Catechumenate -- Where Is the Content?

October 08, 2008

Editor's Note:  This article was first published in the FORUM Newsletter 23:3/24:1 (Winter 2006/Spring 2007) and is reprinted here with permission.


FontThere is a kind of crisis of confidence among some Church leaders today over questions surrounding the “content” of our beloved faith. Do the members of the Church know this content? Are we passing it on to those being nurtured in our Catholic faith tradition? Questions like these are being asked as well of the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in our diocese and parishes. Are our newcomers to faith receiving the fullness of Catholic teaching in the Catechumenate? How can the Catechism help achieve this goal?

These are good and critical questions to ask of ourselves as we begin the second generation of labor in the remarkable vineyard of adult initiation (including children of catechetical age!). How we frame these concerns is as important as the answers we seek. Is the framework found in the principles articulated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and the related liturgical and catechetical documents of the Church? Are these principles the bedrock of our pastoral practice in both parish and diocese?

From the outset of the decision by our bishops at the Second Vatican Council to restore the Catechumenate, it was explicitly envisioned as a form of “apprenticeship” in the Christian way of life (see Decree on Missionary Activity Ad gentes, no. 14). Such an apprenticeship entails several critical elements. These are elaborated in paragraph 75 of the Rite and further treated in the General Directory for Catechesis (see, for example, GDC, nos. 67, 68, 91). The four elements can be summarized as Word, Liturgy, the life of the Catholic community of faith, and that community’s apostolic witness and service. To leave out any one of these elements is not to form these newcomers in the fullness of the Catholic teaching and the way of life that embodies that teaching.

This apprenticeship is formation in a whole way of life (see RCIA, no. 76), central to which are the teachings of Christ as handed on by and actively lived in the Church. A principal concern of paragraph 75 is that the catechesis experienced by catechumens be “accommodated to the liturgical year,” expressed elsewhere as “The catechists should see that their teaching is filled with the Spirit of the Gospel, adapted to the liturgical signs and the cycle of the Church’s year…” (RCIA, no. 16). The term “lectionary-based catechesis” was one way of trying to capture what the Rite means by this. We do not use this term as much in Forum now since it is easily misunderstood as being just about Scripture.

pull textThe formation of catechumens is to be fundamentally liturgical, and the liturgical year is the primary vehicle for this. Central to the cycle of seasons and feasts of the liturgical year is the Sunday Eucharist. And it is the first two parts of the Sunday Eucharist, the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word, that constitute the recurring way in which catechumens experience that formation in the midst of the community of faith (this part of the Mass was formerly titled “Mass of the Catechumens”). Note that this is a liturgy, at the heart of which is the Lectionary. Note too that the Lectionary is not simply Scripture, but the embodiment of the Catholic understanding of Word, that is, Scripture AND Tradition (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 97). The Lectionary is in effect the ancient ordering of Scripture precisely for the purpose of making new Christians and remaking them each year through the annual cycle of the Church’s celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

It is the whole mystery of Christ that Christians are formed. This is why the U.S. bishops’ National Statutes insist that the Period of the Catechumenate alone span one full liturgical year, by means of which “A thoroughly comprehensive catechesis on the truths of Catholic doctrine and moral life…is provided” (see RCIA, U.S. National Statutes 6 and 7). As the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar make clear, it is over the course of one full liturgical year that the Paschal Mystery of the Lord is unfolded (see GNLYC, no. 17). This is the living mystery that the catechumens are progressively immersed in. It is formation in the whole of this mystery that the Church has in mind when it uses the terms of “suitable,” “comprehensive,” “appropriate,” and “systematic” in reference to the teaching that catechumens receive. Anything less will not do.

If one uses the whole year and its rich cycle of prayers and carefully ordered proclamation and preaching of the Scripture, the full, conversion-driven, systematic formation of catechumens in the Catholic faith is more than possible. This experience of the Liturgy of the Word, along with the weekly Introductory Rites of the Mass that precede it and gather the catechumens and faithful together, provides the basis for all four elements of para. 75. This is not to the exclusion of other experiences of the Word, as the Rite correctly insists. But is it through this weekly experience and its seasonal ordering that the life of the community is refracted and the impetus for apostolic witness and service is concretely experienced and understood. The Sunday Liturgy of the Word is thus no exhausted in the initial breaking open of the word and the subsequent extended, doctrinal catechesis with the catechumens. Rather, this liturgical experience is savored and given concrete doctrinal application by the experience of each parish and the witness and service that it is engaged in week by week because of that very liturgical experience (“Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord”).

When we use all four elements of para. 75 to form our newcomers in the Catholic way of life, all of the central doctrines of the faith will inevitably be taught by a conscientious community and its leaders. All is grist for this apprenticeship in the Lord in the midst of the Lord’s Body, the Church. A baptismcatechist immersed in the Catechism will know how to bring the doctrine to bear seamlessly, in the context of her or his community’s experience of living the faith, an experience that brings all of us weekly to Sunday Mass and impels to go faithfully from it to live the Paschal Mystery of our Lord.

This full and rounded vision of formation is nothing less than a recovery of the ancient Catholic way of making Christians. This is what the General Directory for Catechesis means when it refers to the baptismal catechumenate as the inspiration for all of the Church’s labor of catechesis (see GDC, no. 68). The liturgy, meaning the whole liturgical year and all its parts, grew out of the experience of our ancestors in faith as they labored to learn how effectively to make Christians and then help them go ever more deeply into life in Christ as they live the faith. This is not to say that it is easy to learn again how to form our apprentice Christians in this fuller, more comprehensive way. Much is still to be learned after the intervening centuries in which we lost this ancient and holistic approach to formation. Let us hope that our parishes and dioceses will remain faithful to this vision and keep working courageously at it until it becomes inseparable from our way of life once again. The Lord and those whom the Lord has called deserve nothing less. We have just begun!

Jim Schellman is the Executive Director of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, Washington, D.C.

Photo credits:  Paul Covino (photo 1) and Timothy Prahlow (photo 2).

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