When Dorothy, her dog Toto and their three new friends finally reach the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz,” Toto pulls back the curtain on the mysterious and feared Wizard, exposing that he was operating a machine that projects this powerful voice and ghostly face, and finds that the Wizard is just an ordinary man from Kansas, too.
For my nearly 25 years in liturgical ministry, I have found that many people don’t fully understand one of my greatest passions: the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. As a result, they find it overwhelming and in turn, they miss the beauty that it contains. May this month’s column pull back the curtain on this great and powerful ritual text.
A Process, Not a Program
First and foremost, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a liturgical rite, which outlines a gradual process for calling adults to a conversion of mind and heart, while preparing them for initiation into the Church. During this process, adults and children of catechetical age (7 years old and older) participate in liturgical rites that both mark the progress of their journey to the waters of Baptism and form them more deeply by God’s grace. The culmination of their experience — of this ritual process — is the celebration of the three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
Our process of welcoming new Christians is as old as the Church herself. It follows the ancient way of the early Church, as evidenced in writings and artifacts from the early Christians in Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. At that time, most people practiced the official religion of the Roman Empire, paying homage to pagan gods; however, as people were gradually attracted to the Christian way of life, the Church had to develop a way of forming, catechizing and baptizing new Christians. They called this process the “catechumenate,” and those who participated in this process “catechumens.” St. Augustine wrote in his “Confessions” that once he became a catechumen as a child, he was repeatedly signed with the cross by those who journeyed with him in his process of conversion. Today, this ritual signing with the cross is an essential part of the Rite of Acceptance, the first major liturgical rite of the catechumenal process.
During the Rite of Acceptance, individuals who are interested in becoming Christian and wish to deepen their journey of faith became “catechumens.” In the early Church, this period of time lasted for three years; however, today the Church requires one full year, during which catechumens will receive catechesis and formation accommodated to the liturgical year, participate in celebrations of the Word of God and be taught how to give witness to the Gospel in their daily lives. This mirrors the process of the early Church when catechumens were instructed by the bishop in the context of liturgy and, accompanied by their sponsors, they gradually learned the Christian way of life.
After this year of formation and catechesis is complete, Catechumens are then brought before the bishop to be “elected,” or chosen, for the sacraments of initiation at Easter. This liturgical celebration is called the Rite of Election, and it always coincides with the beginning of the season of Lent. It also marks the beginning of the final period of preparation before the sacraments of initiation, a phase known as the period of purification and enlightenment. During this intense time of spiritual formation, individuals are ritually handed the traditions of our faith, with specific rituals for the presentation of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.
In the early Church during this time, catechumens met every morning in the church, where the bishop sat in his chair and instructed them for hours on topics related to scripture and morality. It was such a fruitful experience for Catechumens that eventually, all the baptized were encouraged to participate, and we see the beginning of the season of Lent.
Today, we celebrate the Easter Vigil much as our ancestors did. The assembly kept vigil in the church throughout the night, awaiting the Lord’s Resurrection. While it was still dark, candidates for Baptism were led to the baptistery — usually a round or octagonal building near the church. In North Africa, Tertullian wrote that, at Baptism, a person renounced sin, proclaimed their faith in the Triune God and was immersed three times in the font — as is done today when a person was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the weeks during the season of Easter, new Christians further reflected on their ritual experience as a means of post-baptismal catechesis, a period known as the period of mystagogy. Fourth century Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem spent all of Easter in mystagogy, unfolding the meaning of Baptism to the newly baptized, just as we do today. The early Church had a genius for teaching about Baptism in artistic and poetic ways.
These ancient roots dating back to the early Church were restored after the Second Vatican Council by reestablishing the vision for how Christian initiation is to take place in parish life. The goal of this process is to bring people into a relationship with Christ and the Church. It is initiation into “the mission of the entire people of God in the Church and in the world.” If we begin with this goal in mind, then RCIA is not an overwhelming or confusing program, has no beginning or ending point, and is a sacramental formation process, guided by the liturgical and communal life of the parish. Centered on fostering a deep relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church, this spiritual journey is a continuing journey of personal conversion through immersion in Holy Scripture, authentic preaching, sound catechesis, spiritual enrichment, personal prayer and liturgical participation.