This is the third in a series of articles on the places, postures, and gestures in the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates.
The signing of the candidates with the cross is one of the most visually dramatic elements of the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates (RCIA nos. 421-423; Canada nos. 474-475). Even though they are optional, the emotional power of these signings has led to their widespread adoption in almost every parish that celebrates this rite. As with any ritual gesture, however, we need to be clear about its purpose and its appropriateness in any given situation.
In the United States, the signings may be omitted altogether or they may include “one, several, or all of the senses” (421). In Canada, the signing is not optional (although it is difficult to say what is required in a rite that is optional itself). However, in Canada only the forehead is signed. No option is given for the signing of other senses (474-475).
Why do we sign the candidates?
The signing ritual in the U.S. rite comes directly from the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. Except for the initial signing of the forehead, the formularies accompanying each signing are exactly the same as those we use with the unbaptized candidates. This seems to conflict with the overall goal of the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates to use prayers and gestures that acknowledge that the baptized candidates “are already part of the community” (RCIA no. 412; Canada, see nos. 457 and 465).
In the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, the reason for the signings is clear. We find the reason within the two options for concluding prayers. In Prayer A, we sign the unbaptized so that the cross will “protect them by its power.” In Prayer B, we sign them so the catechumens will become “living proof of [the cross’] saving power” (RCIA no. 57).
These spiritual goals have already been accomplished in the baptized candidates through their baptism. Yet the concluding prayer for this section of the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates is exactly the same as option B at the conclusion of the signings in the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens (RCIA no. 424; In Canada, the prayer is slightly adapted, see no. 477).
In other words, when it comes to the signings, we are doing and saying the same things with the baptized candidates as we are with the unbaptized catechumens. How can we do a better job of distinguishing between the two?
Marking the difference between catechumens and candidates in the RCIA
At the conclusion of this series, I’m going to make some suggestions for marking the difference between the baptized and unbaptized in a more general way. However, for now, let’s just focus on how to mark a difference in this part of the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates. The simplest option would be to drop the signings altogether. If you are celebrating this rite alone and not in combination with the Rite of Acceptance in the Order of Catechumens, you could have the presider begin the rite (before the Greeting, no. 417) with the Sign of the Cross, just as we do at a normal Sunday Mass. The baptized candidates would—as baptized people do—make the sign of the cross over themselves as we begin to pray together. This would much more clearly identify them as people who “are already part of the community.”
If for some reason you feel you must do the signing as it is given in the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates, then the next-best option would be to sign only the foreheads of the candidates and do not sign the other senses. This option can be used even when celebrating a combined rite. If you signed all the senses of the catechumens and only the foreheads of the baptized candidates, you would clearly mark the difference between the unbaptized and baptized candidates.
What do you think?
This is only one among several of the places, postures, and gestures in the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates. We will look at some others in future posts. In the meantime, please share some of your experience.
- In what ways you think the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates makes it clear that the candidates are already part of the priestly people of God?
- In what ways do you think the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates blurs the distinction between the baptized candidates and the catechumens?
- How does the way you have adapted this rite for your parish either make clear or possibly blur the distinction between the baptized candidates and the catechumens?