Rites assess readiness to continue faith journey



COLUMBIA — Discerning God’s presence in the community and the catechumen’s response to it was just one of many issues regarding the Rite of Election that was dealt with in a Feb. 2 workshop, “Celebrating the Rites of Christian Initiation,” sponsored by the diocesan Office for Evangelization, Catechesis and Christian Initiation.

Presenter for the conference, which drew attendance from across South Carolina as well as the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., was Father Michael Clay, director of vocations for the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C.

Ordained since 1980, he has served as a pastor and director of liturgy. For six years he served as director of liturgy and as a faculty member at Theological College, the national seminary of The Catholic University of America. Since 1987, Father Clay has spoken as a team member on various institutes sponsored by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. His doctoral degree is from Catholic University in liturgical studies with an emphasis on the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in rural and small town settings.

Father Clay, in giving some background information about himself, said his Protestant father, at age 65, went through the conversion process. “You get a whole different perspective in what this is all about,” he began.

He prefaced his presentation by saying, “You can’t understand the rites unless you know about everything else going on around it, and you can’t understand everything else going on around it unless you know about the rites.”

Father Clay had another oft repeated mantra, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” meaning “the law of praying shapes the law of believing,” which he kept coming back to throughout the day.

He also stressed the importance of tying liturgy and catechesis together. “If the foundation blocks are not in place, the vision does not come together.”

The workshop started with the shape of the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. It is the separation from the old to the new, and inquirers are apart from the body of the faithful. To foster a sense of hospitality, some members of the parish go to the inquirers and speak in a friendly manner.

“In the perfect church the whole community would come out, but we have to deal with pastoral realities such as space, Mass schedules, etc.,” said Father Clay.

The liturgy director discussed flexibility for questions when the inquirer promises to undertake the faith journey and the assembly makes the promise to support the catechumen.

“It’s fabulous theology, but somewhat abstract,” Father Clay said. “Speak a language that people can hear. Try to capture people’s imaginations. The prayer is like the prayer of ordination. It seals the deal (and makes them a catechumen).”

Among his suggestions were to take the inquirer’s answer and weave it into the response of the presider, and, if a large group was taking part in the ritual, to do the rite more than once by perhaps separating the baptized and unbaptized.

Father Clay again brought up the issue of time in regard to signing parts of the body signifying the senses. He said at a minimum the foreheads are signed, and if it’s a large group, the presider does a general blessing while the sponsor does the actual signing.

“The sign of the cross is our symbol. That’s why we keep using it over and over again,” he said.

For the presentation of the cross to the catechumens, Father Clay said he prefers a simple, rustic one, and as for the presentation of the Bible, “In the Bible Belt it’s an important thing to do.”

When it comes time for sending of the participants there are lots of options, according to the priest from Raleigh. If this rite is celebrated in the eucharistic liturgy, catechumens are normally dismissed. “Why?” Father Clay asked, then answered, “Because they can’t receive the Eucharist.”

When dismissed, the catechumens do not disperse. Rather they “unpack” what they just celebrated.

During the inquiry period, the precatechumens are to become acquainted with the symbols they will encounter during the Rite of Acceptance.

However, said Father Clay, “The biggest mistake we make is to presume that evangelization has occurred. The rite presumes that community has been addressed, because being a Catholic irrevocably ties you to a community. How is the parish involved in the precatechumentate period? Community has a role in all of this.”

Also, he asked, “Are you integrating the Word of God into your catechetical session? Are you praying regularly at the catechetical session with your inquirers?”

In addition, Father Clay said every cathechetical session should have a doctrinal component as well as a designated period of time to talk about doctrine the church believes.

In addressing some areas of pastoral sensitivity, Father Clay said that people awaiting annulments can take part in all formation activities up to, but not including, the Rite of Election.

He emphasized that is it “important to get the annulment process started as early as possible,” but he said there was flexibility to have these people initiated at times other than the Easter Vigil.

In dealing with another difficult situation, Father Clay said, “people have a right to vote with their feet” if Masses take longer than normal. He stressed the need to keep the congregation informed through the bulletin and announcements about when additional ceremonies will be taking place at the liturgy, and he urged that biographies of the candidates and catechumens be placed in the bulletins and inserts.

For the Rite of Sending, Father Clay said testimony becomes important, especially the godparent testimony. But while citing its importance, he said it is something that the whole church doesn’t have to be exposed to.

“It is not obligatory for candidates to go through this,” he said, adding that all rites for candidates are optional.

In the response portion, the person in the parish catechumenate affirms that evangelization has taken place, and they tell what they are doing in response to that.

Father Clay reminded the audience of the differences between godparents and sponsors. Sponsors are involved in discernment from the beginning of the catechumenate process. However, the role of godparent comes in at the Rite of Election and lasts until the Easter Vigil.

Sponsors and godparents can be one in the same and are so 98 percent of the time, said the North Carolina cleric.

He said they should be objective, and he discouraged boyfriends and girlfriends, spouses, sisters and brothers from being sponsors to each other.

To wrap up the conference, Father Clay led an overview of the Rite of Scrutiny.

“Scrutinies is meant to uncover all that is unhealthy and then strengthen that which is healthy and good,” he said.

These rites should complete the conversion of the elect, and the ritual focus is on intercessions and the prayer of exorcism, which the vocations director said “is very important and could be helped by the laying on of hands.”

Scrutinies can be celebrated on three, four or five Sundays of Lent, and only Cycle A readings may be used, even in years of B and C Lectionary.

Father Clay said that at least three scrutinies should be celebrated, as only one or two may be dispensed by the bishop, according to canon law.

“It is a time of spiritual preparation when petitions focus on personal sin and intentions may be adapted to fit individual circumstances,” he said.

It was suggested that the scrutinies could even be the theme for the parish Lenten mission.

In concluding remarks, Father Clay said he hoped the day was helpful in “setting up the wall for the liturgical echo to bounce off of.”

Paul Schroeder, director of the Office for Evangelization, Catechesis and Christian Initiation, summed up his thoughts about the day by saying, “Father Mike did a great job. A considerable number of parishes had been asking for some sort of inservice on the Rite of Election, and Father Mike came highly recommended as one of the top people in the nation for his background and expertise. This was a really effective inservice for the diocese.”

Schroeder added that the next adult formation opportunity would be offered on March 24, again in Columbia at the Holiday Inn Northeast.

That conference will be led by Joanne Chafe, director of the National Office of Religious Education and project specialist for the Adult Portfolio of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.