Last year, Msgr. Edward Deliman of Saint Charles Borromeo in Bensalem, PA, found a note in the collection basket that said, “No more Spanish in the bulletin. Tell them to speak English.” That was the reaction of a non-Hispanic parishioner to the influx of Spanish-speakers from the recently merged Latino parish, Our Lady of Fatima.
That kind of isolationist thinking is more common than it should be in the church. I’m an idealist, but I believe if we celebrate the initiation rites well, our ritual practice will go a long way toward uniting all of us, not just with other Catholics who don’t speak our language but with all people.
The RCIA requires us to imagine God differently
The difficult part won’t be just in getting the rites right. The really hard part will be changing our image of God. What is it about the RCIA that requires, for some of us, a new image of God? There are many things, but the most central is the way we celebrate baptism and confirmation.
Some of us remember a time before the RCIA when the unity of the celebrations of baptism and confirmation was not emphasized. Today, many of us realize that these two sacraments are ideally celebrated together in the same liturgy, but we don’t always understand why that is important.
The reason the two sacraments are celebrated together is because of what their conjunction teaches us about the Trinity. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says, “The conjunction of the two celebrations signifies…the connection between the two sacraments through which the Son and the Holy Spirit come with the Father to those who are baptized” (215).
God is a Trinity of Persons
It is difficult to overstress how important this is, not just for the catechumens but for all of us. Those of us who were raised in the United States tend to have an image of God as God the Father, a strong, independent being who does powerful things like create the world and smite enemies. But the church has always taught that God is a Trinity, a relationship of diverse Persons.
If our image of God is mostly that of an independent being, we can easily fall into the thinking that leads people to say they are spiritual but not religious. Or it can lead us to say that we can be good Catholics without necessarily going to church. Or it can cause us to drop passive-aggressive notes in the collection basket complaining about people who are different from us. If God is an individual, we can imagine that our spirituality can also be individual. As long as I’m good with God, I’m good to go.
But if God is a community, a Trinity, that changes things. If we want to be spiritual—that is, connected to a Higher Power or the Prime Mover or whatever we think of as “God”—we necessarily have to be part of a community. To be connected to God means being connected to the Trinity, which is a community of Persons. It also means being connected with all the rest of the people who are connected to the Trinity. In other words, to be one with God is to be one with the entire Communion of Saints—living in both this life and the next. If some of those saints don’t seem all that saintly to me, I nevertheless have an obligation to see in them the face of Christ and love them as I love myself.
Learning to love is essential for the catechumens
Learning to love others, even those we would rather not love, is the essence of being Christian. We learn this from Jesus, who learned it from the dynamic love of the Trinitarian mystery in which he perfectly participates. Learning to love others is so important that it is one of the four core elements of catechesis for the catechumens. Until the catechumens learn that to be Christian means that we live in community with one another, they are not ready to move forward for Election.
Of course that means we have to give good example of what living in community looks like. And our parishes have to be exemplary communities as well. And this does not happen. I am the first sinner in this regard. I don’t like some people in my parish. And my parish has very many moments when an outsider could truly question why we call ourselves Christian. This is the human condition.
Our job as RCIA leaders
Your obligation as an RCIA team member or leader is not to be perfect at this. Nor is it your job to fix the parish before you start evangelizing and initiating. I think what all of us are called to do is to say to the catechumens that we are working toward the ideal. And that we fail all the time. And what we are hoping is that the catechumens will learn from us when we are at our best and forgive us when we are not. And most of all, we must urge the catechumens to learn how to love—even the unlovable—so as neophytes they can join us and help us in our mission to imitate Christ.
I don’t kid myself into thinking that no one in my parish would ever drop such a vile note into the collection basket as Msgr. Deliman received. What I do pray is that as I celebrate the initiation rites with the fallible, broken, struggling humans with whom I share faith in Christ, I will learn and they will learn, and the catechumens will learn to love as Jesus loves. And if our rites help us realize God is a loving Trinity of Persons, we will be one step closer to that goal.
Check out this webinar recording: “Find out if your RCIA catechesis is ‘suitable’ for catechumens” Click here for more information.