Previously, I wrote about the big paradigm shift caused by the Second Vatican Council. To understand the impact of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, we have to first of all realize the overall goal of the Second Vatican Council was to turn the pyramid upside down.
Flowing from the upside-down-pyramid model, we received from the council a new model of initiation. Just as the upside-down-pyramid model is a return to the model of the early church, the council also called for a restoration of the catechumenate, which is a model of initiation that depends upon the active involvement of the whole parish community.
When our model of initiation relies on active community involvement, several other paradigm shifts occur. In Augustine and the Catechumenate, William Harmless, SJ, outlines what these shifts are. For some of us, these shifts are new information. For others, they are a reminder of what we know we should do but haven’t yet implemented. And for others, they are an inspiring confirmation that we are on the right path.
RCIA: A radical vision of conversion
At the heart of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a radical vision. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, “radical” meant some kind of over-throw, possibly violent, by an extreme fringe. But an older meaning of radical is “from the root.” The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is radical in that it is a return to our roots. And at the very root of our initiation practice is conversion.
Harmless says that placing conversion at the heart of our process enacts a vision “which reshapes community roles, which radically redefines the meaning of catechesis, and which sees baptism as the taproot and catalyst for life-long transformation” (9).
RCIA requires a shift to public witness
The first shift in our practice is a reversal of private initiation. I have relatives who baptized their children in their homes. It was trendy in the 1970s to invite your favorite priest and a few friends over for brunch and hold a private ceremony. And for centuries, adults seeking baptism were catechized in private by a priest and baptized in a semi-private ritual in the church vestibule.
But conversion cannot be private. We are not promising to know and follow the rules. We are promising to be missionary disciples. Our conversion is to a person and to the mission that person left us. Our baptism is a vocation to be public witnesses to the good news that Jesus saves.
The first step toward baptism is the celebration of the Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. The RCIA says this rite is “of the utmost importance” (41). It is the first time the parish as a whole meets the seekers and promises to accompany them. The RCIA describes this rite as one that “manifests [the seekers’] desire publicly” (41).
This willingness to stand up publicly for faith is a criterion for readiness for becoming a catechumen. The seekers don’t have to be very good at being public witnesses yet. They just have to have enough desire and courage to stand before the community and say out loud what they seek from God and the church.
During the period of the catechumenate, they will grow in strength and skill as they “learn how to work actively with others to spread the Gospel and build up the Church by the witness of their lives” (RCIA 75.4).
I have heard of parishes that privatize the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens or, worse, forgo it. Candidates for baptism are to be public persons and are obligated to witness publicly to their conversion to Jesus Christ.
RCIA requires the ministry of the baptismal priesthood
When I was growing up, the church was made up of priests and laity (“not priests”). It wasn’t until I was in college, in the late 1970s, that I read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I remember standing in the stacks of a library and almost at random pulling down a copy of the documents off the shelf. I lost track of time as I stood there reading. I was struck by the image of church and how different it was from the image I had grown up with.
I learned that day that all the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ. Truly, the ordained, ministerial priesthood is essential to the mission of the church. But just as essential is the royal, baptismal priesthood. In fact, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the mission of the baptismal priesthood (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1120).
As I wrote previously, this is a completely upside down understanding of church from the time before the council. What the council made crystal clear is that Jesus commissioned all his disciples, without distinction, to lead a life of holiness for the sake of bringing good news to everyone in the world (see Constitution on the Church, 40).
The ordained pastor is the official shepherd of the initiation process, but he does not accomplish initiation on his own. The RCIA recovers an ancient understanding that it is the entire baptismal priesthood, striving for holiness and living in Christian community, that is responsible for initiation. This means that among our parishioners there must be adequate numbers of us living a holy life. We must find the “master Christians.” Note, this is not the same as master theologians. A master Christian is one who knows how to pray, serve, accompany, repent, forgive, fast, celebrate, break bread, and tell a few stories. We tap these master Christians to serve as sponsors, catechists, evangelists, healers, spiritual directors, and companions on the way.
We fall short of the church’s vision, however, when we confine the ministry of initiation to an elite few and ask them to provide lectures, handouts, and videos. That is a regression to an image of church that identifies only some of us as “holy.”
Initiation is always an act of immersion into the full Body of Christ in all of its manifestations. Harmless writes:
Put another way, the RCIA calls the Church to see and to be what it is: the people of God sent on a world-shaking and world-transforming mission—evangelizing, witnessing, teaching, serving, healing, dying to self and rising to new life. (11)
Harmless discusses many other paradigm shifts caused by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. We’ll cover those in future posts.
What shifts have you seen in your parish as a result of the RCIA? Which shifts are you still looking forwar to seeing in your parish? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This post is part of a series on the paradigm shifts that flow from the Second Vatican Council and the restoration of the catechumenate. Click here to see other posts in the series.
2 thoughts on “RCIA requires big paradigm shifts, starting with these two”
Nick and Diana – these last few pieces you have sent out about the paadigm shift That Vat ll called for in the way we view church and how that is fleshed out in catechumenate catechesis were pleasure to read and very well done. Keep them coming.
One motivation for the Vatican II bishops was the realization that ours is an increasingly secular society, as in the 4th Century. The bishops from western Europe were very aware of this as they saw empty and closing churches happening in the 50’s and 60’s, long before we began to witness such things in the United States. They realized that we need to form Christians who are committed to their faith as were those of the 4th Century, who are zealots as Jesus was a zealot. Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is pertinent.