Q: During the pandemic, how should we handle the signing the senses in the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens? Is it permissible to sign without touching the person? In other words, to make the sign of the cross in front of the eyes, the mouth, etc. rather than actually on them?
A: One blessing, if there can be any blessing to this pandemic, is that it’s forcing us to read the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults more closely, to understand the rite’s intention, and then make creative adjustments.
If you read RCIA 54, it says of the signing of the forehead that the celebrant may make the sign of the cross in front of the forehead in order to avoid touching the person. That option, however, is not provided for the rest of the senses which are signed by the sponsor. To me, that indicates that the rite intends for the other senses to be physically touched.
So what we can say about adjusting the rite in pandemic is that the sponsor should be someone who is able to be in close proximity to the candidate. Ideally, the sponsor would be someone from the candidate’s household who is part of their quarantine bubble.
What adaptations can we make for this rite?
However, this won’t be possible in most cases. The sponsor is someone who is a “gift” from the parish who is familiar with the parish community and is usually not a member of the inquirer’s household. So here is a possible adaptation for when the sponsor has to maintain a safe distance:
For the rite:
- plan for the rite to take place outside, in front of the church (see RCIA 48). Outdoor gatherings are safer, and it is more true to the structure of this rite
- the designated parish sponsor would be present but socially-distanced from the candidate
- someone from the candidate’s household bubble would stand-in for the designated parish sponsor to do the physical actions required of the sponsor (hand on shoulder, signing of the senses)
- the designated parish sponsor would make all of the verbal responses required of the sponsor and is the official sponsor listed in the registry of catechumens
- the celebrant would remain socially-distanced from the candidate and make the sign of the cross in front of the candidate’s forehead at RCIA 54
Another option that still follows the rite is to omit the signing of the other senses altogether. However, if this is done, the sponsor (or in the adaptation above, the stand-in household member) still must make the sign of the cross on the forehead after the celebrant. See RCIA 55A.
Note that the parallel rite for the baptized candidates, the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates, is an optional rite. So during the pandemic, it is best to forgo this rite altogether.
When does this rite take place?
If you feel it must be celebrated, the rite takes place indoors as part of a regular Mass or Liturgy of Word (see RCIA 416). The signing of the senses is not as crucial for baptized people since they have already been marked with the Cross. So it makes sense to drop the additional signings, even when we are not in a pandemic.
Whether or not the signing of the other senses is included, the candidates, whether unbaptized or baptized, should not be standing by themselves. So the designated parish sponsor or a household member “stand-in” needs to be able to be near the candidate and be able to touch them as prescribed by the rite.
What adaptations have you made to the Rite of Acceptance in your parish this year? How are you preparing for the coming months? Share your thoughts in the comments below.