The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults envisions the initiation process as a journey of faith (see RCIA 1). As soon as a seeker takes the first step on that journey, the reality of time changes. This shift in time, however, is not always obvious to either the seeker or the parish initiation team.
Often, one of the seeker’s first questions is about “when.” When will I be baptized? Can I become Catholic before the wedding? How long will all this take?
These questions are based on time as chronological. Chronological time is neat and ordered. It is linear. It is sequential. A recipe is an example of chronological reality. After a set amount of time, if you followed all the steps correctly, you have a cake.
But your cake also exists in kairotic time. Kairotic time is “time out of time” or “time beyond time.” When you surprise your loved one with his favorite kind of cake, sing Happy Birthday, and watch him wish as he blows out the candles, you might lose track of time. You might be so caught up in the moment that nothing else matters. To live in kairotic time is all about living in the now.
How the RCIA transforms a catechumens past, present, and future
However, when we live in the now, the past is not gone as though it was somehow incinerated. It is like the flour that has become the cake. The flour of the past hasn’t ceased to exist, but it is in and transformed by the now. Nor is the future some appointment to be scheduled. It too is in and transformed by the now. The cake exists to be eaten and remembered in the future. The eating, the party, the future memory are all in the cake of the now. We can’t ask at what time the flour became a cake and at what time the cake will become a birthday cake and what time the cake will be remembered in the future. It can’t be scheduled; it just is.
The initiation process exists in both chronological and kairotic time. When seekers want to know the schedule and when we tell them the schedule, we are operating only in chronological time. However, the initiation process is a journey of falling in love with a person — the person of Jesus Christ.
That journey happens primarily in kairotic time. A time out of time. A time that transcends the boundaries of clocks and calendars. We can’t schedule Christ; Christ just is.
When the RCIA isn’t worried about “being on time”
Most of our seekers and most of us, however, are so immersed in chronological time that it is difficult to think and talk in a way that isn’t bound by calendars and clocks. So, for example, sometimes RCIA team members will struggle with how to respond to a seeker who shows up in March. The rest of the group started “on time” back in September. This newcomer is late. He came at the wrong time. Maybe we should tell him to wait until the calendar once again rolls around to September.
Recall, however, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those who came late to the work were welcomed equally with those who came “on time.” But the more pertinent parable is the Good Samaritan. A traveler lays half-dead alongside the road, and most people don’t have the time to help him. But a Samaritan, who realizes that now is the appropriate time to save the stranger, focuses all his thought and resources on getting the traveler to safety.
Those of us in initiation ministry have to become time-shifting Samaritans. When we encounter a stranger who wants to become Catholic, we have to step out of our calendars and clocks. We have to focus all our thought and resources on what this person needs right now.
Another way we get twisted up by existing in two kinds of time is when a seeker is ready for initiation too soon! What do we do, we might ask, when someone is on fire with faith in December? Do they have to wait until Easter to be initiated?
In this instance, we have to realize the value of chronological time. The encounter with Christ, the falling in love, the coming to faith — all that happens on the Holy Spirit’s schedule. But in order to sacramentalize that love relationship in the fullest way possible, we need to gather the entire church. The gathered church is Christ. And this gathering for the sake of birthing new Christians is so awesome and momentous that it happens only once a year. (Usually. Initiation can happen at other times for extraordinary reasons.)
Imitating the first disciples
It is very similar to a wedding ceremony. The couple may be deeply in love and fully ready to start their life together as spouses. But the families and friends all need to be invited. The church and the hall need to be scheduled. The couple themselves need to do some final preparation as they approach the big day. There is some time needed between the engagement and the wedding.
Similarly with the catechumens, once we all discern that they are ready to fully unite themselves with Christ, only then do we break out the calendar and write them down (enroll them) for the next Easter Vigil.
When we move through these two kinds of time, constantly negotiating and balancing the demands of chronos vs. kairos, we are imitating the first disciples. They lived in the reign of God that was established by Jesus as both now and not yet.
To apply the example of the first disciples to our time would mean that we would rejoice whenever we come across a stranger who, “after hearing the mystery of Christ proclaimed, consciously and freely seek[s] the living God.” No matter what the calendar says, we would immediately welcome the seeker into our parish community and begin to introduce them to “the way of faith and conversion” (RCIA 1).
We accompany them on their journey of faith, not always knowing what lies ahead, but always sure of God’s grace and mercy. On that journey, we focus as best we can on the now. We are aided in this by the rhythm and ritual of the liturgical year. The ongoing celebration of the liturgical year reveals Christ to the catechumens and draws them more deeply into the way of faith and conversion.
And when we are prompted by the Spirit, we accompany the catechumens through their final purification and enlightenment and into full initiation into Christ.
This initiation process cannot be hurried or scheduled. The church teaches:
The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God and on various circumstances…. Nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori.
The time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough—several years if necessary—for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong…. (RCIA 76)
The journey of faith is a journey that takes place over time — two kinds of time. Our calling is to shift between both of those times as needed for the spiritual benefit of the seekers.
Which aspects of transitioning to a year-round RCIA process are most daunting? What will take the most patience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.