Studying Christian Initiation

Earlier this month I had the great blessing of attending and participating in the annual meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions at which we joined the US Bishops Committee on Divine Worship in consultation on the National Statutes of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. If you’re scratching your head about what this potential acronym soup means, read on. If these terms are familiar you, you probably want to skip to the discussion of the meeting itself.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the title of an official ritual book of the Catholic Church which came into existence in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call that “The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps…be restored and to be taken into use at the discretion of the local ordinary” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 64). The catechumenate is not only the form of Christian initiation used in the ancient church but also that process which has, in the RCIA, been established once more as the normative means of initiating adults (and older children) into the practice of the Christian faith. “The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship…during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher.” Those in formation, whom we call catechumens, are “instructed in the mystery of salvation and in the practice of Gospel morality and [lead along this spiritual journey] by sacred rites which are to be held at successive intervals, [and thus are] introduced into the life of faith, of liturgy, and of love” (Ad Gentes 14). The RCIA as we know it was promulgated in its Latin typical (or base) edition in 1974 and an official English translation in 1983 (though earlier interim translations were already in use) which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made mandatory for adult initiation in all parishes in 1988. Accompanying this 1988 publication of the RCIA are 37 National Statutes particular to the United States as well as a number of additional rites not found in the Latin edition which parishes in the United States may use in order to meet the varied pastoral needs of individuals seeking initiation into the Christian way of life. With twenty-five years of pastoral experience and in anticipation of a revised translation of the RCIA into English (analogous to that process whereby the revised translations of the texts of Mass were promulgated in 2010), the US Bishops Committee on Divine Worship sought out a consultation with the membership of the Federation of the Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC) as to how the National Statutes could be revised in light of pastoral experience. The FDLC comprises principally directors of liturgy or worship offices of dioceses of the United States.

The annual meeting of the FDLC began with a report by Mary Gautier of CARA on the study commissioned about the implementation of the RCIA in parishes throughout the United States. The results of the survey are the first major quantitative study since the publication of Journey to the Fullness of Life (USCCB 2000). (I should also note the qualitative study by David Yamane, et al., Real Stories of Christian Initiation, Liturgical Press 2006). The report on the CARA study contained few surprises (though there were some) and largely substantiated with quantitative data the anecdotal observations of those of us with some level of responsibility for the implementation of the RCIA. Though we await the publication of the final report from CARA, chief among the observations which raised concerns for me included i) the manner in which the majority of parishes treat the RCIA not as a Rite of the Church but rather as a program of instruction for converts with a veneer of ritual action, ii) the degree to which the majority of parishes do so in a way which does not distinguish significantly between the baptized and unbaptized, iii) the shocking number of parishes which reported making recourse to conditional baptisms, iv) the near ubiquitous abbreviation of catechumenal formation of the unbaptized to fewer than six months and a total predetermined structure not much greater in length, and v) not infrequent disregard of the RCIA for use with children of catechetical age.

In response to the report on the survey both Fr. Ron Lewinski and Fr. Paul Turner gave prepared remarks. Fr. Paul Turner has made his presentation, myRCIA, available on his website. In light of the data and these pastoral theological reflections, the membership of the FDLC together with other consultors was then lead through a process of reading and commenting on each of the 37 National Statutes which govern such matters as timing and duration of formation, adaptations which may be made by the bishop or minister of the sacraments, and so forth. Recommendations included principally the simplification of the statutes, their insertion into the main body of the praenotanda or ritual text (or at least inline cross referencing), and clarification of vocabulary. More substantive revision was called for regarding the use of the Combined Rites, those US adaptations that are often used apart from the original pastoral situations for which they were developed and thus have lead to widespread conflation of those seeking initiation into the Christian way of life (catechumens) with fellow Christians seeking either the completion of their initiation (uncatechized) or admission/reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church (admittandi). Among the additional consultors were nearly forty former team members of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate many of whom I had learned from and served with during my brief time as a Forum team member before the organization’s closure. It was a wonderful blessing to have included in this consultation the pastoral insights of those who have labored tirelessly for the full implementation of the RCIA in every parish in the United States and Canada. A touching tribute video prepared by LTP honored the work of Forum, its founder and priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, James Dunning, and was a paschal/cathartic experience for many of us.

In addition to important work done on the National Statutes of the RCIA at this meeting, the annual FDLC meeting is also an important occasion to pray together the Liturgy of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Eucharist which included a pilgrimage to the neoclassical Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus where my Archbishop, J. Peter Sartain, served as Bishop of Joliet from 2006 until his appointment as Archbishop of Seattle in 2010. I also took advantage of being in Lombard to visit and stay two nights at the nearby Saint Procopius Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks founded in 1885 to serve the Czech and Slovak immigrant communities, in Lisle. Saint Procopius Abbey is also the community of which the Servant of God Dorothy Day was an oblate, an experience which grounded her labora for the common good in the discipline of ora. It was wonderful to share the hospitality and prayer of the community in their modernist abbey designed by Edward Dart.

As if standing in a key turning point, before heading off to Chicago for the FDLC meeting, I was invited to present on the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to a large group of catechumenal ministers in Sacramento as part of their Ministry Days; and on my return home I worked with a small group just getting started with RICA in Spanish at a parish in my own archdiocese, lead members of our archdiocesan Christian Initiation Committee through a review of the National Statutes, and have found myself called to be part of the Christian initiation team as a dismissal leader at my home parish. Finally, one month from now I am excited to welcome more than 120 ministers of Christian initiation from around the archdiocese and beyond to a TeamRCIA training my office is hosting on conjunction with Seattle University Campus Ministry. The work, it seems, has just begun as we take up Pope Francis’ invitation to go out of ourselves and invite others to encounter Christ so that they may likewise share in the joy of Gospel and become missionary disciples themselves.

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