Over the last several posts, we have been exploring how, in celebrating the rites of the catechumenate, we have to begin with the end in mind. The “end” we are striving for is fullness in the life of Christ (see RCIA 206).
We looked at the major rites in reverse order to clearly show how the “end” of the journey is really just a beginning or an initiation into a liminal life, a life of living betwixt and between. Every ritual in the catechumenate draws the catechumen further into liminality and prepares them for their ultimate initiation into the fullness of life in Christ. They way that we celebrate the rites of the RCIA teaches the seekers how to live the paschal mystery.
At every step along their journey of faith, the rites of the catechumente teach the seekers that they are not preparing simply for a life with Christ. The rites of the catechumenate and the entire formation process have one, fundamental purpose: to draw the seekers into life in Christ.
This is the end we have in mind when we plunge the catechumen down into the watery tomb, and they rise up a new creation, leaving their old self behind forever.
What happens after the neophyte steps out of the font is crucial. Sometimes, those of us who brought the seeker to the point of initiation feel a sense of completion. While the feeling is normal, in some ways our work is just beginning. When a neophyte steps out of the font, they are crossing a threshold, just as they did at the Rite of Acceptance. They are stepping into a life in Christ in its fullness, which is to say, they are stepping into the fullness of the paschal mystery.
As initiation ministers, our job continues as we help the neophytes navigate this betwixt and between, paschal life. In an article titled “Paschal Mystery & RCIA: Some Connections” (Liturgical Ministry 8, Winter 1999, 107-111), Jeffrey M. Kemper lists five things every neophyte is going to need to live a life fully immersed in the paschal mystery.
1. A vibrant community of faith
Living betwixt and between is hard. Neophytes can feel a little crestfallen after the damp of the baptismal water and the glisten of the chrism oil begin to lessen. Neophytes need to see others who are living in Christ, even when confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges, exhibiting steadfast hope and profound joy. The end we have to have in mind is that they will be a part of this vibrant community of faith as they begin the fullness of their paschal life.
To get to that end, we need to immerse them into the community of faith from the first moment on their journey of faith, beginning with the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens and deepening with each major rite along the way.
2. Solid theological foundation
Kemper says, “The RCIA is not a theology course; it is a formational process.” Kemper echoes Pope Francis when he says the content of the faith has to be proclaimed in such a way that it is evangelizing. It has to actually be good news for the hearer in real and concrete ways. It cannot be mere facts about the faith. It has to be knowledge that builds faith. Kemper writes:
Simply giving information is not sufficient. Means of assisting the participants in interiorizing the message must accompany the content. In this way the catechumen begins to see old ways of understanding reality die as new ways of seeing the world come to birth….
To get to this end, we have to constantly balance of the content of the faith with the profound mystery of faith (see RCIA 75.1). There are many ways to do this, but the most consistent and effective way is through the celebration of the liturgical year, during which the church “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 102).
3. Solid moral formation
Striving to live a moral life gets at the heart of the difference between life with Christ and life in Christ. To a catechumen (indeed, to a lot of long-time Catholics), Catholicism can seem like a lot of rules to be followed. It is easy to fall into the trap of reducing morality to following the rules. But Jesus said clearly that’s not what the rules are about. He said there are two rules to rule all rules: Love God and love your neighbor (see Mk 12:30-31).
The rule isn’t give God what is due God. It is not be fair to your neighbor. The rule is to love. To actually do this will require sacrifice. It will require dying to oneself for the sake of the other. It will requiring living in Christ instead of merely with Christ. Because it is only by allowing Christ to act through us that we can truly love as Christ does.
To get to this end, we have to always be giving good example to the catechumens of self-sacrifice and of repentance when we have failed to put others’ needs before our own. This self-sacrificial behavior is what we rehearse in every liturgy, during which we die to ourselves so that Christ may live through us.
4. Mystagogical reflection
Because of the way the periods of the catechumenate are labeled, it is easy to assume that mystagogical reflection is relegated to the final period of Post-Baptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy. But that is not the case. The entire faith journey is composed of a mystagogical itinerary.
As we know, all of life is shot through with the presence of God. The seekers, however, especially at the beginning of their journey, do not always see God’s hand at work. This is particularly true in times of adversity. While most of us identify our own sufferings with Jesus’s suffering on the Cross, beginners in faith are likely to see difficult times as evidence of the absence of God or even the malevolence of God.
And even the good times in life or the beautiful manifestations of God are not always recognized as the miracle of God’s grace. All of the formation process for seekers should be shaped as a mystagogical reflection to help them both recognize their encounters with the Risen Christ and understand the meaning of those encounters for their lives. Kemper writes:
When people are taught, especially through experience, how to reflect on their experiences of life through the lens of the paschal mystery, they are better able to draw strength from faith, grow in spiritual maturity, rejoice in blessings, and endure the cross.
To get to this end, we have to develop and implement a mystagogical itinerary for the seekers from the first moments of our relationship with them. (See this post for more about the mystagogical itinerary).
5. A personal prayer life
Many people, including many who are in parish leadership, do not think it is possible to have a personal relationship with God. For those of us who do have a personal relationship with God, this is very hard to understand. The entire message of the gospel is that God is love and God desires a relationship with us. Even so, we have to recognize that for many or even most of our seekers, they come to us thinking of God as an abstract idea or area of study — like mathematics or biology. Sometimes members of the catechumenate team or the pastoral staff encourage this misunderstanding by providing a syllabus of topics to study instead of an example of relationship centered in the paschal mystery.
A key way to help the seekers move from abstract to concrete, from an idea of God to a relationship with God, is to teach them how to dialogue with God. That is, we have to teach them to pray. Kemper makes the point that we have to teach them to pray in a personal way, which is not the same thing as private prayer.
“Personal” in this context means deep within the being of an individual. Thus, prayer is a dialogue that is meant to stem from the depth of the individual and touch the core of his or her being. This demands the ability to speak honestly to the Lord— from the heart—about our hopes, our doubts, our triumphs, and our defeats, as we find the psalmists doing.
Personal prayer is both liturgical and non-liturgical, and the seekers need to learn how to do both. The way to get to this end is to first of all attend to our own prayer lives, both liturgical and non-liturgical, so we are, ourselves, constantly listening for God’s direction as we lead the seekers deeper and deeper into the paschal mystery. And at the same time, we have be immersing the seekers into the prayer life of the community and actively encouraging, cajoling, monitoring, and inspiring them to regular and consistent prayer on their own.
Living a paschal life is not always easy, but it is always joyful. Living in Christ instead of merely with Christ will fulfil what Pope Francis calls “the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart” (Joy of the Gospel, 165).
Throughout the catechumenate, especially through the celebration of the rites of the catechumenate, we teach the catechumens everything they need to know to live the paschal mystery.
When the “neophyte steps out of the font,” what is your next step alongside them? How do you support them in living a paschal life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.