The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults intends the period of the catechumenate to be “aimed at training [the catechumens] in the Christian life” (RCIA 75). An essential component of that training is our liturgical life. Our participation in the worship of the church is so important that it is the first reform that was undertaken by the Second Vatican Council.
It is in the liturgy, above all, where we “manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 2).
In other words, when we are celebrating the Mass, the sacraments, the Hours, or the rituals of the RCIA, we are the very best image of Jesus and the church that we can be.
A sacred action surpassing all others
It is because of the core primacy of our liturgical and sacramental worship that the Second Vatican Council said: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10).
However, the liturgy doesn’t just magically become the “summit and font.” On any given Sunday, we only have to look across the pews to see that many Catholics are just going through the motions, not truly entering into the spirit of the liturgy. A key reason for the reform of the liturgy was to change this very thing. The Council said that the “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14).
Bringing the catechumens to full participation level
We have done pretty well, in most parishes, moving to “full and active participation by all the people.” And we still have a long way to go. Our job, as RCIA leaders, is to make sure that every new member of the household of Christ comes to the liturgy prepared to participate fully. That means that if we expect the liturgy to have its full effect upon the catechumens, we have to teach them how to “come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 11).
The way that we do that, however, might not be what we first think it is. Pope Benedict XVI, who was a young theologian at the Second Vatican Council, said “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well” (The Sacrament of Charity, 64)
Catechesis starts with experience
Pope Benedict says that the primary way we encounter Christ is through an experience of Christ. And it is in the liturgy where we have the clearest, most profound experience of Christ. The pope says that once we have had such an experience, we have to then enter into a process of mystagogy. (Just a side note here: the pope is saying this mystagogical process is what all of us should be doing, not just the catechumens.)
According the Pope Benedict, the mystagogical process has three elements.
1. A look back
First the ritual should be interpreted in light of all the blessings we have already been given. Throughout history, God has been drawing us closer, bringing us from darkness to light. If we truly encounter Christ in the liturgy, how do the rites make present for us the death and resurrection of Christ, which is the culmination of our salvation?
2. A look at the present
The liturgy is made up of signs and symbols. In our scientific age, we tend to discount any information that cannot be coded into an app or a program. The liturgy isn’t scientific. We have to learn (or recover) a different language. Pope Benedict says: “More than simply conveying information, a mystagogical catechesis should be capable of making the faithful more sensitive to the language of signs and gestures which, together with the word, make up the rite” (The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission, 64b).
3. A look forward
Every mystagogical process concludes with a “so what?” If we really encountered Jesus in the liturgy, how were we changed? And how will we change the world because of that? Liturgy is never solely about our salvation. It is about the transformation of all creation and bringing the world into unity with the Father.
Remember where to start
The key to all of this is to remember we have to start with liturgy well celebrated so that the catechumens first encounter and recognize Christ in the ritual. It is only after that happens that we can have an effective catechetical process centered on three elements of mystagogy.
Then we keep repeating that cycle until we can discern that the catechumens know the purpose and meaning of Christian worship and enter into it fully.
Check out this webinar recording: “Find out if your RCIA catechesis is ‘suitable’ for catechumens” Click here for more information.