When I first heard about the dismissal of the catechumens from the Sunday Mass, it was an “I-could-have-had-a-V8-smack-on-the-forehead” moment. I instantly saw the catechetical value for parish communities. If mid-pew Catholics saw people processing out of church in the middle of Mass, what would they think? How would they deal with the disruption? Who would they ask about what is going on? Would they become curious enough to explore their own reasons for staying?
Is the RCIA dismissal prophetic?
That was a very long time ago, and now, more than 30 years later, the dismissal ritual has lost much of its prophetic edge. The focus has shifted from the dismissal itself to what happens with the catechumens after the dismissal. But note that the what the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says that they do and what they actually do in many cases do not align.
Here is what the rite says:
After the dismissal formulary the group of catechumens goes out but does not disperse. With the help of some of the faithful, the catechumens remain together to share their joy and spiritual experiences. (67)
Here are some of the things we often say, but the RCIA does not say. The catechumens are not necessarily dismissed to:
- break open the Sunday readings
- do lectionary-based catechesis
- do dismissal catechesis
- be nourished by God’s word
- form community with one another as a small group
Some of those things could happen after the dismissal, but the rite is not asking for them. All the rite asks for is that the catechumens be dismissed and that they do not disperse so that they can share their joy.
So what’s going on here? Why have we made such a big deal about what takes place after the dismissal and paid such scant attention to the dismissal itself? To answer that, we have to put our liturgist hats on. Remember that everything in the liturgy is, in and of itself, catechetical. That is, the way we do liturgy teaches us what we believe. For most of us who were raised in western educational systems, our tendency is to think of liturgy mostly as a celebration and to think of it less as a catechetical event. So, once the catechumens are dismissed, we tend to think we must “break open” the word of God so they understand it. We don’t often think of the dismissal session as a time to just say, wow, that Liturgy of the Word was totally awesome!
How does the rite teach?
To make “Awesome, dude!” an authentic response to the word, the Liturgy of the Word would have to be celebrated in an way that is actually awesome. That is usually something that is out of our control as RCIA team members, so we focus on what we can control—the dismissal session itself. But let’s imagine we live in a parallel universe where every Sunday in your parish the Liturgy of the Word is off-the-hook amazing. What would happen at your place? What would happen next? Do you imagine parishioners would just nod to each other in silent approval? What happened to you last time you really experienced the word of God at Sunday Mass in a way that made you soul shiver?
What happened to me is that I felt moved, compelled, to “share my joy.” The way I do that, Catholic that I am, is to offer my joy as a sacrifice of praise that culminates in sharing in eucharistic communion with the Body of Christ. But the catechumens cannot yet do that. Still, if the word does what it is supposed to do, they catechumens will have a compelling urge to “share their joy” as well. So instead of requiring them to just sit on their hands while the rest of us are offering praise like crazy, they are “kindly dismissed before the liturgy of the eucharist begins” (RCIA 75.3).
The dismissal, then, and the sharing of joy that follows, is a profoundly liturgical act in the same way the gathering of the faithful around the altar of sacrifice and praise is liturgical. All of us—catechumens and faithful—are converted by God’s word. We are all compelled to respond in praise and thanksgiving. However, the way that we do that is determined by our differing roles in the worshiping assembly.
What we learn from all this
What the catechumens “learn” from their dismissal is that a joyful response to God’s saving word is required of us. What Catholics learn is that our sharing in the sacrifice of the Mass is both a privilege and a responsibility of baptism. The challenge for those of us on RCIA teams is to influence our parish worship in such a way that that liturgy—especially the dismissal—teaches that by the way it is celebrated.