Celebrating the RCIA scrutinies outside the usual times

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIADuring a recent TeamRCIA Community Chat, several questions came up about celebrating the scrutinies outside the usual times. Let’s take a look at some issues that parishes may be experiencing.

First, let’s recall the purpose of the scrutinies.

The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal, all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen, all that is upright, strong, and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. (RCIA 141)

Note that the scrutinies are not meant to be a penitential examination of conscience, as though we might use them as a stand-in for penance before baptism. They are rather a guard against evil and a strengthening in Christ. In the scrutinies, the gathered assembly—the body of Christ—surrounds the elect with prayer and calls upon God to make the elect ready to celebrate the sacraments of initiation. The celebration of the scrutinies is a final step on the journey of conversion to Christ:

These rites, therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all. (RCIA 141)

The scrutinies work over time, in a progressive fashion. The RCIA says that by celebrating the three scrutinies over a period of weeks, two things happen.

First, “the elect are instructed gradually about the mystery of sin, from which the whole world and every person longs to be delivered and thus saved from its present and future consequences” (RCIA 143).

Second, “their spirit is filled with Christ the Redeemer” (RCIA 143).

These are huge, huge, huge spiritual benefits! We would never want to deny this powerful step in the conversion process to the elect. Because this step is so crucial to their spiritual conversion and their preparation for initiation, all three scrutinies must be celebrated.

If some serious reason prevents one of the elect from celebrating a scrutiny, your bishop may dispense the obligation. For an extraordinarily serious reason, your bishop may dispense the obligation for two of the scrutinies (see RCIA 20).

In many dioceses, the bishop has determined that the COVID-19 restrictions are extraordinarily serious reasons and have dispensed the elect of his diocese from celebrating two of the scrutinies. That has raised several questions among RCIA teams.

Can we celebrate the scrutinies online?

No. We can pray the prayers of the scrutinies online, just as we pray the prayers of a live-streamed Mass online. But it is not a valid celebration of a scrutiny. Just as with the Mass, a valid celebration of a scrutiny requires the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful physically gathered together in the same place with the presiding minister.

If the bishop has dispensed the obligation for the celebration of the scrutinies, does that mean we cannot celebrate them?

No. The dispensation from the obligation is not a restriction. It is meant to provide pastoral flexibility in a time of crisis. Imagine, for example, a normal year. One of your elect becomes extremely sick. You ask the bishop for a dispensation for the coming Sunday’s scrutiny, which is granted. But a few days after the scrutiny, your elect miraculously recovers. You could joyfully celebrate the missed scrutiny with him or her at a weekday Mass. Similarly in this pandemic, once we are able to gather again, we have the option of celebrating the missed scrutinies with our elect.

Do the scrutinies have to be celebrated at a Sunday Mass?

No. It is ideal that the scrutinies would be celebrated at Sunday Mass so that “the faithful in the assembly will also derive benefit from the liturgy of the scrutinies” (RCIA 145), but you have the option of celebrating the scrutinies during the week.

Can the scrutinies be celebrated outside of Mass?

Yes. Celebrating the scrutinies within Mass is ideal, but you have the option of celebrating them in a Liturgy of the Word service.

Does a priest have to preside at the celebration of a scrutiny?

If you celebrate the scrutinies in a Liturgy of the Word service outside of Mass, a deacon may preside (see RCIA 145).

What readings do we use for the scrutinies?

Whenever the scrutinies are celebrated, we use the ritual Masses “Christian Initiation: The Scrutinies” and the readings from the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, Year A. If you celebrate the scrutinies at a Sunday Mass in Ordinary time (or at a weekday Mass), the ritual Mass for the scrutinies and the readings from the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, Year A would replace the Ordinary Time Mass and readings (see RCIA 146).

What if we are planning for initiation at Pentecost? When should we celebrate the scrutinies?

The Sundays of Easter cannot be replaced with ritual Masses or other readings from the lectionary. So if you will be celebrating the scrutinies in the Easter Season, they must be celebrated either at a weekday Mass or a Liturgy of the Word service outside of Mass.

Can we combine the scrutines with the Presentation of the Creed and the Presentation of the Lord’s Prayer?

No. These are separate rites and require separate celebrations. There is no provision for combining them.

Can we combine the scrutines with the Anointing of Catechumens?

For adults, no. There is no provision for combining these rites. Oddly, in the scrutiny rite adapted for children, there is an option for anointing with the oil of catechumens. I don’t think it makes much sense to have it there, but it is an option if you are celebrating the scrutiny rite for children (see RCIA 301).

If the restrictions are partially lifted and we are able to gather in small groups, should we celebrate the scrutines with just a few people?

That is a judgement call based on the pastoral needs of your elect and your parish. The ideal to hold in mind is having the entire parish (or a very large segment of the parish) surrounding the elect in prayer. The elect will only have this experience once in their lives, and we want to celebrate it as fully and powerfully as possible. However, the ideal is not always possible. I would say strive for the ideal as much as you are able in your situation and make pastoral compromises as necessary.

Your Turn

Are there other questions that you have about the scrutinies? What has it been like to not hold the scrutinies this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more about other RCIA team training ideas here:

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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  1. Thank you for your knowledgeable insight into the RCIA!
    We have received a dispensation for two of the scrutinies from our bishop. Do you know if the bishop can give a dispensation for the third? I thought I had heard that he could only dispense from two. But we are in a unique time in history!
    My preference would be to celebrate the scrutiny with them if I can work it in. We have not yet returned to the celebration of Mass, but are hoping for Pentecost weekend,( with only 25% capacity of the church allowed). I am not yet certain when our priest is planning to celebrate the sacraments for RCIA. I am hoping that our deacon will help with the celebration of the scrutiny outside of Mass, but he has other commitments.
    Thanks for your help.

    • Hi Dianna. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults only permits the bishop to dispense from two scrutinies. See RCIA 20.

  2. The Scrutinies are sometimes underestimated by parishes/Pastors. Sometimes leaders skip them.
    Could someone explain/ or should we dwell collectively on the huge, huge, huge spiritual benefits of Scrutinies?
    (I agree with the benefits)

      • Basically, I believe parishes do not understand Scrutinies well enough and in many cases do not celebrate them at all, even in non pandemic year.

  3. The Prayer of Exorcism and Laying on of Hands given in “Christian Initiation of Adults in Exceptional Circumstances (Abbreviated Form),” nos. 351-352 seems to accomplish the same work as the Scrutinies. Obviously it would be best to have three distinct celebrations of the Scrutinies but it seems to me that, with one’s bishop’s permission, this might be the prudent choice for many in light of current circumstances?

  4. Hi Andrew. In this age of COVID-time, I think we can be as flexible with the rites as we need to be. Even so, I’m not sure I’d use the Exceptional Circumstances section. The rite defines extraordinary circumstances as “sickness, old age, change of residence, long absence for travel” (332).

    The issue caused by the pandemic is not that the personal circumstances of the candidates have caused them to need to hurry up with the rites. So I think it is more appropriate to turn to the “outside usual times” provisions (26-30).

    If the local community feels it is safer to only gather once for a scrutiny and they do not feel it is pastorally beneficial to wait until there is a safer time to gather, the normal celebration of the rites allow for the dispensation of up to two of the scrutinies (20). In that case, I would prefer to celebrate one “normal” scrutiny and not use the exceptional circumstances ritual.

  5. We are starting RCIA late this year and trying to change how we do the scrutinizes since we only have 3 people involved who are not baptized. Just curious how other RCIA teams celebrate it. Any input would be appreciated

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