We all know the saying about not being able to fit square pegs into round holes. When we accompany others on the journey of faith, we are almost always in the business of getting squares to fit into rounds. In some sense, that is what we mean be conversion. People are living “square” lives and need to be living in “round” lives.
But conversion goes both ways, and the Holy Spirit has a funny way of challenging our preconceptions. It is easy to assume that our faith formation process or our catechumenate process (our round holes) are the best possible way to accompany seekers (the square pegs). We see it as our ministry and our pastoral duty to gently shave off their edges and fit them into our really, really great structure.
But when we read the gospels, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus had a seemingly unlimited number of differently shaped holes that those who encountered him could fit into. Think about how he called and formed Peter, James, Mary and Martha, the Samaritan woman, the centurion, the good thief on the cross, Paul — just to name a few. The path to discipleship for each of these saints was unique.
If we are going to teach as Jesus taught, we have to think as much about changing the shape of our holes as much as changing the shape of our seekers.
Here’s a recent example we encountered.
Challenging our catechesis assumptions
Two teen girls approached their parish to schedule their quinceaneras. Both girls are baptized, but they have not yet celebrated confirmation or first communion. According to the parish, the girls are “moderately catechized.”
Traditionally, the quinceanera celebration begins with a Mass of thanksgiving. However, when the young woman who is celebrating cannot share in communion during the Mass, the parish will often celebrate a Liturgy of the Word without eucharist. In both of these cases, however, the families were intent on having a full Mass at which the girls would share in communion.
The girls approached the parish in December and want to schedule their quinceaneras for May.
For many of us, our round-hole process would make us think these girls cannot possibly be prepared in time to celebrate both confirmation and first communion in time for May quinceaneras.
And if we were going to try to fit them into our round holes, which hole would we plug them into? First communion classes (which are often designed for seven-year-olds)? The confirmation group (which is often a two year process)? The RCIA group (which started meeting in September)?
Our round-hole thinking might tell us that the most pastoral thing to do is to hold firm on celebrating a Liturgy of the Word without eucharist.
If, however, we pause and ask what Jesus would do, more options open up for us. Maybe we need to create some different shaped holes. But what shapes? So far, we may be assuming that both girls are the same shape. When they are identified as “moderately catechized,” we may have some assumptions about what that means. When we hear that the girls’ families are insisting on a full Mass and not just a Liturgy of the Word, we may have some assumptions about why that is.
A pastoral catechetical response
We cannot know what shapes these girls and their families are until we ask them. The first girl might be considered moderately catechized because, while she seldom comes to church, she does know the Lord’s Prayer and how to pray the rosary. However, she does not pray these prayers as a regular practice.
The second girl is also seldom seen at Sunday Mass. That is because she works on weekends, and her paycheck is an important part of the family finances. She regularly prays the rosary with her abuela at home, and she is teaching her younger brother how to pray the Lord’s Prayer (in both English and Spanish).
The family of the first girl wants to make sure a Mass of thanksgiving is celebrated because that is what all the other families will be doing. It is important to them to be seen as solid members of their neighborhood community. The second family has similar feelings. In addition, however, the mother strongly feels the presence of Christ when she shares in communion. She wants her daughter to have that same kind of encounter on the occasion of her quinceanera.
The pastoral response to these girls and their families will be necessarily different. And neither response will likely fit into any of the processes the parish already has up and running. Both girls will need an individualized apprenticeship process, unique to each of them, organized along the guidelines in paragraph 75 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
That would mean getting them involved in those areas of the life of the parish community where they are most likely to encounter Jesus. They will need sponsors from among the parishioners who will make sure the girls are at Mass every week and who will also introduce them to other activities in the parish.
I would also try to get them invited to dinner at the homes of a few different parishioners during their preparation period. And then I would be sure to do some regular mystagogical reflection with the girls and their families based on their encounters with Jesus in the Mass, in the parish activities, and in their meals with parishioners.
During the initial interview, I would ask the girls and their families what signs they think they need to see that would indicate the girls are ready to celebrate confirmation and first communion. And then their catechist and sponsors should be constantly looking for those signs and the signs in paragraph 120 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and gently challenging the girls to take steps to begin to exhibit those markers of faith development.
I know that’s all an ideal and may not all be doable by May when the girls want to celebrate their quinceaneras. But if even a small bit of the church’s vision for accompanying these girls on their journey of faith can be accomplished, they will have a much richer experience of their quinceaneras than if the parish pushes them through a condensed school model just so they can have a Mass during their celebration.
What is your vision for accompaniment? How do you work with and invite seekers to walk with you in the catechetical process? Share your thoughts in the comments below.