A Lifetime of Living the Sacraments by Beverly Brazauskas

This article was originally published in the January 1988 edition of Religion Teacher’s Journal, but has a lot to say about the formation of Catholics today—Ed.

During the past 20 years change has been the name of the game in religious education. Memorization went out, praxis came in; classrooms of 20 and 30 children went out, intimate smaller groups came in; “discipline” and regimentation went out, loving and supportive communities came in; indoctrination went out, catechesis came in. No matter what one believes about the direction and/or status of Christian formation in the United States today, no one can deny that there has been a great deal of upheaval.

As with so much of the renewal prompted by the Second Vatican Council, religious education has been challenged not only by theology but by psychology, sociology, education, and other related fields. Some challenges resulted only in baby steps and simple changes, while others called forth major metamorphoses.

One such challenge is the invitation presented by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This rite, if studied in its entirety, calls upon us to reevaluate the process of initiation of all people. More specifically, the process described in the rite has called for a scrutiny of all sacramental preparation, of catechetical formation, of liturgical celebration, and of ministry itself. In essence, it asks the question: “Into what are we initiating these people, be they infants, children, young adults or adults?” It also implicitly challenges us, in our sacramental preparation programs in particular, to stop putting time lines on faith.

A Universal Model

Although the title of the RCIA suggests that it is designed to initiate unbaptized adults, the rite actually provides a model of formation for all catechetical ministry. The National Catechetical Directory (NCD) states: “The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults provides a norm for catechetical as well as liturgical practice” (article 115). In other words, if the RCIA calls for four stages of development with varied ministries and liturgical celebrations, should not the formation of all other people, particularly the young, follow the same model?

Some of the changes we have experienced during the past 20 years have made it possible for children to do things they have not done previously. We have all witnessed children called to serve others in many ways. We have had the Word of God proclaimed to us at liturgy by children, and we have seen them take other active roles in the liturgy. But having children involved isn’t enough. The NCD offers the following guideline:

It is “adult” Christians who are capable of mature faith, and whose lives exemplify gospel values to the young members of the Christian community and the rest of society. They strongly influence the way in which children and catechumens perceive faith. It is essential that they express gospel values by living with the hope and joy that comes with faith (article 40).

Step back for a moment and look at what is happening. What are our children experiencing as their faith community? Is “church” something to grow out of, or is it something they eagerly anticipate being part of? Is a witnessing of an adult faith community—which is presumed in the process of Christian Initiation of Adults—a vital part of youth initiation?

Those children who are baptized as infants spend the next several years being initiated into the Christian community. Who are their sponsors? How do liturgical celebrations coincide with their catechetical formation and faith development? Is the faith community there to guide them and answer their questions when they begin to ask them, as in their teen years? Are our young people learning to integrate faith values with life experiences?

We can honestly say “yes” to some of these questions, some of the time. But as religious educators, the RCIA demands that we step back and look at the broader picture: Are our children moving toward becoming adult members of their faith community? It is sad when children begin to consider certain ministries, particular styles of prayers, and specific service-oriented activities as something for the “little guys.”

How often do families gather at their main meal and the parents ask the children to thank God for a special gift they received during the day, while they themselves remain silent? The lesson learned by example here is that once you are an adult there is no need to be grateful. In confirmation preparation the candidates are encouraged to complete a service project based on the recognition of his or her own talents, and the readiness to offer that talent for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Is this considered as a requirement for the sacrament—as a passing grade in school is for graduation? Or do young people see their parents and other significant adults also doing service?

The Directory for Masses with Children makes it clear that basic Christian values should be learned in our early years. However, it also suggests that these values are “caught” rather than “taught.” The Canadian bishops describe the role of the parish in the formation of young Christians like this:

If young people are to learn to know Christ, they need to experience a friendly and encouraging community which gives them some examples as people who live as true Christians. Young people need to be with those who have Christian values; the need the experience of honoring Christ as a person, and the support of a community of Christians who seriously commit themselves to Jesus and his Gospel.

What Can Catechists Do?

