Once upon a time, if someone said the word “mystagogy,” people would be bewildered. Not anymore. For more and more Catholics, the term has come into its own.
I have been teaching a course on the history of the sacraments for coordinators of religious education at the Archdiocese of New York. In our first class, I brought up the word mystagogy.
All of them knew it.
Then, I gave two sessions on the RCIA at the Scranton Diocesan Congress, and everybody knew it there too! Or at least they had heard of it—even the ones who came out of curiosity and were not members of a catechumenate team.
In both these instances, the context in which the word mystagogy had been learned was the RCIA. The fourth period of the initiation process is mystagogy.
But here is the kicker:
When I was traveling in Germany this summer, I came upon a sign in the back of a church in Munich that said this:
“During the holiday season, August and September, there will be no mystagogical church tours!”
Well, well, well.
The word mystagogy had found its way into the lexicon of church life in Germany. It was used, not for catechumens in particular, but in general terms, to describe a certain approach to the church building. I presume that these “mystagogical church tours” help people to perceive and explore the religious meaning of the church building, its sacred furnishings, and its artworks.
This is a beautiful idea, I think.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised to find this word mystagogy appearing in a German church, as the German-speaking Catholic community was probably among the first to see the revival of this term in modern times. David Regan, in his book Experience the Mystery (Liturgical Press, 1994), said this:
It was Karl Rahner who, in the years immediately following Vatican II, first gave currency to the revived notion of mystagogy… For Rahner, the Church finds itself in a deep crisis because of the rethinking required in order to attune itself to the historical situation and the needs of the hour. For him, a spirituality of tomorrow is the decisive question, ‘The devout Christian of the future will either be a “mystic,” one who has “experienced” something, or he will cease to be anything at all.’ … When Karl Rahner reintroduces mystagogy into Catholic theology and spirituality, he brings it up to date for modern Christians, long baptized, and for other people—doubting, grieving, seeking. (p. 33)
The RCIA, released in 1972, appeared six years later than Rahner’s treatment of mystagogy in his theological writings.
Our appreciation of mystagogy has also gone beyond the RCIA in more recent times. The 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, convened by Pope John Paul II, and reflected upon by Pope Benedict XVI in his post-synodal exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, devoted time and attention to mystagogy.
I think it is terrific that mystagogy has come into the Catholic lexicon. People have ideas about what that word means. In one way or another, it has become a word Catholics ought to know. What this says to me is that mystagogy describes a skill we’ve been needing all along—the skill of helping others to discover and explore the sacred, to approach the sacraments as sacred mysteries and to approach the experience of God as an event of mystery.
We live in a secular world, but that does not mean that people are insensitive to the existence of the sacred in our lives and around us. Sometimes, we just need to have someone to help guide us so that we can see it, and enter into it more deeply.
The word mystagogy is used in the RCIA to describe a period devoted to exploring the mysteries that were experienced in the sacraments of initiation—the 50 days of Easter, and the first year of life as a baptized Christian. It is a sacramental mystagogy.
But one can do mystagogy on other things as well: everyday life, the natural world, and yes, even our church buildings.