By the time this article is published, we as a Church will have reached the halfway point in the season of Lent. This annual six-week retreat is a time for spiritual recollection in preparation of the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Because through baptism we are incorporated into the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in the liturgy and liturgical catechesis of this season, we are reminded of the baptism we have already received, and the Elect, those who are preparing for baptism, enter their final period of preparation for their reception of the Sacraments of Initiation.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults refers to this time of preparation for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, as the Period of Purification and Enlightenment because it is a time of “intense spiritual preparation … intended to purify minds and hearts of the Elect as they search their own consciences and do penance … and to enlighten the minds and hearts of the Elect with a deeper knowledge of Christ the Savior.” (RCIA, 139) Through the celebration of and reflection upon special rites known as the scrutinies, the Elect are led ever more deeply into this process of interior conversion.
What are the “scrutinies?”
The scrutinies are special rites celebrated on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent in parishes where the Elect are present. Part of the journey to the waters of baptism for these soon-to-be Christians is that they were received into the parish community through the Rite of Acceptance when they became Catechumens, and then enrolled in the Order of the Elect at the Rite of Election. Now, as they are making their way through the season of Lent and to the waters of baptism at the Easter Vigil, the scrutinies invite them into deeper self-searching and repentance.
Many Catholics are unfamiliar with the scrutinies. They may have seen some kind of ritual taking place at Mass with the Elect during Lent, but they may not have fully understood the ritual itself or what was happening in the ritual. It goes without saying that these special rites do not have the most comforting name, and furthermore, each Scrutiny even includes an exorcism. Not only does the very word “scrutiny” imply probing and a critical examination of one’s life, “exorcism” – well, let’s just say, it’s not the kind of exorcism that Hollywood thinks exorcisms look like. Despite the negative connotations, these ancient rites are profoundly rooted in our human experience and are actually quite beautiful and pastoral.
Two separate, but related, actions
In the earliest ritual books of the Church, scrutinies and exorcisms seemed to be separate actions, which were celebrated often, sometimes on a daily basis. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 215) describes the catechumens’ conduct, trades and professions as being examined thoroughly at multiples times throughout their period of preparation for baptism. After these examinations, the bishop, or in his absence, the catechist, would lay hands on each person, praying prayers of exorcism over them. The exorcisms were prayers for strength and persistence in the Christian way of life. The early Christian communities believed that because the devil is persistent and strong in his attempt to lure these aspiring Christians into sin, they must too be persistent in prayer to help the catechumens remain faithful to God through the process of conversion. These two acts were both loving acts of the Church for the Elect.
In the Rite of Christian Initiation, the scrutinies that take place at Mass on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent are intended to help the Elect to “uncover then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect” and “to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good.” (RCIA, 141) They are about the overwhelming grace of God in Christ, who helps us overcome our sinfulness. The exorcisms are not fearful moments of driving out demons, but grace-filled encounters with the Spirit’s healing touch.
Up to this point in their formation, the Elect have been instructed about the mystery of sin and everyone’s longing to be delivered from sin’s present and future consequences. They have been encouraged to identify the evils, temptations and falsehoods from which they need to be released so that they can live freely for the Kingdom of God. These falsehoods include some of today’s most powerful forces, like materialism, consumerism, sexism, racism, idolatry, malevolence, selfishness, prejudices, addictions, just to name a few. These are the cultural “demons” that can destroy our lives if we let them.
Having done this examination, an exorcism is prayed over the Elect. Through these prayers, falsehoods, blindness and the spirit of evil are renounced so that the individual might be liberated by grace from any obstacles that remain before celebrating the Sacraments of Initiation. The exorcism prayers conclude with a petition that the Elect may be strengthened to continue on their way to the waters of baptism.
One special significance of the scrutinies is that the readings for Mass on the Sundays these rites are celebrated are taken from Lectionary Cycle A, regardless of which Cycle is currently being read. This is so the Elect may be filled with Christ the Redeemer, who is living water (John 4; Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well; first scrutiny), the light of the world (John 9; Gospel of the man born blind; second scrutiny), and the resurrection and the life (John 11; Gospel of the raising of Lazarus; third scrutiny). These passages help to teach the Elect about God and the power of baptism.
In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, there are nearly 200 adults and children of catechetical age who will experience the scrutinies this Lent as they prepare for baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Let us pray for them and for one another as we all continue our Lenten journey of renewal.