Above all, read, study and reflect on the RCIA, and take the example of Jesus’ ministry to children. Several years ago I heard someone say: “Jesus taught adults and played with children, today we teach children and play with adults!” Which model do you and your parish use? Parish catechetical teams are beginning to ask questions, “Into what are we initiating our young people?” and “Who are the sponsors of faith in this community?” Are you really initiating young people into an adult community of faith, or are you preparing them instead for graduation?

How does a parish and how do catechists attain such a lofty goal? Essential to its success is the need for parish personnel to commit themselves to full implementation of the RCIA. Instead of thinking of ways of applying the process to other catechetical activities, the local church needs to take this rite seriously in and of itself, and make it become a vital part of parish life. Some theologians, liturgists, and educators have identified the RCIA as one of the most important products of the Second Vatican Council.

Anyone who has read and studied the rite knows that it is not the actual document but the implications and applications of it that are so radical. It shifts the focus of catechetical formation from being child-and-knowledge-centered to being adult-and-faith-centered. For this reason any adaptation of the rite that has failed to recognize the need for an adult faith community will fall short of its goal.

Parish personnel—staff, councils and committees—all need to be involved in the process of adult initiation. Catechumens have the right to experience the faith community, or lack of it. They need to see the faith community in action, hear its concerns and witness its decisions. Then, and only then, will our efforts in applying these same principles to our youth initiation and formation bear fruit.

The four stages outlines in the RCIA are four realities that are on-going in parish life. The Pre-catechumenate allows for an inquirer to be able to seek answers from members of the community. Is the faith community sharing its stories, does it openly welcome the stranger into its midst?

Does the formation of Christians involve a “being with” the candidates as prescribed by the Catechumenate, as well as providing them with the basic knowledge of the church’s tradition? This period of time is best described as an internship. This “being with” is essential to both our youth and adult initiation.

Does the liturgical year provide the basis for a spiritual journey (Purification and Enlightenment) through the year? Lent is similar to a yearly retreat. Do our parish activities have a different tone during this retreat period or does business go on as usual? Does the community experience a shift in focus during this renewal period in order to prepare them for their baptismal renewal at Easter?

And finally, perhaps the most neglected part of the process, does our sacramental preparation end with the celebration? The fourth stage of initiation, Mystagogia and Ministries, suggests that the formation should continue and deepen. Does the baptism program provide a follow up session or sessions? Do children who share in confirmation, Eucharist and/or reconciliation continue their process in order to look more deeply at the mystery into which they have been initiated? What is the dimension of our youth ministry? Wouldn’t it be great if once a young person has been initiated into the community he/she could and would eagerly embrace an adult ministry in the parish?

In the process of understanding and implementing the RCIA one needs to keep the RCIA in its proper focus:

  • The RCIA should not be tamed or diverted from its primary focus of initiating new Catholics. It should not become just another instrument of adult education or updating. That should be a separate, though related track.
  • The RCIA process, however, can be a norm for evaluating ingredients of that second track and for other efforts at total parish renewal.

The NCD tells us that “through these visible (Christian Initiation) actions a person is incorporated in the Church and shares its mission” (article 115). Catechetical leaders need to address both dimensions of this statement. As fully initiated members of the church, the adult faith community has the mandate to be a visible sign of sharing the church’s mission. All the directives for the three sacraments of initiation refer to the RCIA as their model. Therefore, DREs and catechists need to study and begin to implement the fullness of that rite. The NCD continues:

The intimate relationship of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist should be emphasized in the catechesis of both adults and children. Such catechesis will involve many members of the parish community who support and pray with the catechized, besides instructing them so that they may grow in understanding of the Christian message (article 115).

If the RCIA is implemented and taken seriously, the whole community will be called to a deeper conversion and a fuller participation in the mystery of the church. The question of initiation or graduation will disappear. There will be no need to ask, “Into what are we initiating our young people?” because the visible reality of a living, vibrant faith community will speak for itself. ♦

Beverly Brazauskas, presently president of the board of Today’s American Catholic, was a pastoral associate/DRE at St. Matthew Parish in Tolland, Connecticut, for 11 years and then at Sacred Heart Parish at Notre Dame, Indiana, for 6 more years. She worked for the diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend for an additional year.

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