|The catechumenate, restored in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, is a model for understanding, and growing continually in Christian life.|
Father Trutter, O.P., is pastor of St. Rose Catholic Church in Rushville, Illinois.
THE catechumenate, restored to the church in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, provides some guidelines for Christian spirituality throughout life. A brief survey of the catechumenate will suggest how Christian discipleship all through one’s life can be conceived and practiced.
The restored catechumenate includes four periods, each of the last three introduced by a special step, or stage, or “gateway” — all of which corresponds to the progressive development of conversion.(1) The first period is the precatechumenate. During this time the Christian community presents the basic gospel to those inquiring about it and about entrance into the church. Those experiencing initial conversion are engaged in inquiry into the Christian way of life. This period leads to some development of faith and an initial conversion of life. The community supports these beginners with suitable prayer and solicitude for their growth in the Christian way of life (9-13).
The second period begins with formal admission to the catechumenate in the presence of the Christian community (14). The catechumens are “joined to the Church and are part of the household of Christ,” not outsiders; as such, they have a right to Christian burial and, if they marry, an appropriate rite is to be used (18). This is a period of solid catechesis and formation. A balanced view and practice of Christian life should be offered to the catechumens: doctrine, morality, the practice of prayer, social service (19). Various forms of Scripture services for the catechumens are encouraged during this period, including the liturgy of the word at Mass — after which the catechumens are to be dismissed (10,3), perhaps to be given special instruction apart from the rest of the community. This second period may last one or more years, depending on circumstances (20; 98).
The third period is that of purification and enlightment. It commences with the rite of election. The time frame here is the Lenten season. The rite of election occurs on the First Sunday of Lent. This rite signifies that the candidates are judged ready (selected) to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter. Intense personal spiritual preparation is emphasized at this time. The “scrutinies” (ceremonies of exorcism and prayers for the elect) are conducted on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. Next come the presentations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. On Holy Saturday some of the preparatory rites may be performed for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist to be conferred at the Easter Vigil (21-26).
The celebration of the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil is the high point of the process of initiation and introduces the final period which embraces the Easter season — a period aimed at deeper incorporation into the paschal mystery of Christ. The bond with other members of the faith community is strengthened during this time. Frequent reception of Communion reinforces the faith commitment. The Sunday celebrations of the Christian community during the Easter season are the principal places for this growth (37-40). Ideally, some concluding ceremony will take place at Pentecost. Such, in brief, is the journey of faith which catechumens experience. In some cases it may span as much time as two or three years.
BEGINNING A JOURNEY
From this overview we can see expressed in the entire rite or series of rites an appreciation that becoming a Christian is a dynamic reality; it involves movement, conversion, turning from one stance to another, progress moving forward in a definite direction. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (that part of The Roman Ritual which contains the explanations, directives, and prayers for the new rites of adults’ entrance into the church) envisions the catechumenate as a “spiritual journey” (5; 19; 156; 161; 168; 175). Other expressions are also used which indicate the movement, dynamism, activity, development, even progress, that is meant to be characteristic of this phase of a person’s life as he or she prepares to enter the church definitively through baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist: “follow his light . . . walk by the light of Christ . . . way of faith . . . enter on this path” (76); “travel a long road . . . hasten toward a complete fellowship . . . every step of the wad/” (94); “stages or steps . . . through a gateway” (6); “enter the path of faith and conversion” (1); “walk in God’s presence” (144) .
Since apostolic times our religion has been called “The Way.” We find the expression in the Gospels of Matthew (7:13) and Luke (13:23). The Acts of the Apostles, which records the development of the early church, very frequently uses that expression, indicating how characteristic it was for the first Christians to think in this manner of discipleship after Jesus (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25, 26; 19:9; 22:4; and 24:14,22). Now this understanding of Christian life has been restored for our times through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or, more correctly, through the actual celebration of the rites, like the catechumenate, which are described in that ritual book.
This “way of Christ” (involving conversion, transition, progressive change) is a model for all Christians, not only for catechumens preparing for adult baptism. According to this model, Christian life is a journey away from sin and death toward a life of virtue evermore Christlike in motivation and conduct, and ultimately toward resurrection from the dead — all in the context of Christian community.
In the ritual for becoming a catechumen, in a prayer and then in an injunction to the candidate, the point of departure of this journey of Christian life is indicated. The celebrant prays over the candidates: “Breathe your Spirit, Lord, and drive out the spirits of evil: command them to depart, for your kingdom is drawing near”(79). Addressing the candidates, the celebrant says: “With the help of God and in response to his call, you have indicated your intention to worship and serve God alone and his Christ. Now is the appointed time to renounce in public every power apart from God and every form of worship which does not offer him true honor” (80). To be left behind, then, are the spirits of evil, allegiance to any power apart from God, and devotion to any worship which is q of worthy of him.
