The way the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults talks about discerning conversion in the seekers can seem like we are being asked to be Judge Judy, sitting behind a high bench, dressed in a black robe, listening to the evidence and bringing down the gavel on any who are not worthy.
Specifically, the rite asks us to discern signs of conversion at two crucial moments on the journey of faith — before the Rite of Acceptance and before the Rite of Election. These are not the only times we look for signs of conversion, but these are two crucial hinge points in the life of the seeker.
Essentially the church wants to know:
- Is this person ready to enter the journey of faith and follow the Cross? (Rite of Acceptance)
- And once they have done so, have they spent sufficient time learning to live as a disciple so that they are now ready to completely leave their old self behind and become a new person in Christ? (Rite of Election / Rites of Initiation)
It is completely natural for us to feel like we are inadequate for this job. Who am I to decide if someone is ready to celebrate these rites? I can barely keep my own faith life together, much less judge the quality of someone else’s.
Why is conversion important?
We are sent out into the world to proclaim the good news. That proclamation is not directed toward folks who are doing fine. We are sent to those on the peripheries who the world has marginalized to the point of invisibility.
To those folks, we proclaim good news The Directory for Catechesis (paragraph 59) says that our proclamation should follow these guidelines:
- We should express God’s saving love
- We should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom
- We should always be joyful and not get obsessed with preaching a few hard-to-understand doctrines
When we offer these three good news bulletins — love, freedom, and joy — to those society has made invisible, they feel seen and heard. They have perhaps their first encounter with Jesus (through us) and take the first step into a new life.
Why do we look for signs?
Recall Pope Francis’s image of the church as a field hospital. If the church is a field hospital, we are medics offering healing therapies to the wounded.
We want to look for signs of healing to know that the wounds are getting better.
We want to see signs that the person is returning to wholeness and is not dying or getting sicker from their wounds. If we do not see signs of healing, we have to try other strategies.
Who is looking for the signs?
We are not the only ones looking for signs. These are all the people who are looking for signs of healing in the seekers:
- The seekers themselves
- The seekers’ friends and family
- The sponsors
- The catechists
- The community
- The pastor (see RCIA 5, 9 and 42)
The signs of conversion are given to the entire community, including and especially the seekers themselves. The action of prayerfully discerning what these signs mean is not so much a judicial process as it is a group spiritual direction process in which we are all listening to the Holy Spirit together.
What if we get it wrong?
We have to remember that on the journey of faith, we are not the catechist. Jesus is the catechist (see Directory for Catechesis 113b). Our job is to discern how the Holy Spirit is asking us to accompany each seeker. Our ability to discern the will of the Holy Spirit is deeply flawed because we are human. God knows this. Our weakness is built into the plan. Even when we know the will of the Holy Spirit and deliberately decide to disregard it (which is what we call sin), God knows and adjusts. We cannot thwart God’s plan, either through weakness or disobedience.
So we can’t really get it wrong in the sense that if God is calling a seeker, God will find a way to show up in the life of that seeker.
We can, however, get it wrong in the sense of not being faithful to our own vocation as catechists. Or, assistant catechists, really, because we are not the catechist. Jesus is the catechist. As assistant catechists then, we have an obligation to listen. We listen to the seeker, to God’s word, to the signs in the liturgy, to the whisperings of the Spirit when we pray, and to all those members of the community listed above who are co-responsible for recognizing signs of healing in the seeker.
This deep listening will help us to offer the best possible guidance to the seekers God sends to us. It is not possible to get it wrong if we are listening.
Will there be conflict?
There will probably be conflict. Jesus experienced mega-conflict. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and you don’t get that title by going around starting fights. Jesus didn’t seek out conflict. It found him. Because, why? Because he was a person of truth. He would always mirror back to others the truth of themselves. And, if that person had not been deeply listening to the Holy Spirit in their lives, they often did not like what they saw in the mirror.
Similarly, if you are a person of truth, you are going to encounter people who are not yet ready for the truth. We, of course, must always, always, always be gentle, loving, and merciful. And sometimes, even then, someone may not like what they see when we stand before them as a mirror of truth.
What will happen when we start seeing signs of conversion?
Pope Francis says that those who undertake the journey of faith and conversion will attain “the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ.”
They will find “a community of faith to support them.”
And they will find “meaning and a goal in life” (see Joy of the Gospel, 49).
When we accompany seekers on the journey of faith and reveal to them these great promises from a loving and merciful God, we are not judges. We are medics offering the medicine of salvation.
How do you talk about readiness to celebrate the rites in your parish? How do you practice “deep listening” with your seekers and catechumens? Share your thoughts in the comments below.