The Easter Vigil is coming—that most amazing liturgical celebration at the center of our faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We who have been working, praying, planning, collaborating, and sacrificing for the good of our catechumens and candidates are now focused on how to plan for the great liturgy of the year. We want it to go well. We want it to be “right.” And we want it to speak powerfully of the very mysteries we celebrate.
And so, many of us turn to rehearsal as the key to success. Our catechumens in particular are nervous, excited and filled with anticipation of their immersion into the waters of baptism and their first feast at the Table of the Lord. If they know just what to do, when to do it, what to say, and how to participate in the various aspects of the Vigil liturgy, surely everything will go well. Right?
Wrong. Remember, we are celebrating sacrament, a living encounter with the Risen One in liturgical form. That moment cannot and should not be rehearsed but fully experienced with all its sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes.
When we celebrated the funeral liturgy for my dear mother, we as a family relied on the liturgy to carry us through this most difficult moment of grief, faith and hope. It would have been ludicrous to think of rehearsing her liturgy! We trusted that we would know what to do and be guided by the liturgy itself to enter into the Paschal Mystery that gave meaning to this dark moment in our lives. And it did! Family members participated in a variety of ways gently guided by the presiding and assisting ministers. The liturgy was in no way a repetition of a previously staged event but rather a powerful experience in the moment of all that liturgy can be: the presence of the Risen One in the midst of the community transforming even death into life.
And so it is with the Easter Vigil. For our catechumens who are preparing to die with Christ in the waters of baptism, there should be no rehearsal, but the invitation to trust the liturgy and enter into it fully, and the gentle assurance that the ministers, especially the godparents, and the community will be there to guide them.
In the meantime, there are a few specific steps that we can take to assure that the liturgical movement is crafted well and the power of this unparalleled liturgical celebration is unleashed as the Spirit wills. May it be very clear as we consider these points that “no rehearsal for the catechumens” in no way means “no preparation for the Vigil!”
- Know the Rite well! Know the theological and ecclesiological foundations of the Rite. What is it that we are truly celebrating? What is the church proclaiming, enacting and celebrating in this Vigil? Make that the primary focus of your work and planning.
- Know the Rite well! The focus is on the baptism of catechumens. Although the RCIA provides for the reception into full communion of candidates, be aware of the Rite’s caution to “avoid any sense of triumphalism” by allowing the reception of Christians overpower the baptismal liturgy. It may be more appropriate to fully initiate only catechumens at the Easter Vigil and to celebrate the reception of candidates at another appropriate time during the year.
- Know the Rite well! Make sure that you are very clear on the various liturgical moments and movements of the Vigil. Know how and when the catechumens appropriately participate in those moments. Consider the “mechanics and logistics” of those moments and rehearse them well with both ministers and godparents who will guide the catechumens during the liturgy.
- Know the Rite well! And be vigilant that everyone involved in liturgical ministries—presider, assistant ministers, MC, lectors, Communion ministers, hospitality ministers, music ministers. Know the Rite well. Planning for this liturgy cannot be done in categories or in piecemeal fashion. The Vigil is meant to be a well integrated unfolding of, present experience of, and future vision of the great story of salvation accomplished in Jesus Christ through the Paschal Mystery.
- Know the Rite well! Work with your parish liturgist to create a script that can be used by all the principal ministers in the liturgy. It can make all the difference if you prepare a very detailed and color-coded script so that each minister, including and especially the presider, knows exactly what to say, where to stand, etc. Although this takes time, it is well worth it to provide a common script that encompasses the entire liturgy (so that ministers are not going from liturgical book to liturgical book) and clearly indicates each person’s role.
- Know the Rite well! Know it so well that you can call a detailed rehearsal of all the principal ministers for the liturgy including the godparents (and sponsors) who will guide the catechumens (and candidates) through the liturgy. Spend time reflecting with them on the meaning of the various parts of the Vigil as well as going through the mechanics of movement, logistics, etc. Rehearse and rehearse again until the godparents (sponsors) are confident that they understand the various movements of the liturgy and their role as guides. Make sure that they are ready and willing to reassure their catechumens (candidates) and invite them to trust both them and the liturgy itself and so enter fully into the experience as it unfolds.
To rehearse or not to rehearse the catechumens?
The answer is yes and no. There is a significant difference between preparing and rehearsing. The catechumens are preparing through their lenten retreat, fasting, praying, and celebrating the scrutinies. We who are charged with the responsibility for the Easter Vigil celebration join them in this spiritual preparation. Of great importance is the understanding that we (presiders, godparents, team, assisting minister) are responsible also to plan and to rehearse well and with great attention to detail so that at the moment that new fire is lit we can all let go and allow the liturgy as it unfolds through the night to carry us all into the mysteries of faith as we fall into the depths of God’s redemptive love.