I received an email newsletter just before Christmas which, with an apologetic tone, reminded me that it was only 5 and 1/2 weeks until the beginning of Lent. Easter is almost as early as it can be this year — it can only fall on 22 March before that and that won’t happen in our lifetimes (2285 if you really want to know!). An early Easter means an early Lent and the First Sunday, the normal date for the Rite of Election, will be on 10 February. Hence my question. Or at least the origin of my question. What’s behind is a question about whether the discernment which is proper before the Rite of Election might say we need a bit longer before we can answer the questions asked of us at the Rite with integrity.

  • Have they faithfully listened to God’s word proclaimed by the Church?
  • Have they responded to that word and begun to walk in God’s presence?
  • Have they shared the company of their Christian brothers and sisters and joined with them in prayer?

Before looking at what the Rite says about being prepared for the Rite of Election and the length of the catechumenate a story.

Last autumn I was in Tours, France and I took the opportunity of visiting the shrine of my patron saint — St Martin. The shrine is a 19th Century basilica and in the crypt is the tomb of St Martin (died 397). Nearby is a museum which tells the history of both the Basilica and of St Martin himself through fragments and art works. One of the most famous incidents in his life happened when he was 17 and a soldier in the Roman army at Amiens. On a cold winter’s night he met a beggar and though he had little he shared is cloak with him. That night he had a vision of Christ in the guise of the beggar. He heard Christ say to the surrounding angels:

Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.

Though I was familiar with the story and some of the many images associated with it I had not come across the last line before and it served as a reminder both that one time to be a Catechumen was a distinct stage in a person’s life and that God is working during this period. The Life of St Martin, written quite soon after Martin died, says that he became a Catechumen when he was 10 and shortly after his vision he sought to be baptised at the age of 18.

Looking at the Rite

In the introduction to the Rite of Election it states:

Before the rite of election is celebrated, the catechumens are expected to have undergone a conversion in mind and in action and to have developed a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching as well as a spirit of faith and charity. RCIA 107

And the length of the catechumenate…

The time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough — several years if necessary — for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong. By their formation in the entire Christian life and a sufficiently prolonged probation the catechumens are properly initiated into the mysteries of salvation and the practise of an evangelical way of life. By means of sacred rites celebrated at successive times they are led into the life of faith, worship, and charity belonging to the people of God. RCIA 76

And why not?

The phrase ‘several years if necessary’ is probably one of those we pass over thinking, if at all, that it applies elsewhere. The challenge is how to faithfully respond the request that the catechumens made at the Rite of Acceptance and to recognise that it takes time.

It is perhaps worth articulating some of the reasons that we find this challenge difficult:

  • we see discernment as, at best, a one-way process by the catechumens not as a shared responsibility which is integral to the Rite
  • Seeing the process of Initiation as a single timetable for a whole group — for whom is such a timetable designed?
  • A year seems a long time to wait for next Easter. Our language can also seem negative: initiation can be delayed or put off.
  • All this pre-supposes a team and a process that can cope with people at different stages over the year.
  • There is also a need to make clear differences between the different periods particularly in terms of catechesis. The period of purification and enlightenment is not the time for a final catch-up on matters of doctrine but a time of spiritual preparation for Easter.

This would not be the time to suddenly decide that your Catechumens will not be going to the Rite of Election! Nor is it a proposal that, like Martin, the Catechumenate should take 7 years. It is an encouragement to continue to reflect on what the potential of Catechumenate is.

  • For further thoughts on these issues see recent postings in Team RCIA
  • The 11 March posting will be reflections on celebrating the Rite of Election – contributions welcome.