On the Third Sunday of Advent, I went to a church where a friend of mine is the pastor. I arrived a few minutes late, and I was surprised the liturgy hadn’t started yet. The Mass was being celebrated in the church basement because the church itself was being renovated. And the renovation was four months behind schedule.
My friend, still not vested and obviously stressed, gave me a quick fist bump and went back to fiddling with the iPhone that was going to livestream the liturgy. Turns out, the plan had been to use two iPhones to get two different camera angles for the livestream. And that had overwhelmed the WiFi system. Oh, and there was more, but you get the picture. Not a great start to the Sunday of Joy.
Incredibly, he still preached about joy. While his face was distinctly not joyful, you could tell that he had joy in his heart. Because he knew, as bad as things started out that morning, we all have reason to be joyful.
The catechumenate and The Joy of the Gospel
In the first lines of the encyclical, Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis tells why this is so:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.
I don’t know if it is my advancing age or the chaos of living in pandemic or the result of having celebrated Advent every year since I was in my mother’s womb, but I am more conscious than ever of those who do not know what you and I and my friend who is the pastor knows — joy fills all of us who have been converted to Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis speaks of this in the same letter:
If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. (49)
Our job as Christians — and especially as Christians who serve in the ministry of initiation — is to tell those who don’t yet know that they can live in strength, light, and consolation. They can live within a community that supports them. They can live a life filled with meaning. In short, they, like us, can be filled with joy.
Seeking the living God
This is why conversion is so important and why the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults is fundamentally a conversion process. The first sentence of the rite tells us this. In the new translation, it will likely read:
The Order of Christian Initiation described below is designed for adults who, upon hearing the proclamation of the mystery of Christ as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts, consciously and freely seek the living God and undertake the journey of faith and conversion. (1)
Most of us have been on “the journey of faith and conversion” for a long time — some of us, our whole lives. It can be difficult to imagine what it is like to not have the “strength, light, and consolation” that results from our conversion.
But there are billions of people who have never experienced life that way. There are probably thousands of people right in your own neighborhood who are living a life a desolation. That is why the first period of the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults is focused on evangelization. The new translation describes the period of evangelization this way:
Although the Order of Initiation begins with admission into the catechumenate, the period that precedes it, the “precatechumenate,” is of great importance and should not normally be omitted.
For within it takes place that evangelization
in which the living God is confidently and constantly proclaimed.
together with the one whom he sent for the salvation of all, Jesus Christ, so that,
as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts,
non-Christians may be freely converted to the Lord as believers
and sincerely hold fast to him who,
since he is the way, the truth and the life,
fulfills all their spiritual expectations, and indeed infinitely surpasses them. (36)
When does the catechumenate really begin?
That last sentence is key. What conversion to Jesus Christ offers those who are not Christian is not just fulfillment of all they expect, but a surplus of gifts that infinitely surpasses anything they could ever imagine
That is why we are never without joy. For a Christian, our darkest day is still a day filled with light and hope. Our loneliest moment is still a time when we are encircled by the communion of saints. Our greatest fear is always quelled by greater peace.
As Pope Francis said, those who are converted to Jesus Christ are “free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.”
The Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults doesn’t begin with the Rite of Acceptance. It doesn’t even begin when someone approaches the parish and asks how to become Catholic.
The catechumenate process begins when we start off with a really awful, frustrating, stressful day and in the midst of all that we still go out into the world and preach joy. That is how we invite others onto the journey of faith and conversion.
Is your parish a place of joy? Your parish’s formation program? Does that joy spread out into the community around you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.