To many people the Magi are the ‘three wise men’ of Christmas cards and nativity plays, and of the carols we learnt as children. Yet what little we know of them suggests that they were on a journey of faith. Whatever their religious background we presume that they were not Jews yet they made the connection between their own observations of creation and the Jewish scriptures. They were earnestly searching for the truth. They were prepared to think outside of their cultural box. Yet ultimately, beneath all the historical and cultural baggage, there is only one truth. Their appearance in the Christmas story emphasises that The Word was made flesh for everyone. The Catechism (819) recognises that ‘many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the confines of the Catholic Church’. This is largely referring to non-Catholic Christians, accepting them ‘with respect and affection as brothers’ (818). It also reaches out to those of other religions (839 to 843) and to ‘those, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart’ (847). There are a lot of such people around us these days.
Is RCIA about helping people to become Catholics or Christians? The short answer to this question is, of course, ‘both’. Most people who embark on an RCIA programme want to explore the possibility of being received into the Catholic Church. But RCIA is more than just instruction in what the Catholic Church teaches, important though that is. It is where a group of people at various stages on their faith journey share their experiences and deepen their personal relationship with Jesus Christ together. The Magi were neither Jews, Catholics nor Baptists but I imagine them as deeply spiritual people who, in the words of the catechism, had come to ‘seek God with a sincere heart’.
Some years ago our RCIA group was joined by a lady who was a Baptist minister. She wasn’t considering becoming a Catholic herself but she came to bring a friend. Her friend had been baptised a Catholic but had never been confirmed. The Baptist minister wanted to help her friend to grow in faith in the living reality of Jesus Christ in her life and she thought the best way to do this was to bring her along to RCIA. We enjoyed having our Baptist friend with us each week. She shared her spiritual experience with us and enjoyed sharing ours. She came along to the Easter Vigil to see her friend being confirmed. RCIA is not, of course, primarily preparation of baptised Catholics for Confirmation, but, in this case, it was very appropriate.
I often wonder how we would feel if someone were to come to RCIA and, after getting a great deal out of it and growing in personal faith, were to decide to become a Methodist. The Holy Spirit can surprise us but it’s exciting to see him at work.
What many non-Catholic Christians respect about the Catholic Church is its spirituality – the distillation of 2000 years of reflection and spiritual experience. What we do in RCIA is to share what we have with each other as well as with our enquirers and catechumens. Not all of Our Lord’s disciples are Catholics by any means. If we share our spirituality, our personal relationship with God, rather than focus on just recruiting more Catholics, we shall help to build up the Church in a way that will stand the test of time. Many of the enquirers probably would want to be received into the Catholic Church – because they were hungry for more of spirituality which it offers. And those who do not become Catholics may well go on to build the Kingdom of Heaven in some other way that we would wish to support.
Ecumenism has come a long way since the 1960s. Back then it sometimes seemed that ‘Christian Unity’ could be a case of fudging differences in doctrine. Some cynics would say being united by not being sure what you believed. It soon became accepted that the way to be an ecumenical Catholic was to understand our own tradition better so that we were more able to share what we have with others of different traditions and discover the reality of our shared spirituality. Discussion of doctrinal differences is a job for theological experts and church leaders. Meanwhile there is plenty for the rest of us to get on with at grass-roots level.
John Ortberg wrote a challenging book called ‘if you want to walk on water you’ve got to get out of the boat’. Going into the world and making disciples does call for water-walking. The lives of many Saints, and of Christians in general, shows that it is amazing what people can do when they keep their eyes on Jesus rather than on the stormy waters around them.
But I’d like to focus on the importance of having a good strong boat to get back into when our attempts at water walking don’t quite come off. A boat where we can dry our clothes, get some encouragement from our friends, and, when necessary, learn some useful theory.
I chose to become a Catholic because it offered me a safe boat from which I could gingerly try a bit of water-walking. Non-catholic Christians who I meet whilst water-walking come from different boats yet they have been enticed out of them by the same Lord and they walk on the same water. We don’t always understand each other but what unites us is the common spirituality which lies beneath what we say.
Now we see through a mirror darkly but one day we may compare notes with the Magi.