What are celebrations of the word? How to give your RCIA seekers a foretaste of heaven

Paradise sky background with cloudsWhen I was in college in the late 1970s, I read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for the first time. I remember highlighting and underlining so many phrases from that document. It was like someone had given me the key to a treasure chest.

Some key passages include the teaching that Christ is present in multiple ways in the liturgy (7); liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Christ that all the baptized share in (7); the liturgy as summit of the church’s activity and source of all its power (10); the aim to be consider before all else is the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy is the aim to be considered before all else (14); the Bible is to be opened up and a richer fare provided at the table of God’s word (51).

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What are we initiating RCIA seekers into?

One passage that I did not underline back then and that I should have is one that summarizes and gives meaning to the entire liturgical reform:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. (8)

When we initiate seekers, this more than anything is what we are initiating them into. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults gives us some amazing tools for training catechumens for their participation in the earthly liturgy which is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.

Officially, these tools are called “Rites Belonging to the Period of the Catechumenate.” More often, we refer to these as the minor rites. In a previous post, we looked at why these rites are so important. In this post, I want to describe what these rites are.

The easiest way to understand the minor rites is to think of them as celebrations of God’s word. Then, on some occasions as the need arises, you can add on additional elements to the word liturgies.

The rite tells us:

During the period of the catechumenate there should be celebrations of the word of God that accord with the liturgical season and that contribute to the instruction of the catechumens and the needs of the community. These celebrations of the word are:

  • first, celebrations held specially for the catechumens;
  • second, participation in the liturgy of the word at the Sunday Mass;
  • third, celebrations held in connection with catechetical instruction. (RCIA 81)

I think most of us are pretty good at the second form of celebration—participation at Sunday Mass. We may not be making enough use of the first and third options, however.

What happens when we do this more often in the RCIA?

If we can make more regular use of these celebrations of the word, the rite tells us that the catechumens will gain a more robust training in living the Christian life. Specifically, these celebrations will:

  1. implant in their hearts the teachings they are receiving: for example,
    1. the morality characteristic of the New Testament,
    2. the forgiving of injuries and insults,
    3. a sense of sin and repentance,
    4. the duties Christians must carry out in the world;
  2. give them instruction and experience in the different aspects and ways of prayer;
  3. explain to them the signs, celebrations, and seasons of the liturgy;
  4. prepare them gradually to enter the worship assembly of the entire community. (RCIA 82)

All of that is going to happen just by regularly celebrating a liturgy of the word with the catechumens. Think about this in your own life. If you are like most Catholics, the liturgy is the place where you have had your deepest, most regular, most life-changing encounters with Christ. It is by celebrating liturgy, specifically by hearing and responding to God’s call for us, that we learn how to live as disciples.

Just a simple, ordinary liturgy of the word celebration will be a privileged place of catechesis for your seekers. However, on some occasions, you may want to amp up the celebration with the addition of a minor exorcism, a blessing, or an anointing.

Minor exorcisms

The minor exorcisms are nothing like the exorcism that gets popularized in horror movies. In the catechumenate, exorcisms are petitions addressed to God that have several purposes:

They draw the attention of the catechumens to

  • the real nature of Christian life,
  • the struggle between flesh and spirit,
  • the importance of self-denial for reaching the blessedness of God’s kingdom,
  • and the unending need for God’s help. (RCIA 90)

During the discipleship training period of the catechumente, you can teach the catechumens these central doctrines of the church simply by regularly celebrating a minor exorcism with them. Usually a minor exorcism would be celebrated as part of a liturgy of the word celebration. You can also simply pray one of the exorcism prayers alone if necessary. There are eleven prayers to choose from (see RCIA 94). Click here to see times when you might want to celebrate a minor exorcism.

Blessings of the Catechumens

Blessings of the catechumens have the same structure as the minor exorcisms, but they have a different purpose.

The blessings of the catechumens are a sign of God’s love and of the Church’s tender care.

They are bestowed on the catechumens so that, even though they do not as yet have the grace of the sacraments, they may still receive from the Church

  • courage,
  • joy,
  • and peace

as they proceed along the difficult journey they have begun. (RCIA 95)

Just as with the minor exorcisms, the blessings would usually be celebrated as part of a liturgy of the word. There are nine prayers to choose from (see RCIA 97). Click here for suggestions on when to celebrate a blessing with the catechumens.

Anointing of the Catechumens

The anointing of catechumens is loaded with catechetical content that is communicated from the celebration of the rite itself. First of all, “The presiding celebrant for such a first anointing of the catechumens is a priest or a deacon” (RCIA 98). This distinction teaches about the different orders in the church and the ordered celebration of the church’s liturgy.

In addition:

The anointing with oil symbolizes

  • their need for God’s help and strength so that,
    • undeterred by the bonds of the past
    • and overcoming the opposition of the devil,
  • they will forthrightly take the step of professing their faith
  • and will hold fast to it unfalteringly throughout their lives. (RCIA 99)

In addition to all of that, the anointing gives catechists an opportunity to highlight the role of the bishop in our church because the bishop is the one who blesses the Oil of Catechumens at the Chrism Mass.

Like the other minor rites, the anointing of the catechumens would usually be celebrated within a liturgy of the word. The anointing rite may be celebrated several times throughout the discipleship training period of the catechumenate. Click here for suggestions on when to celebrate this rite.

If your seekers have no or very little experience of sacramental prayer, these celebrations of God’s word, sometimes supplemented by additional minor rites, will give them a foretaste of the church’s liturgical prayer. And they will train them to live as missionary disciples of Christ in the world. Make sure you are using these amazing catechetical tools the church as provided.

Your turn

Is your catechesis initiating your RCIA seekers into a vision of heaven? Or something else? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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