In a recent interview, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, said that Pope Francis has opened the church to a strong emphasis on four theological priorities:
- the peripheries
Accomplishing a shift to these priorities, he said, “will require changes on how we do and are church.”
Cardinal Tobin did not mention the catechumenate as a means for accomplishing a shift to becoming a church that emphasizes mission, encounter, the peripheries, and mercy — but he could have.
A church that encounters Christ
In its best form, the way a parish implements the catechumenate builds a church of mission, a church that encounters Christ, a church that goes out to the peripheries, and a church of mercy. When we say that the catechumenate builds these things when it is implemented “in its best form,” we have to admit that most of us are far from “best” at carrying out the vision of the RCIA.
But we cannot let our imperfections stop us. Speaking about the church’s mission to evangelize, Pope Francis wrote:
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. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing. The witness of faith that each Christian is called to offer leads us to say with Saint Paul: “Not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” [Phil 3:12-13]. (Joy of the Gospel, 121)
Send healers out to find the wounded
When it comes to the catechumenate, we have to press on, as St. Paul said, because so much is at stake. What is at stake are the multitudes of people on the peripheries, the people who are forgotten, alone, and hurting. Shortly after he was elected, Pope Francis identified the church as a “field hospital.” By calling us a field hospital, he called us to radically reorient what we are doing as a church. Our number-one job is to heal.
In a sense, the catechumenate is nursing school. It is where we, as church, demonstrate to the catechumens how to become healers. Last year, I had to go to the emergency room, transported by an ambulance. It turned out to be nothing serious, but I didn’t know that at the time. After I realized I would be fine, I began to pay attention to who was paying attention to me. It was nurses. Several different nurses during the hours I was kept for observation. The care they had for me can only be described as merciful. They didn’t know me. They had no reason to care for me except that they were being paid by the hospital or the insurance company to do so. But clearly I was much more than a job to them. I was a person in need. And they were determined to do everything they possibly could to heal me.
If we are a field hospital, then our job is to send healers out to find the wounded. The balm that the missionary disciples bring is not bandages or medication. It is the good news of encounter with the Risen Christ. Jesus is disguised, of course. He looks like Mable, who runs your Sunday coffee and doughnuts. Or John, the guy who used to be homeless and now helps out at the downtown food bank. Or Raúl, the uptight accountant who heads your parish finance committee and also leads the annual fundraiser for your Tijuana mission. Or Jane, the twenty-something single mom who was just baptized at the last Easter Vigil.
The peripheries can’t wait
And here’s the thing about each one of these “other Christs” plus the hundreds and hundreds of others who go out of your church at the end of Mass every Sunday. They go out to the peripheries every day, in every way to be that desperately needed merciful encounter with Christ for anyone who is hurting. They never have a day off. They never tire of announcing the good news.
However, when our catechumenate — our “nurse training program” — is only operating from September to May, we give the trainee disciples the impression that there is nothing going on in the summer. The peripheries can wait. The mission operates on a schedule. The field hospital has seasons when it is closed.
Of course none of us believes this is true. We believe the mission to evangelize is urgent, top-priority, all-hands-on-deck, perpetual, and incessant.
If we’re honest, most of us would admit that evangelization is not top priority for most of our parishes. But it can be and it will be. If we start now to train disciples every day, in an ongoing, year-round process, we will move closer to the day when no one ever goes without the boundless joy and love of God in their lives. We believe that will happen. And we can start to make it happen the very next time a seeker shows up and asks how to become Catholic.