The various forms of evil and sin which the spiritual journey leaves behind are multiple, as the Rite of Christian Initiation of adults indicates in various texts. The spiritual journey certainly involves growing freedom from sin and the devil (25,1) but also from selfishness, greed, the spirit of pleasure, and worldly pride (116). Another prayer of exorcism mentions unbelief, hesitation in With, greed, sensuality, enmity, all forms of immorality, and quarreling (114). Petitions for freedom from falsehood are found in prayers of exorcism during the catechumenate (113) and in each of the first two scrutinies of the elect during Lent (164; 171). Prayers also seek release from the tyranny of the evil spirit which brings spiritual death (25; 115; 164). Paragraph 25, which describes the period of purification and enlightment, refers to the importance of revealing anything that is weak, defective, or sinful, so that it can be healed.
Some of the terms we have just read — like the devil or evil spirits — may seem quaint to contemporary Christians. But generally it must be affirmed that the prayers as well as the descriptions of the rites of the catechumenate avoid any naive optimism. The sin of the world is acknowledged and named. The way is thus opened for healing grace. Such clear-eyed realism is essential for Christian discipleship all through life. One reason for hearing the word of God regularly is our need to be reminded of the forces against us, lest we fall into complacency about our situation. Spiritual direction also serves that purpose among others goals.
TOWARD GRACEFUL LIVING
The goal of the journey which is Christian life takes on new luster in the light of the foregoing description of the point of departure. The nobility of graceful living is all the more attractive when contrasted with evil living. Paragraph 19 of the Rite of Christian initiation of Adults furnishes an excellent description of the journey from sin and death into graceful living unto God which takes place in the catechumenate and which is a paradigm, or model, of Christian spirituality throughout a lifetime. Section 2 of this paragraph is worth citing here:
Familiar with living the Christian way of life and helped by the example and support of sponsors and godparents and the whole community of the faithful, the catechumens will learn to pray to God more easily, to witness to the faith, to be constant in the expectation of Christ in all things, to follow supernatural inspiration in their deeds, and to exercise charity toward neighbors to the point of self-renunciation. Thus formed, “new converts set out on a spiritual journey. Already sharing through faith in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, they pass from the old man to the new one made perfect in Christ. This transition, which brings with it a progressive change of outlook and morals, should become evident together with its social consequences and should be gradually developed during the time of the catechumenate. Since the Lord in whom he believes is a sign of contradiction, the convert often experiences human divisions and separations, but he also tastes the joy which God gives without measure” (Vatican II, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, no. 13).
In the following pages we will reflect on these words and their implementation in the rites and prayers of the catechumenate.
The catechumenate involves discipline (19). It is accommodated to the liturgical year and enriched by celebrations of the word (19, 1). It has a paschal character, insofar as it aims at sharing in the sacramental death and rising of Christ (8). Catechumens are nourished by the church on the word of God, are helped by liturgical celebrations, and receive blessings and sacramentals (18; 19, 3). The way of the gospel is opened up, inviting the catechumens to a new beginning by acknowledgment of the living God who speaks his words of truth (76). Celebrations of the word deepen knowledge, or understanding, of the gospel (123; 131) and develop sufficient knowledge of Christian teaching (23), so that God may reveal Christ more and more with every passing day (94). Of course, private reading of, and meditation on, the Bible, as well as group Bible study, can reinforce celebrations of the word and the readings at Mass. Gradually, daily living becomes solidly rooted in God’s revealed word.
Steady nourishment on the word of God leads to “a suitable knowledge of dogmas and precepts for Christian living (19, 1). From biblical texts (not only from catechisms — even adult ones!) the catechumens should learn what they are to believe and how they are to act. The Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and the Ten Commandments epitomize this knowledge. As catechumens listen to preaching of the mystery of Christ, their hearts are opened by the Holy Spirit (1) and they come to “an intimate understanding of the mystery of salvation” (19, 1).
In paragraph 19 quoted above, it is noted that the catechumens Ore helped “by the example and support of sponsors, godparents, and the whole community.” A characteristic of the catechumenate is its communitarian quality. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults adopts this perspective immediately in its introduction: “The initiation of catechumens takes place step by step in the midst of the community of faith. Together with the catechumens, the faithful reflect upon the value of the paschal mystery, renew their own conversion, and by their example lead the catechumens to obey the Holy Spirit more generously” (4). At many points in the directives for the rites of the catechumenate this public and communal aspect of the whole process is noted (for example, 15; 16; 18; 19). Catechumens, it said, “should learn how to work actively with others to spread the Gospel and build up the Church by the testimony of their lives and the profession of their faith” (19,4). At the admission of catechumens, the presiding celebrant asks the sponsors and assembled faithful if they are “ready to help” the candidates to come to know and follow Christ (77). Also at the exorcisms in the rite of admission, the sponsors and assembly are asked about their willingness t assist the catechumens (81). A whole section in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is devoted to explaining the roles of the Christian community and particular ministers and officials in the process of initiation (41-48). The spirit of the catechumenate is far from a “save my soul” attitude but involves, rather, entering into the communal life of the church. The goal of the catechumenate is not private, but “to lead them [the catechumens] to the joy of new birth in the family of your [God’s] Church” (131; 207), that they may “one day join our community as brothers and sisters” (148).
