Many RCIA teams and many more catechumens seem to not quite clearly grasp the reason that a Rite of Election is included in the initiation process. Many believe the purpose of the rite is to introduce the catechumens to the bishop. Or, as an extension of that, to show the catechumens that they are joining the Catholic Church, which is made up of many, many parishes — not just their home parish. Some seem to see the Rite of Election as the catechumens’ final choice to be baptized — a grand public declaration that they have finally decided to sign up, literally.
If these are the dominant themes we see in the Rite of Election, then it makes sense to apply the ends equally to the baptized candidates. They, too, will benefit from meeting the bishop, being welcomed to the larger church, and making public their decision to become Catholic.
The purpose of the Rite of Election
None of these, however, are reasons we celebrate the Rite of Election. The reason we celebrate this ritual is given to us in the introduction to the rite:
Thus the Church makes its “election,” that is, the choice and admission of those catechumens who have the dispositions that make them fit to take part, at the next major celebration, in the sacraments of initiation. (119)
This choice is made by the Church (headed locally by the bishop) as an outward expression of the choice already made by God. Only those catechumens who are “fit” are chosen. I’m not a Latin scholar, but other translations of the original could have been “able” or “qualified.”
God, through the church, is choosing those or are “fit” or “able” or “qualified” to do what? Not to meet the bishop, or see how many parishes make up the diocese, or even to choose for themselves to become Catholic. God is choosing those, who are able, to be disciples of Jesus. Those chosen are expected to be initiated into a life in Christ, which necessarily means of a life of mission. Before we send the catechumens for election, we must discern not if they know enough to ascent to Catholic belief, but if they are fit enough to take on the rigors of missionary discipleship.
Fit for duty
If we understand the primary purpose of the election rite is to choose those who are “fit for duty,” we can see that this rite is not especially appropriate for baptized candidates. All baptized Christians, Catholic or not, have — through the grace of baptism — been made ready for discipleship. All baptized Christians have already been chosen — been “elected.” They cannot be chosen again. Becoming Catholic is a fullness of expression (full communion) of God’s choice, but it is not fundamentally a new choice by God.
This teaching of the church — that baptism makes us disciples — presents us with a conundrum. Every day we see scores of Christians who engage in decidedly undisciplined (un-disciple-like) behavior. This has been a problem from the beginning. Even the original disciples were often undisciplined. Much of Mark’s gospel seems to be images of Jesus shaking his head and muttering, “When are they going to get it?” But as clueless and as inept as the original disciples sometimes were, Jesus never unchose them or rechose them. The choice had already been made, and it was irrevocable.
Are they ready?
So as we prepare our catechumens for the Rite of Election, let’s help them focus on what is actually happening in the rite. The church (symbolized by and embodied in the bishop) acts in God’s name to choose them — your catechumens.
If they don’t really know or understand what God is choosing them for, they probably are not yet ready to be enrolled in the ranks of the elect.
If the baptized candidates are disappointed because they are not going to be publicly chosen along with the catechumens, we probably need to do more work helping them (and maybe ourselves) understand the dignity and grace of the baptism we have already received.