How to provide a complete RCIA catechesis: use liturgical symbols

Are you providing a complete catechesis for your RCIA image posted by TeamRCIA.comcatechumens and candidates? A key element in their catechesis is being able to worship with a full understanding of the liturgy. And to do that, they have to understand what the symbols mean.

Symbols are the language of the liturgy

Symbols are a vocabulary and a grammar. If you didn’t grow up “speaking” the symbolic language of liturgy, it can take a little bit of work to master. Take a symbol like “water,” for example. What does water mean in the liturgy?

To know what water means liturgically, we have to first know what it means in our own experience.  In Merriam-Webster, there are eight definitions of water, and most of those have two or three subpoints of further definition. And that’s just the noun. There is also the verb and adjective to consider. And we haven’t even touched on synonyms and related words yet.

In RCIA, we can’t limit our definitions

This is important for liturgical catechesis. When we catechize about water, we tend toward sentences like this: “In the sacrament of baptism, the church teaches that all our sins are washed away.” Absolutely true! And woefully incomplete! Think of all the things you know about water. When someone is baptized, does the water only refer to washing? Of course not. It means everything water can possibly mean.

And not just what water means to you, but also what water means to the person getting baptized. What it means to the one performing the baptism. And what it means to everyone gathered to celebrate the baptism.

And (pausing for breath) what it means to anyone who was ever baptized, ever wanted to be baptized, ever witnessed a baptism, or ever just took a bath or a drink of water.

The meaning of water is huge.

God is a big mystery

The meaning has to be huge, because the water is not just telling a story about itself. The water is telling a story about who God is. Through the water, we learn something about God. If we limit God to “washes away all sin,” we’ve miscatechized. God does wash away all sin of  course. And God also quenches our thirst. Rains on the just and the unjust. Flows like living water throughout the earth. Separates the water above from the water below. Drowns our old selves. Rebirths us in water and Spirit. Walks on water. Wraps the waters in clouds. Separates the waters for our safe passage. Turns water into wine.

And that’s not the half of it.

Three steps toward a more complete RCIA catechesis

So in order to provide a complete catechesis, we have to be constantly developing a symbolic vocabulary. A great deal of our catechesis has to be a three-part process:

  1. Reflecting on our own experience of a symbol (like water)
  2. Helping the catechumens and candidates reflect on their experience of a symbol (like water)
  3. Connecting our experience of a symbol (like water) with the experience of the church (Scripture and tradition)

What is your experience of water?

So let’s get started. What is your most memorable experience of water? Please share in the comments box.

See also these related articles:

  1. Five Ways to Preach Mystagogically
  2. How to provide a complete RCIA catechesis: use liturgical symbols
  3. The right way and the wrong way to do a “teaching Mass”—according to the pope
  4. Pelicans on Good Friday
  5. How to Celebrate the Scrutinies without Scaring the Catechumens

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  1. Blessing of the water at Easter; actually any of the big ceremonial blessings of water in the Church year.

    Handled well and with suitable explanation to a congregation, as we go, they get it very well.

  2. As a kid I was stuck in “guppies” class FOREVER and never did learn how to swim using the free-style stroke. However, put a life jacket on me and I was fearless. I enjoyed floating far out into the beautiful Michigan lakes, boating, tubing and slalom skiing. Even though I couldn’t necessarily “save” myself, I always had loving people watching over me and my life jacket.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article and the encouragement to reflect!

  3. Such an important point! Thanks so much for sharing! One of my mentors taught me that “good liturgy should assault the senses.” Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. This is how God designed us to interact with his creation, so what better way to connect with God that trough the symbols of our rites. I like to think of all this when preparing for all our rites.

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