Over a series of several posts, we have looked at the paradigm shift that was launched at the Second Vatican Council and further developed in the restoration of the catechumenate. The overarching shift in our model of church, taught by the Second Vatican Council, is a reenvisioning of the church’s mission.
A simple way to understand this new model is to imagine an inverted pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are all those who are baptized into the common priesthood of Christ. We in the baptized priesthood have as our primary apostolate the evangelization of the world. And the task is enormous.
The Church, sent by Christ to reveal and to communicate the love of God to all men and nations, is aware that there still remains a gigantic missionary task for her to accomplish. (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity 10)
RCIA is for training disciples
As an integral element of carrying out this mission, the Second Vatican Council called for a restoration of the catechumenate. The catechumenate is not intended to be a bigger, more complicated version of adult religious education. It is not supposed to be a Catholicism 101 class.
The catechumenate is a discipleship training process.
The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship duly drawn out, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher…. And since the life of the Church is an apostolic one, the catechumens also should learn to cooperate wholeheartedly, by the witness of their lives and by the profession of their faith, in the spread of the Gospel and in the building up of the Church. (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity 14)
And while the leadership and support of the clergy is crucial in the training of disciples, the primary agent of formation is the “entire community of the faithful” (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity 14).
The study group that composed the initial drafts of the rite would have had to unlearn a lifetime of understanding about the mission of the clergy, the mission of the laity, and the process of bringing new seekers into the church. While they weren’t exactly starting with a blank slate — they had the first five centuries of church tradition to draw on — adapting the ancient catechumenate for modern times was something novel.
What kind of church does the RCIA envision?
After many revisions and several years of experimentation, the final version of the RCIA was approved by Pope Paul VI in 1972. Its impact has been revolutionary. Embedded in the rite are a number of paradigm shifts that flow from Vatican II’s major reenvisioning of the church as a community of missionary disciples.
We covered these in greater detail in the previous series of blog posts. To summarize, they are:
- Conversion to the person of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the catechumenate process. And, that being the case, our parishes will need to undergo conversion to become communities that evangelize and initiate those with no faith or who are indifferent to religion into the body of Christ.
- To evangelize is to be a public witness. Baptisms are no longer private, and the baptized can no longer be quiet about our faith. Pope Francis teaches: “All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives” (Joy of the Gospel, 121).
- The primary minister of evangelization, witness, teaching, and initiation is the people of God. We can no longer defer our apostolic mission to church professionals and those whose work is principally to help equip the baptized priesthood for mission.
- Catechumens are missionary disciples. They are not passive recipients of doctrinal texts waiting for their certification to begin living as Catholics. From the moment of their first consecration as catechumens, they are joined to the household of Christ (RCIA 47). Even before their baptism, they, like the Samaritan woman, become missionaries immediately after having a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ.
- Confirmation is restored to its proper role and proper order in the celebration of initiation. It is neither a sacrament of maturity nor a completion of initiation. Eucharist once again takes its rightful place as “culminating point” of initiation (RCIA 217).
- Adult conversion and formation for discipleship is once again the norm for the initiation process. In the restoration of the rites, the study group responsible for the catechumenate proceeded under the assumption that the revisions for the rite of infant baptism should be based on the rite for adults and not the other way around. As part of this shift, we also have a broader understanding of who is an “adult” for purposes of the rite. That is, anyone who is capable of conversion (who is of catechetical age) is initiated through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (canon 852:1).
The RCIA will renew our church
These shifts are radical, ground-breaking, world-shaking changes in the way we understand what it means to be a church. Pope Francis has told us over and over again, we have to become missionaries so the entire world will come to know the good news:
I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. (Joy of the Gospel 27)
Those of us in catechumenate ministry share this dream. And by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it’s a dream we will make come true.
What world-shaking changes have you seen come about as a result of the RCIA in your parish? How is the good news being spread in your community? Share your thoughts in the comments below.