I gave my last Forum institute this past weekend.
Well, sort of a Forum institute. Forum, as our readers will know, closed down on June 30. But this institute had been scheduled many months ago. When Jim Schellman asked the diocese of Shreveport — and me — if we still wanted to go ahead with it, we all said yes. The superstructure (and the prices) dropped considerably, but the good initiation praxis was the same.
This event, called “Vision of Initiation”, was a one-day, one-presenter, adapted-for-pastoral ministers version of an institute that had been a two-day, two-presenter institute originally designed for clergy. (Full disclosure: I designed the original institute with Ron Oakham.)
Shreveport is a small but dynamic diocese, comprised of 28 parishes in northern Louisiana. Dianne Rachal, the director of worship for the diocese and a graduate of Notre Dame’s Master’s degree program in liturgy, served as the local coordinator for the event. Not only did she see to it that everything was well-prepared and flowed smoothly, she also helped to connect the event to the wider scene, beginning with Pope Francis’s prayer from his newest encyclical on faith. I was impressed to learn that the Shreveport diocese had no fewer than 99 small groups taking part in the Living the Eucharist program in 2012, as well as courses on Vatican II for the Year of Faith — information she shared in her introduction to the day. The event fit into a bigger picture of renewal. It was so good to see that liturgy is a priority in the diocese, as evidenced by having a full-time diocesan director.
About forty people attended the institute, including several coordinators of parish catechumenate teams, and several deacons. There were some brand new team members, and some veterans who have been working with initiation ministry for ten years or more. Sound familiar? In one day we tried to engage them all, giving them affirmations and also some challenges to take home.
Together, we looked at the global shifts being made in initiation ministry today, in which ministers of initiation strive to make this process the work of all the baptized. Many still struggle with the shift to a year-round process guided by discernment rather than a program tailored to the school year. Like all areas of the US, these issues remain a challenge in Shreveport, where the majority follow the school year model. We unpacked the four periods of initiation, and then briefly explored the nature of the rites.
The high point of the institute was, however, an actual experience of an adapted Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. We were helped in this by the skillful presiding of the Vicar General of the Diocese, Fr. Rothell Price. I had never met Fr. Price before, but it quickly became clear that we were “on the same page” with respect to adapting the rites. Fr. Price had attended Beginnings and Beyond many years ago, as well as some other Forum institutes in the meantime, and had a fine sense of the ritual, adapting it in the most pastoral manner, speaking to the “candidates” warmly and personally yet always keeping the shape of the celebration true to the ritual text.
Carole Moon skillfully provided music for the rite, aided by a cantor from her parish, Amanda, who is soon to become a music teacher at a Catholic school, and has both the lovely voice and the animating presence we needed to help us enter fully into the music. Carole is justly proud of Amanda — “I raised her!” she said to me with a smile — recalling that she first came to Carole’s choir as a child, and now has matured into a beautiful and effective cantor as an adult.
One of Carole’s choices with the music, which I found especially effective, was the use of handbells as we walked back into the church after the opening of the Rite of Acceptance. We sang the same song going out, as we did on returning (Jerusalem, My Destiny). But when we returned it *sounded* different — and indeed it was different, because we returned with three new members in tow, and a new beginning for all of us, community and “candidates” alike.
Early in the day, one of the participants in the institute came up to me with an urgent request for assistance concerning children’s catechumenate, which she was charged to begin in her parish.
Of course, I sent her to the TeamRCIA website! But in a perfect example of how many-faceted these events turn out to be, in the parking lot afterwards I witnessed another participant putting this same woman in touch with Cathy Cobb, whose parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, has had some good experience working with children. Cathy exchanged contact information with her and promised to put her in touch with the coordinator of the children’s process at Elizabeth Ann Seton. Is this called networking? Or is it more the simple fact that it takes all of us pulling together and sharing resources in order to mentor new people into this ministry? No one person has “all the answers” but rather each holds a piece of the puzzle.
OK, one more story. On the evening before the event, I was dining out with these three lovely ladies at a local Italian restaurant. We were talking and laughing, including some stories about New York, where I’m from, and of course we talked about church and said grace when our appetizer arrived. Lo and behold, a young man from the next table came over to us saying, “I overheard you talking about the New York Botanical Garden, and about church, and I just had to come over. I’m from New York, and my aunt is a nun.” Well, we invited him to sit down with us, and soon we had his life story. His name was Javier, and he was born in Puerto Rico, but raised in New York City, now living in Louisiana with his wife and daughter, and serving in the military. He shared some of the ups and downs of his journey, and how he came to be in a better place in his life today. “You’re what this weekend is all about!” Carole exclaimed. “We’re all about journey and sharing our stories and finding community!”
Cathy did not miss a beat. Once she heard that Javier was going to be in Shreveport on a regular basis, she pulled out her cell phone and said, “OK, do you want me to send you the Mass times at St Elizabeth by text or by email?” We all laughed out loud — but he gave her his contact information.