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Catechetical Sunday: It Takes a Community to Welcome a New Catholic

(Team Building and Roles for Everyone)

by Joyce Stolberg

 "The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity #2). We live this missionary nature of the Church by implementing the RCIA sacramental preparation process through which persons who are uncatechized and/or unbaptized, or who have already been living the Christian life, prepare to fully embrace the Faith as new Catholics.

 Have you as an RCIA director heard any complaints about the high visibility of the process and the intense attention given by the parish to those catechumens and candidates involved? Have you heard any of the following? "Why do we have to give up the front seats to the same group of people all the time?" "Why should they get all the attention (dismissals for breaking open the word, rites of acceptance, sending, election, scrutinies, etc.) as they prepare to receive their sacraments? Aren't our children preparing for sacraments too?" If so, you are not alone. As Catechetical Sunday approaches and we inaugurate a new year of formation, this undercurrent of resentment may again surface. Perhaps explaining some of the following points to your community may help allay some antipathy and encourage greater participation.

 Many of us who are cradle Catholics take our Faith for granted; the RCIA reminds us that at some point in the past our own ancestors, some proximate and some remote, left their beliefs and their gods to follow Christ and embrace the Catholic Faith. Indeed, Jesus taught his disciples, then sent them out two by two; those who were evangelized formed communities, then spread the word to others, etc. down to our own day. The command to spread the "Good News of Salvation" was an essential part of the Good News itself. Therefore we received the Faith through the evangelization efforts of others. So, in a very real sense, catechumens are what we were. If every Catholic made an effort to converse seriously with one other person each year about the Faith, not all persons contacted would come to the Catholic Church; nevertheless the church's growth would be exponential.

 Today's group of adults, whether sizable or very small, is for all parishioners a vibrant sign of the very missionary nature of the Church -- and the whole church needs to be involved in their progressive initiation process. Those of you who have become Catholics as adults remember well the cacophony of emotions you experienced on first entering a Catholic church. As we enfold catechumens and candidates with our loving care, we renew the graces of our own Baptism and become true missionaries within the scope of our own local calling.

 This work of welcoming new members involves the whole parish community. The pastor, acting under the direction of and within the guidelines set by the local bishop, has the ultimate responsibility for incorporating new members into the Catholic Church. Priests attend to the pastoral care of catechumens. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, #13, #77). They may delegate much of this responsibility to capable lay persons: if you are reading this you are probably a RCIA director or team member entrusted by your pastor with the care and teaching of catechumens and candidates. Directors are tasked with managing the process, implementing the directives of the Bishop, understanding the basic marriage laws of the Church, getting to know the participants, building a team, and recruiting sponsors. Catechists must be well-versed in the fine nuances of Catholic doctrine and be capable of presenting Catholic teaching clearly, firmly, and in conformity with the Church's magisterium. The book, God Calls You by Name, is designed to support catechesis by presenting all the essential elements of Catholic doctrine in a manner that facilitates a grace filled response, offers community-building discussion exercises, and evokes the powers of abstract reasoning.

 Sponsors are persons, usually parishioners, who are willing to walk the journey with one person and to be present for that individual throughout the process at meetings and church assemblies. A sponsor is for one person what Jesus' disciples were for the earliest Christians. Godparents are confirmed practicing Catholics, often chosen by parents for children, who will have a long term nurturing relationship with the individual, and need not be parish members. Other parishioners may be involved in providing hosting support or by sewing needed garments or providing other services.

 In September, you may likely be particularly concerned with recruiting sponsors to serve members of your newly formed RCIA group. You may want to make announcements before Mass or place appeals in your church bulletin. I am providing sample announcements below.

 For recruiting sponsors:

 Would you like to participate in the missionary nature of the Church without leaving your home or your employment? Would you like to be for one person what Jesus' disciples were for the earliest Christians? No experience is required! If you are a confirmed practicing Catholic in good standing with your church, and if you are willing to participate in one catechetical session per week, attend the (identify here the Sunday Mass to be attended by the candidates and catechumens) Mass, and maintain contact with one person, you are cordially urged to become a sponsor in the RCIA process. "The obligation of spreading the Faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state." (Lumen Gentium, #17) By becoming a sponsor you become a missionary without leaving home.

 To welcome inquiries:

 Have you ever had questions about the Catholic Church, but were afraid to ask or didn't know where to go? Do you have a desire to explore the Catholic Faith more deeply in a welcoming environment? If so, you are cordially invited to come to (here indicate that time and place of your meeting and provide contact information.)

 God bless you as you embark on a new catechetical year.

