Like all of you I’ve been hard at work at finding ways to keep our initiation processes going while our churches have been closed and social distancing has become the norm. But even as challenging as that can be, the greater challenge has been working with those elect and candidates who were expecting to be fully initiated this Easter, and further, working with the rest of the parish community who were planning and looking forward to our annual celebrations.
Initiation ministers are no strangers to managing expectations. Seekers come to us with certain built-in expectations. Some think that all they need do is take some “classes” and celebrate their sacraments on a given date. And to be fair, many of these muddled expectations come from our own history of how we used to manage these processes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of any first contact situation is helping the seekers realign their expectations with the reality of our preparation processes. We need to remind them that the journey they wish to embark on is not a simple academic exercise but rather the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the risen Christ and his church.
Even once our seekers begin their journey, managing their expectations must remain at the forefront. We need to periodically review their progress with them, one on one, not unlike we do during the pre-catechumenate. Only through these regular “discernment conversations” can we better understand where they are and continue to guide them through the process—a process that can take some time to discern one’s readiness for initiation (guided by RCIA 120).
In dealing with the elect and candidates whose journey has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, having all techniques in place clearly has helped us. But it’s still been a real challenge trying to manage their expectations (and ours) in this volatile environment. But with that in mind, I found the following three points to be most helpful as we continue our preparations:
It’s not a matter of “if” the elect will be initiated, but “when”
Much of the anxiety of our catechumens and candidates lies in the uncertainty of their being initiated at all, as though they are not sure if they’ve yet “passed the test.” This feeling is only natural—only human.
Ideally that uncertainty should be quelled once they reach the First Sunday of Lent. During regular discernment conversations it should be emphasized that once they start on the path of purification and enlightenment, their full initiation is all but assured.
Remind them of the part of the Rite of Election where the bishop says, “I now declare you to be members of the elect, to be initiated into the sacred mysteries at the next Easter Vigil” (RCIA 133). Even though they still need to face the scrutinies, we need to remind them that the scrutinies are not a ritual test but a spiritual cleansing. “The scrutinies are meant to uncover then heal all that is weak…” (RCIA 141). It would require some extremely unusual circumstances for seekers to fail to complete the initiation process once they’ve begun the period of purification and enlightenment.
Remind them that they are already a part of the community
It’s not unusual for catechumens and candidates to feel like they’re still outside of the parish community, waiting for that day when they can be fully accepted at the table. And here again we initiation ministers are partially to blame for that feeling, not wanting to send our little chicks out of the nest without them being “fully prepared.”
The truth is, no one is ever fully prepared. No community is perfect. What’s important is the effort we make to try for the ideal. We need to remind them (and ourselves) that they became members of the community once the pastor invited them in the door of the church at the Rite of Acceptance. From that moment on we should be integrating them into the fabric of parish community.
We are all in this together
There are two things of which we are certain: There will be an initiation, and none of us knows exactly when that will occur. Stay at home orders and social distancing requirements are changing almost daily.
Knowing that initiation will happen is a source of relief, but not knowing when is still difficult. I have found that maintaining some regular communication, both individually and as a group has eased a lot of that anxiety. Phone calls, e-mails, internet video meetings, and even regular mail has allowed us to maintain a sense of community. It allows us to share information, share our experiences, and lean on each other, even at a distance.
Our plans have been turned upside-down, but this regular contact has given us time we need—to grieve, to adjust, and to heal. To call on Christ to support us in our times of need, and call on our communities to reach out, connect, and help in all the ways they can. Staying active and staying connected will see us through.
What adaptations have you had to make in the last two months for your RCIA process? Did any of them point you more firmly towards a year-round process? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.