My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
One of the gifts given to us by the Second Vatican Council was the institution of the new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Prior to the Council, converts were brought into the Church individually by priests who usually had individual instruction sessions with them. They could be baptized at any time of the year when the priest thought they would be ready. Gradually, however, the Church began to better understand the history of Christian initiation and the new rite, the RCIA, was born. It has been a great innovation since now the work of bringing people to the faith not only relies on priests, but also relies on the community. The new converts, those who are completing the sacraments of initiation, are assisted by the whole community of the Church.
The RCIA has four parts, or periods. The first – the Period of Evangelization and Pre-catechumenate – is the time during which the inquirer searches for some knowledge of Christ and the Church. Usually, it is the members of the parish community who help the inquirer who comes to desire entrance into the Church. Perhaps it is a spouse to be, some other family member or some friend who invites the person to consider becoming a Catholic. During the period, the person may be called a catechumen; one who is seeking to know the faith.
The Period of the Catechumenate itself can last for many years. In the history of the Church, this period lasted sometimes for 15 or 20 years before a person embraced the faith and the community was sure that the person would not fall back into some type of pagan worship. Today, the period of the catechumenate is actually lessened with the hope that with modern means of learning, the catechumen can come to understand his or her commitment to the life of the Church. The Rite of Election takes place at the end of this Period of Catechumenate.
The Period of Purification and Enlightenment is a time just before the Easter Vigil when the catechumen will intensify his or her efforts for preparation for baptism and the sacraments of initiation by assisting at prayer services, perhaps making a retreat, and by making a period of more intense study and spiritual development.
After participation at the Easter Vigil and reception of the Sacraments of Initiation, the Period of Post-Baptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy begins. Mystagogy is a word that connotes continuing catechesis. The newly “minted” Catholics continue to learn more about the faith and share with the rest of the parishioners their experience of the Easter Vigil. How has their life changed? How are they committed to deepening their faith in Jesus Christ? This period lasts until at least Pentecost, but in reality, it lasts for the rest of the person’s life.
The Sacraments of Initiation, when all is said and done, are an encounter with Jesus Christ. That encounter is not a momentary event. It is a life-long living in the grace of Jesus Christ.
By our baptism, each one of us is expected to participate in these various periods outlined in the RCIA. We are a community that accepts the new converts who are also completing the Sacraments of Initiation. It is by our word, prayer, and example that we lead these neophytes, new members of the Church, to a deeper union with Christ and His Church. The RCIA process is necessarily both an individual and a parish responsibility. The person needs to be welcomed into the Church. A welcoming community can make all the difference in the life of the new convert regarding their continued participation in the life of the Church.
During the past 18 months or so, the pastors and parish RCIA coordinators have been given opportunities to learn more about RCIA. The Department of Adult Faith Formation, within the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis, under the direction of Joann Roa, worked with parish leaders to create and form RCIA teams that organize the local RCIA process and monitor the progress of the catechumens and candidates.
Learning the faith is a process both of conversion of heart and an expansion of mind and intellect regarding the teaching of the Church. I have asked for a curriculum to be developed that covers most of the important aspects of our faith. We have suggested the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the UCAT, which is an abridged version of the Catechism, as the ideal texts, but they cannot be absorbed all at once. At the same time, liturgical ceremonies are part and parcel of the initiation process. This happens especially during Lent when each step of the process is witnessed by the whole community of faith during the Sunday Eucharist.
The third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent are dedicated to celebrating the initiation rites, called Scrutinies. These rites ask the elect to examine their lives and consider their readiness to receive the sacraments. They also remind those assembled at Mass of the need to examine their lives as well.
This year, we have changed the format of the Rite of Election, since we have separated the Election for Catechumens, which I will celebrate in a non-Eucharistic ceremony in the auditorium at the former Bishop Ford H.S. Four hundred twenty-one people will be initiated. Those who are candidates for full initiation into the Church will go to parishes throughout Brooklyn and Queens. Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto will preside at the Rite of Calling Candidates to Continuing Conversion at the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston. Bishop Neil Tiedemann will preside at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Flatlands, while Bishop Witold Mroziewski will be at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, Jamaica.
On Saturday, Feb. 17, Bishop Octavio Cisneros will celebrate the Rite of Election Adapted for Children at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, for 127 children.
Many of those brought into the Church at the Easter Vigil tell us that the Period of the Catechumenate was too brief; there was not enough time to learn about the Faith in a comprehensive way. That period should last at least 18 to 24 months. Trying to learn the faith from September to March for an April baptism is not the way we should initiate people into a life-long commitment. There is a difference for those who are participating in the Rite of Calling Candidates to Continuing Conversion or into full initiation, which can be a shorter period, since the person may have had previous catechesis or at least comes from a practicing Catholic family.
The Period of Post Baptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy is a time of adjustment for those who just entered the Church or those who are fully initiated. It is during this time that those in the parish work to integrate these new members into parish life. Our diocese invites the new members and their family members and members of the parish community to a Mass of the Neophytes, or the newly initiated candidates, that I will celebrate on Saturday, May 5, at Our Lady of Grace Church, Howard Beach. Following Mass, the participants and others eat lunch together and attend a presentation.
Due to the lengthening of the Period of the Catechumenate, our expectation was that fewer catechumens would participate in the Rite of Election on Sunday, Feb. 18. We were pleasantly surprised, however, to know that 421 catechumens have already been identified for entrance into the Church at this year’s Easter Vigil. Along with the candidates, as of Feb. 12, our total number of catechumens and candidates is 1,016.
We look forward to Easter as these newly baptized and fully initiated candidates put out into the deep for the rest of their lives. Please join me in prayer for these Catholics who embark on a journey that will lead them not only to baptism and full initiation, but also to the joys promised by those who are incorporated into Jesus.