Echo: Faith Formation Leadership Program, University of Notre Dame (Echo 7)
Apprentice Catechetical Leader, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Angleton, TX
Are you saved? How far is too far? Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? In catechetical ministry, there are days when I wish I could avoid answering a question with the same remarkable success as Jesus had.
In several recent Sunday Gospels, Jesus eludes the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ traps by answering, in effect, “none of the above” (Mt 22:15-40). Somehow, avoiding the question also helps Jesus win followers: Andrew and the other disciple ask where Jesus is staying, but he only replies, “Come, and you will see.” “Follow me,” he says to Philip from Bethsaida, whose longing he has “found” before Philip says a word (Jn 1:35-43). Jesus does not ignore their questions, but neither does he spell out the kind of answer they can scribble on their hands before the test.
Merely three verses later, Philip the Apostle catches on, adopting Jesus’ own technique: “Come and see,” he replies to Nathanael’s query as to whether anything good comes from Nazareth(Jn 1:46).
Perhaps St. Philip was by my side, then, when a seventh-grade boy, “Josué,” recently asked me what would happen to him during the Rite of Acceptance. It is a celebration of your desire to follow Christ, I explained, and the Church will accept and bless you. I will tell you some things, like what the priest will ask you, I continued, recalling the advice of my mentor, but mostly, you just have to experience it when you’re there.
That was not quite what he wanted to know! The formal preparation for the Rite balances the need to prepare children at a practical level with the fact that that none of us knows what graces the Rite will bring. As for the practical preparation for the Rite of Acceptance, Rita Burns Senseman suggests reflecting on John 1:35-42 (A Child’s Journey: The Christian Initiation of Children, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998; see also the RCIA, 62). This gave Josué, his sponsor, and his family a chance to consider the first question contained in the Rite: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” or, for children, “What do you want to become?” (50, 264).
Indeed, before Jesus invites the disciples to “come and see,” he asks them what it is they want (Jn 1:38). The disciples, still awaiting the fullness of revelation, know only that they want, and that John the Baptist has told them to behold the Lamb of God. They stammer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Thankfully, preparation for the Rite empowered Josué’s to answer according to the desire of his heart, and to avoid appearing like a Jeopardy contestant or a disciple meeting the Lord for the first time.
As for leaving room for God to work through the Rite, we spent some time on the meaning of a central symbol in the Rite, the cross. (This, too, is Rita Burns Senseman’s suggestion.) What does the cross mean to you? Where do you see or experience the cross in your life? Thankfully, Josué’s sponsor was brilliant. He spoke of the need to choose every day to take up our cross and follow Jesus instead of following the voices of the world and our own interests. He spoke of the way in which our suffering brings us very near to Christ, who also rises. I added that when we follow him, we are in good company, and that the Holy Spirit blesses us with joy and peace along the way.
During the day of the Rite, our pastor led the celebration of the Rite in English for most of the adults and children and in Spanish for this boy, whose family’s first language is Spanish. Mystagogy ensued when afterward, the mother asked if I would give the family a ride home.
How do you feel, Josué? What do you remember about what happened? He had been nervous at first, he said, but later felt a sense of peace about being in front of so many people. He felt very welcomed by the congregation, who pledged to support him along the journey. He felt holy when the priest anointed him. He wanted to know why he was asked to kiss the Bible he was given. Thus began the period of the catechumenate.
Normally, the beginning of the catechumenate indicates the beginning of “Breaking Open the Word” sessions. The problem is that there is no catechumen at our parish close in age to Josué, with whom to conduct such sessions! The family and I agreed that he would come thirty minutes early to the catechism class (CCE) he attends, in order to reflect on the Scripture. The first week was a more thorough mystagogy on the Rite, but beginning with the second week, a weekly, half-hour “junior high Bible study” materialized, including Josué, the children of our junior-high-level catechists, any and every unsuspecting junior high youth who waltzes through the front door and (not quite) past our circle of folding chairs, and me.
Aside from providing a setting in which to Break Open the Word, the RCIA has shaped this new gathering more deeply. Of course, we would soon begin using the Sunday readings in order to put the youth in communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ (John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 5). But our group did not immediately take up those Scriptures for the same reason that the RCIA process does not begin with the catechumenate. The youth, I imagine, could not help but ponder, “Can anything good come from pre-CCE CCE?” Developmentally, 11-14-year-olds are rather busy working out their identities, especially in relation to peers. Being evangelized anew plants seeds of desire for Christ in that ever-forming identity. Our first Scripture study, therefore, was the call of the first disciples.
Even within each session, though, catechesis is not the first action. Saint John Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, walked tightropes, juggled, did magic tricks, and told jokes, so gaining the youths’ affection and attention. Since my tightrope is currently working full-time in eco-friendly laundry desiccation, we began instead with an abundance of icebreakers. The youth were attentive and respectful, but the most beautiful part was their energy, which made it easy for others to join in as they arrived for CCE. In fact, these youth unknowingly played the role of Philip, calling their peers to “come and see.”
The first week, as I asked for volunteers to play Jesus and John the Baptist in John 1:35-48, Josué’s hand leapt into the air. He played Jesus, and as I read the Gospel line by line, each of the youth took on a character in the scene. We discussed the relevance of the Gospel for another few minutes before they were due in their CCE classrooms.
The Rite of Acceptance also made a ripple in my post-Confirmation ministry. “Receive the sign of the cross on your ears,” the Rite says, “that you may hear the voice of the Lord” (56). The eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet are signed with the cross as well. For the high school youth, drawing the cross on others’ eyes, ears, hands, and feet was probably uncomfortable.
Still, it served as a reminder that they, bodies included, belong to Christ who has made them his own in Baptism. This is in stark contrast to other voices that say that our bodies belong to us and that we have the right to both use them as we wish and decide what they mean. Josué had been uncomfortable during this part of the Rite, too, but after reflecting, he told me the story of a time he had used his hands to follow Christ. He had helped a person with a disability pick something up of hers that had fallen at the grocery store.
The Rite of Acceptance invites all who are present to accept the new catechumens, and we do so in the imitation of Christ who first accepts and desires us. We continue to sort out what we desire from Him, of Him; part of us wants to know where he is living and where he is going before we follow. But we, like the new catechumens, are invited to come and see.
To pass on the same invitation in our sacramental preparation, evangelization, and communal prayer, is to recognize that the words of eternal life do not come simply from memorizing the history of Jesus Christ, from our own rational deductions, or from our subjective experiences of liturgy. All my answers are unsatisfactory; I do not know what graces the God of the Universe wants to infuse into our hearts or where his Spirit will take Josué, his family, the junior high students, or the seniors who are about to graduate and move away from home. Still, I know that he has remembered his promise to our ancestors and to us. My answers might only be acceptable when they point to Christ himself who is the satisfactory answer: “Come, follow him, and you will see,” and he will raise those who know him on the last day.