March 16, 2007

Go and Make Disciples / Charles Gardner

RCIA: A journey, not a program

(Editor’s note: Charles Gardner is filling in for John Valenti this month.)

Since its introduction more than 20 years ago, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has gradually changed our notion of how people “become Catholic.”

For many, however, it is still a matter of participating in a number of classes or in a program that is roughly equivalent to a school year.

But if the heart of our initiation practice were a class or a program, we would call it “CCIA” or “PCIA.” “Rite” stands for a whole process of doing and becoming something radically different, or more precisely, becoming gradually formed into the image of Jesus Christ.

Besides the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil itself, this is nowhere more evident than at the Rite of Election celebrated at the beginning of Lent. We have nearly filled the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul for three or four celebrations for years.

Catechumens gather from parishes throughout the archdiocese along with their sponsors, catechist and families to pray and listen to the Word of God under the leadership of the archbishop. Then, in the name of God and the whole Church, he “chooses” the catechumens to become members of “the elect,” to be reborn in baptism, sealed with the Holy Spirit and nourished at the Table of Life.

The archbishop also welcomes and calls to continuing conversion those baptized candidates who have been journeying with the catechumens and who look forward to joining in full communion with the Catholic Church.

As people gather, there is a sense of excitement. Most of the catechumens and candidates have never been to the cathedral or seen the archbishop. As the liturgy begins with song, some of them are a bit overwhelmed, but their sponsors and family members encourage them to enter into the celebration of the Word, responding to the psalmist and acclaiming the solemn proclamation of the Gospel.

After the archbishop preaches the homily, representatives of the various parishes read the name of each catechumen from the “Book of the Elect.”

One by one, they come forward to stand before the archbishop until there is a great crowd surrounding the altar. After questioning the catechists and sponsors, the archbishop invites all present to show their support for the catechumens.

Then the archbishop comes to the high point of the rite. Moving closer to the catechumens and to the books that contain their names, he asks them, “Do you wish to enter fully into the life of the Church through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist?”

They respond, “We do!”

The archbishop then joyfully proclaims: “Since you have offered your names for enrollment in these books, I now declare you to be members of the elect, to be initiated into the sacred mysteries at the coming Easter vigil!”

“Blessed be God who calls you by name,” the assembly acclaims, “holy and chosen ones!”

After a similar ritual with the candidates for full communion, the celebration concludes with intercessory prayers, the archbishop’s blessing and song.

The catechumens who return to their parishes and homes are not the same as when they entered the cathedral. They are now members of the elect, ready to enter the Lenten period of “purification and enlightenment” as they resume their initiation journey.

(Charles Gardner is archdiocesan director of Liturgical Music and executive director for Spiritual Life and Worship.) †

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