PRAYER AND WITNESS
Prospective catechumens are expected to have “the first sense of repentance and the practice of calling on God” (15). During the catechumenate, growing familiarity with Scripture plus the help of members of the Christian community leads catechumens to learn “to pray to God more easily” (19, 2). The elect — those in the period of purification during Lent — learn in the Lord’s Prayer to acknowledge the spirit of adoption by which they will call God their Father, especially in the midst of the congregation assembled for the Eucharist (25). The risen Lord is petitioned to fill them with life by his Holy Spirit and give them faith, hope, and love, in order that they may live with him always (178) — a way of asking for continual prayer in the presence of the Lord. Catechumens are expected to join their brothers and sisters in prayer (144).
“Since the Church’s life is apostolic, catechumens should . . . learn . . . how to spread the Gospel . . . by the testimony of their lives and the profession of their faith” (19, 4). At the conclusion of the rite of acceptance into the catechumenate, a prayer asks that the candidates may “come to reflect the image of Christ” (95). One prayer of exorcism begs God to make the catechumens “children of the light and members of your holy Church to bear witness to your truth” (115). Introducing the prayer for the elect at the second scrutiny, the celebrant asks the congregation to pray that the catechumens “may offer convincing witness to the message of eternal life” (170). An exorcism prayer refers to the catechumens’ learning to witness to Christ’s resurrection (178). So, bearing witness to the gospel is part of the spiritual journey upon which catechumens venture.
The catechumenate also aims at helping catechumens “to be constant in the expectation of Christ in all things” (19, 2). What does this expression mean? It certainly contains an echo of the traditional expectation of Christ’s coming again in glory at the end of time, a theme prominent in the New Testament and also in the liturgy of Advent. But the wording here suggests that this expectation is not for some distant coming of Christ; rather, it is for the coming of Christ to be found in the everyday events of life — both good and bad. A Mother Teresa of Calcutta can see Christ in the destitute. Believers are to “follow supernatural inspiration in their deeds” (19, 2): secular humanism is not an adequate norm.
The spiritual journey begun in the catechumenate entails “a progressive change of outlook and morals” which “should become evident together with its social consequences” (19, 2). At ,the heart of this conversion is “charity towards neighbor to the point of self-renunciation” (19, 2). The celebrant prays for the godparents of the elect that they may give the catechumens a good example “by their consistent living of the Gospel, both in their personal actions and in their duties to society” (148). A prayer for the elect asks that they may strive to do what is “just” (170). So the catechumenate takes into account the impact which Christian life should have on society and thus at least implicitly speaks of the need to seek social justice.
Converts often have to endure “human divisions and separations” (19, 2). Family members may reject a person who is converted. Those whose moral development leads to conscientiousness about the social consequences of the gospel may experience these divisions and separations most acutely. Even within the parish family, tensions may arise. Issues such as race, war and peace, and ecology provoke sharp and divisive responses. But those who live by their convictions grounded in the gospel also “taste the joy which God gives without measure” (19, 2). In the words of the prayer in the rite of admission to the catechumenate, they “take up their cross, live always by its saving power, and reveal it in their lives” (87). In a prayer of exorcism, the petition is made that the catechumens “may see true happiness in poverty and hunger, in mercy and cleanness of heart” (116) — the Beatitudes. It is hoped that they may “work for peace among men and women and joyfully endure persecution” (116).
Catechumens pass “from the old man to the new one made perfect in Christ” (19, 2). The Pauline reference here is obvious. In a prayer over the elect, the Easter liturgy is looked forward to as a moment of “new birth” through “living waters” of baptism (19, 2). With “the new birth of baptism,” the catechumens will receive “life from the Holy Spirit,” according to another prayer (94). Some of the components, the virtuous activities, which make up this “life from the Spirit” are mentioned in various prayers: for example, faith, reverence, patience, hope, self-control, purity, love, and peace (114); wisdom, holiness, acceptance of God’s truth (124); fidelity and courage (147).
CONTINUING THE JOURNEY
Through the catechumenate, the “new converts set out on a spiritual journey’ (19, 2). We have seen some of the elements which go into that journey. What is important for us to realize is that the journey does not end with the sacraments of Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil, or even with the close of the period of postbaptismal catechesis at Pentecost. The journey continues. That means that pastors and pastoral teams are called to assume responsibility for assisting our continuing growth in Christian discipleship throughout life. The responsibility for that growth is ultimately ours, however. To it we are called by our baptism.
One of the most efficacious means for fostering this development is a parish’s catechumenate program which involves participation by the whole Christian community and constantly nourishes the Christian life, not only of converts, but those who have long since counted themselves followers of Jesus. Examination of the rituals and prayers involved in the catechumenate will yield other means which are helpful for lifelong growth in the Spirit of Christ, such as frequent use of Scripture, common prayer, example, mutual help, and cooperation in spreading the gospel. The rites and prayers of the catechumenate, as well as the explanations of them in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, indicate many of the qualities which should be fostered and striven for in the spiritual journey which is our Christian life. The catechumenate is indeed a model for the remainder of life’s journey in the Spirit of Christ.
- Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, nos. 6-7. Henceforth, references to this document will be in parentheses in the text and will include only the article numbers. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults can be found in The Rites of the Catholic Church (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1976), pp. 20-181.