close or fleeting, healthy or fragile, or any other variable of the human condition. Within those relationships are found the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individual, and the circumstances of time and place spoken of in RCIA, 5.
The second movement is to probe those relationships and experiences in light of the action of the Church. Guided by Scripture proclaimed, liturgical life, facilitative ministers, and understanding of the Church’s teaching and mission, the catechumen is led to the second “R,” the reflection that leads one to encounter the Spirit and discover the patterns of God’s action and will in the individual’s life. That encounter then leads to the final “R,” the response of the individual which is the point of change or conversion.
Conversion is celebrated during the catechumenal journey through the Rite of Acceptance, the Rite of Election, and sacramental initiation. Prior to these liturgical celebrations, the discernment process may be formalized in a gathering of the catechumen together with significant discernment companions such as the pastor, sponsor, director or appropriate team members, and perhaps members of the parish community. If these companions have been engaged in an ongoing discernment conversation, the exploration of “readiness” guided by paragraphs, such as, 42, 75, and 120, in the Rite will flow naturally, prayerfully, and mutually. The conversion story will be known, affirmed, and confirmed with the discovery of God’s will for the individual and celebrated in the appropriate rite.
Parishes willing to implement ongoing discernment will be creating discerning communities. Their members will continue on the path that has brought them to where they are, that is, immersed in the Paschal Mystery. Through ongoing discernment, they will recognize themselves as “freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.” Discerning disciples, they will gather with “the entire people of God in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection.”
As today’s parish communities appropriate the three “Rs” of discernment, not only in the catechumenate but in all aspects of living and celebrating the Paschal Mystery, may the words of Psalm 119 become their prayer; “Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart. Lead me in the path of your commands, for in it I delight.” (Psalm 119)
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