A number of years ago, I wrote a little book about election (On the Rite of Election, LTP, 1994) for the Forum Essays series. I felt that divine election was an important concept to grapple with, and that—for a variety of reasons—our liturgical celebrations of election were missing the boat.
The main problem at that time seemed to be that the bishop was dominating the event. Election became “all about the bishop” rather than a rite that is “all about God” and God’s giving of a mission to the elect. The praenotanda of the rite clearly tell us that the rite is about divine election, but you’d be hard pressed to discover this from watching most election celebrations unfold. If the uninstructed observer dropped in and was asked to discern what was happening, she’d have said it’s a rite designed to have everyone receive the bishop’s special handshake.
Now, some fourteen years later, I wonder if things have really improved all that much. People did read the book (it’s still in print), and a considerable number of diocesan leaders and committees took its critiques to heart when it first came out. Workshops were offered. Planning teams looked again at how they had adapted the ritual. Some stayed with what they’d done, but many dioceses discontinued the handshake, or took it out of the center of the ritual so that the testimony and signing of the book would stand out better. People thought a bit harder about why we do the things we do.
Unfortunately, not too many bishops read the book. And as new bishops got appointed, they didn’t necessarily look carefully at the rite either. My information is anecdotal, but it seems to me there has been some backsliding. I’ve heard of numerous occasions in recent years where the bishop is a lackluster presider at the Rite of Election and doesn’t seem to understand what it is all about. Their predecessors had put some energy into celebrating election. It was new. Now, it seems to have slid to a level of a low priority. (There are exceptions, but this seems to be the trend.)
So what happens when the bishop doesn’t “get it”? The default setting is, of course, for the bishop to assume that the catechumens are there for a sort of RCIA “graduation” ceremony—a poor substitute for the celebration of God’s vital and life-changing intervention in our own human history, but there we are.
The important question now is: Can we do anything about it? As my esteemed colleague Father Paul Turner has pointed out, the idea of making election the sole initiation rite presided over by the bishop is brand new historically, and may in fact be a bad idea. Some have suggested taking election back to the parishes. On the other hand, having it at the parish doesn’t necessarily make it better. If a diocesan Rite of Election is done well—with the focus placed where it belongs—it can make a positive contribution that folks will bring home with them to their parishes.
Any impetus for improvement has to come from the grassroots. If our celebration of the Rite of Election is going to get better, it will be because somebody has worked at it. The people who participate in diocesan committees or commissions to implement the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults need to put the Rite of Election on the table for discussion again. Communicate with your bishops. Raise theological and pastoral questions. Don’t settle for ho-hum leadership. Ask yourselves, where are we going with this? How do we want election to look a decade from now, a generation from now? Why?