Do you remember when you first heard about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults? If you are a lifelong Catholic in your 40s or younger, you probably grew up experiencing the rites. Older Catholics, on the other hand, remember growing up without the catechumenate. I learned about the RCIA in the 1980s when I was in my 20s. Right away, I thought it was a big paradigm shift for parishes. But I didn’t realize how big.
What I thought at the time was that the dismissal of catechumens would cause a stir in parishes. Remember, that before the 1980s, most parishes had never witnessed people being dismissed in the middle of Mass. I had never seen it either, but I could imagine it. I imagined it would cause questions and discussions and maybe even some negative feelings. But it would definitely be a teachable moment. And that teachable moment would lead to opportunities to renew and deepen the faith of Catholics everywhere.
That teachable moment hasn’t happened as broadly as I expected, mostly because parishes tend to downplay the dismissal of the catechumens. Some don’t do at all. Some do it only during Lent. Some make it optional for the catechumens. And in these cases, the vision of the rite is not fulfilled. And as a result, the intended renewal falters.
As I’ve learned more about the deep structure of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I’ve discovered there are many other paradigm shifts embedded in the catechumenate process. Like the dismissal of catechumens, many of these shifts have been downplayed or ignored in some parishes. And, sadly, these parishes are missing out on the full power of the initiation rites to transform not just the catechumens but also the whole parish.
Before we look at the specific shifts the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults asks of parishes, we have to first of all recall the big paradigm shift. We need to remember the overall goal of the Second Vatican Council.
What is the goal of the Second Vatican Council?
The overall goal of Vatican II was to invert the pyramid. When I was growing up, the church saw itself as a pyramid. The pope was at the top, then the cardinals, then the rest of the bishops, then priests, then deacons. When we said “the church,” we mostly meant the top levels of the pyramid. Below the clergy were the religious, and at the bottom were the lay people. Our role was to serve and assist the clergy in their work of carrying out the mission of the church.
Vatican II turned the pyramid upside down.
First of all, the council made clear that all the baptized are equally called to holiness—the “fullness of Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 40-41).
In addition, the council identified our vocation as one with the apostles—that is, the salvation of the world. And just like the apostles, we receive our vocation from Jesus Christ.
The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself. (Lumen Gentium, 33)
Our apostolate is different from that of the clergy, but both vocations flow from the priesthood of Christ.
Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. (Lumen Gentium, 10).
The ordained ministry or ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1120)
By identifying the role of the ministerial priesthood as service to the baptismal priesthood, Vatican II inverted the pyramid I grew up with. Instead of laity (that is, “not priests”) who assist the clergy, the ministerial priesthood serves the mission of the baptismal priesthood.
Pope Francis reiterated this model of church:
In this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called “ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles [cfr. Jn 13: 1-15]). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God). (October 17, 2015)
Why is this important for RCIA ministry?
The single most important thing for seekers to understand is that they are being initiated into a mission. Their catechumenate is a training process, an apprenticeship, in carrying out the apostolic mission (see RCIA 75 and Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, 14). That mission is to spread the gospel by becoming active witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world (see RCIA 75.4).
When we forget this, when we downplay ritual actions that are meant to symbolize this priestly vocation, when we teach in ways that reinforce passivity, the catechumens may not fully grasp the importance and obligation of their baptism.
I remember when I first began training RCIA teams. I was working for a bishop in a Midwestern diocese, and I drove out to a country parish to talk with their team. We sat in the church basement on metal folding chairs, trying to keep warm by holding Styrofoam cups of weak coffee in our hands. I explained as best I could what the church envisioned for the training of the catechumens in this vast and important work.
One of the men, a local farmer, looked at me with worried eyes from under his seed cap. “Who’s going to tell them all this?” he asked.
We are. That is our vocation. It’s what we signed up for not only when we said “yes” to being on the RCIA team but every time we said “I believe” to our baptismal promises and every time we said “amen” when sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ.
Don’t fret if you are not in charge or if you think you don’t have much influence. The Holy Spirit has gifted each of us with the exact talents we need right now for the place we are in. If you internalize the values of the reform of the Second Vatican Council and reflect those values in every aspect of your ministry, you will cause change.
In future posts, we will look at some of the specific shifts the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is asking of us. For now, take a moment to share below your understanding of the reform of the Second Vatican Council and how it impacts your baptismal priesthood.
This post is part of a series on the paradigm shifts that flow from the Second Vatican Council and the restoration of the catechumenate. Click here to see other posts in the series.