We met in Vienna over the bank holiday weekend. As Caroline previously reported there were over 70 participants from 22 countries stretching from Moldovia on the Black Sea coast to Portugal on the Atlantic; Sweden in the north to Sicily in the south. It was the first EuroCat meeting that participants from England and Wales had participated in for a number of years and we were welcomed back prodigally.
The Conference was well run by the Austrian team in a good venue and a timetable that mixed input, reflection, visits and prayer, The liturgies were generally short and simple focusing on a symbol from the Rite. The use of the different languages was well handled.
The languages of the Conference were German, French and English and in our reflection group were Swedes, Lithuanians, Italians etc. It meant that communication had to be measured. One of my first insights into the theme of integration was to realise that to achieve common dialogue the native speakers might have to think a bit more before speaking and to give up some of the nuances of one’s own languages so that others might understand.
For the main inputs there were summary papers as well as simultaneous translation. The various papers and reports can be found on the website of the Austrian Pastoral Institute under Eurocat. The theme of the meeting was Integration and this was explored from a number of angles: psychological, theological, and sociological. This may sound dry but each speaker illustrated their ideas from experience and were thought provoking. A significant insight for me was how the place of church and religion in society affected the understanding and practice of the catechumenate. Austria has been a Catholic country with the vast majority who are born there baptised. This means that the catechumenate is nascent and tiny. Only in Vienna diocese was there a Rite of Election and this involved 15 catechumens. Many of those who come for baptism would be immigrants. This meant that RCIA was outside the experience of the speakers; we had to do the work applying their insights to our experience. This did not hamper the usefulness of what they said though, for example, there was perhaps a confusion about whether integration was a matter for catechumens and neophytes. A further application of this insight was to realise that our greater experience with Receptions was a fruit of our particular demographic situation. Though in our preparation we looked at the figures given in the Tablet for the diocesan Rite of Elections and saw that in every diocese the number of upbaptised was about a third of the total.
As is often the case with such meetings it is the visits to the local church that can be the most memorable. We had two opportunities the first to parishes in the Vienna area that had experience of the catechumenate, the second to places of integration. The parish was in the suburbs of Vienna, near the airport. The parish priest had had a couple of experiences of initiation of adults. One, a young girl of 19, also came to talk the group. Hers was a most moving story. She had lost her parents when she was 12 and had gone to live with aunt — no one in her family had been interested in religion and she had never been baptised. A school friend had invited her to come with her to church and when she was 14 to join the preparation group for confirmation. When it was realised she had not been baptised it was proposed that as the confirmation preparation took 2 years she would be baptised at the intervening Easter Vigil. The pastor celebrated all the rites at the main parish liturgies and she received a lot of support from the parish – the confirmation group formed a team. One moving moment was that she sang the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil the year after her baptism. In her own words she only became interested and engaged in her faith after her baptism. It was an interesting reminder that integration into a community can precede faith and the process of initiation. This would often be our experience where spouses accompany their families to Mass over many years before deciding to take the plunge.
The second visit was to church that had been built as part of a new office and housing development. Even though the diocese was not planning a church in the area they decided it was not an offer to turn down. The design of the church was very striking — black on the outside, light beech on the inside it was based on a cube with the lower third providing meeting spaces. Like many churches situated near offices there was a different weekday and Sunday congregation. 10am Sunday Mass was the most diverse — the pastor explained that people came who were attracted by the simplicity of the architecture and the liturgy. The church also provided a gathering point for different ethnic groups in the city where they could celebrate Mass and socialise afterwards.
A recurring theme of the five days was what does it mean to integrate? Is it assimilation where we expect people to become like us or accommodation where we adapt to them. Integration was recognised to be a two way street where the community has to be open and welcoming to newcomers. Our openness may even require us to change, adjust and adapt. Like all good reflections on RCIA the content and the process worked together. Just as we were given much content to stimulate our thought; the team made sure that we were integrated into a Eurocat community. Now the rich time of mystagogy as we reflect on what we have heard and integrate the new thoughts and ideas into our lives.