In a previous article, I talked about the fear that some seekers have when they find us and how we sometimes mistake that fear for sullenness. Our inability to recognize the fear in the hearts of the seekers inhibits our mission to accompany them on their journey of faith.
Why is so hard for us to recognize the fear some of our seekers feel? Why do we assume they are reluctant and uncooperative when they don’t speak up or their participation is spotty? One simple answer is that it lets us off the hook. The seekers who show up regularly and are eager to contribute easy to deal with. They make us feel successful. The “difficult” seekers are a challenge. If we can assign fault to them for not participating enough or not engaging enough, we can let ourselves off the hook. It’s not my fault if Jenny doesn’t come to Mass or come to faith formation sessions.
We don’t recognize our own fear
However, there is an even deeper reason we fail to see the fear in the hearts of our seekers. We don’t see their fear because we don’t see our own fear. I’m speaking mostly for myself here, but I think it is true for lots of RCIA team members. I want the seekers to like me. I want them to think I’m good at teaching the faith. I want them to be as excited about being Catholic as I am. I want to be appreciated.
I am often afraid those desires will go unmet. And at my core, I am afraid they will think what I have to tell them, what I believe, is unimportant. And if what I believe is unimportant, then I am unimportant.
The temptation to build walls
If I encounter a seeker while harboring all those fears in my heart — which are mostly unconscious and unacknowledged by me — it will be very easy to interpret the seeker’s reluctance to engage as disdain for me rather than as their own fear in their heart. And if that happens more than a couple of times, the danger is that I can slip into cynicism. I start to expect that every new seeker will be silently critical of me or of our process. I start to put up a wall before I’ve even met the new seekers. And I reinforce that wall with my credentials, my carefully designed syllabus, and reams of handouts and reading assignments.
I’m painting a bit of an extreme picture here. I don’t actually throw all that at new seekers. But, wow, I am surely tempted to do so. Because to let go of all those defenses is to approach each seeker without any armor. And I am really not very good at that.
Bridging the gap between RCIA teams and seekers
Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, talks about the fear he feels when dealing with students. It is easy to apply his experience to our experience of dealing with RCIA seekers. He writes:
In the face of the apparent judgment of the young, teachers must turn toward students, not away from them, saying, in effect, “There are great gaps between us. But no matter how wide and perilous they may be, I am committed to bridging them —not only because you need me to help you on your way but also because I need your insight and energy to help renew my own life” (50).
That is the challenge before us every time we meet a new person who says, “I want to become Catholic.” We can haul out all our teaching tools as a way of turning away from a genuine encounter with the stranger. Or we can turn toward them, without armor, and find ways to bridging the gaps between us.
Do you have fears that you struggle to conquer when accompanying seekers on their faith journey? What do you do to help you turn toward the seekers and not away from them?