 

Sanctifying the Seasons: Liturgically Based Catechesis

by Joyce Stolberg

   The Church has urged us to develop our catechetical processes in conjunction with the readings of the lectionary cycles, because what we pray in the liturgy actually becomes what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).  We have done so, while adhering to the fundamental principle of catechesis: what is being taught builds on what has previously been presented and, hopefully, internalized.  You have just been offered a sample calendar plan for the 2011-2012 catechetical year, presented as a free download.  The overall year-round plan for all three liturgical cycles is prominently placed in the supplement section of the catechetical edition of God Calls You by Name.  Hopefully, these two documents will assist you in aligning the subject material within your process to reinforce the liturgical readings while still applying sound pedagogical principles.  Yet, though we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to this method, we frequently struggle to coordinate our lessons with our readings.  Fortunately, a tide more basic to both our human nature and our worship experience ebbs and flows at the shore of our awareness: the very progression of earthly time and seasons obeys all God's laws (Preface, Ordinary Time).  Liturgical seasons, celebrated fully, actively, and consciously, can complement our lectionary by sublimely attuning us to timeless eternal realities.

  Jesus Christ became man, lived among us, and accomplished the saving mysteries of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension once for all time.  In order for these eternal mysteries to touch our spirits through our physical senses, commemorations of the many facets of this one Paschal Mystery are spread out over the course of each liturgical year.  Therefore, the liturgical seasons, as well as the individual Sunday readings, become our "lex orandi, lex credendi."  Liturgical and seasonal awareness can smoothen and fill the residual lacunae and discontinuities naturally inherent in the best lectionary based catechesis systems.  Please allow me to explain what I mean as I propose the complementary concept of LITURGICALLY BASED CATECHESIS.

  Ordinary Time, for example, is anything but a flat transition from the Easter season of one year to the following Advent: it throbs with its own development as it reveals the three years of Jesus' public life, teaching, and ministry.  August celebrates midsummer when vegetables, fruits, and grains are ripening for harvest.  Readings from Matthew in Year A are ripe with agrarian imagery.  The good seed in rich soil, the tiny mustard seed, healthy wheat growing together with maliciously sewn weeds, are all symbols of Christian growth in virtue.  Reflect on the humanity of Jesus as you anchor your late summer lessons onto this seasonal development.  The feast of the Assumption honors Mary as the first fruits of Jesus' saving work.  Then we move on to Jesus' selection and training of St. Peter and of his call to all of us to follow him on the way of the cross.

  Here, as you begin to transition from your summer process to the more formal autumn catechesis, observe how Ordinary Time mirrors and sanctifies the progression of the natural seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.  We will soon be reaping the rewards of virtue.  Social issues and even taxes are dealt with during autumn and provide background for your essential instruction on the 10 Commandments, conscience development and moral issues.  Later in the season, while the fallen leaves are raked and the sheaves and fruits are gathered, you will be celebrating the victory of all the saints and the final harvest of souls at the end of time.  Many of us have ambivalent reactions to the secular celebration of Halloween.  Think about holding a party where children come dressed as their favorite saint; adjust your games to reflect catechetical themes.  Consider a timely catechesis on the "last things" --- death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as you round out the liturgical year between the feast of all Saints and the climactic celebration of Christ the King.  Look at the seasonal as well as the weekly aspects of Ordinary Time when you calendar your instructions.

  You may also be celebrating an initial harvest of Christian virtue as you prepare for the Rites of Acceptance and Welcome.  You are encouraged to incorporate the themes of all Saints, final victory, and the Beatitudes in your preparation retreat for these rites; see page S-85 in the supplement to God Calls You by Name.

  The other seasons catechize as well: I have offered some thoughts in past newsletters and in the supplement to God Calls You by Name, and will continue to do so in the future.  I will ruminate on them briefly here.  In the season of Advent we consider deeply the mystery of the Incarnation and we ponder the privileges given to Mary, the mother of God.  The longing for the coming of the Messiah is expressed as much by the haunting tones in the Advent music and the colors in the vestments as it is by the readings.  The awe and wonder of the marriage of divinity with humanity unfolds as the Christmas season progresses.  Our human nature has to express its astonishment by filling the environment with brilliant flowers, perhaps Christmas trees, and the symbolic manger scene.  Our music joins the angels as we burst forth in great joy.  Catechesis on the sacraments resonates with Christ the incarnate Word of God, the great sign, or sacrament, of God's love, throughout the Christmas season and the ordinary time of winter.  The somberness of Lent, completed by the exhausting liturgy of Good Friday, then calls us to ponder deeply our commitment to follow Christ through his passion, and to die and rise with him in the baptismal fountain at Easter.  Then the limitless joy of Easter overflows once again.

  Can a choir rehearse, record, or simply sing "O come, o come, Emanuel" and not project a wistful yearning for the Messiah?  Can we sing "My people, what have I done to you!" as we kiss the cross on Good Friday without feeling Jesus' pain?  Can the Elect listen to the Easter Exultet and not be thrilled to share Christ's triumph over the grave?  Can you sing, "For all the saints who from their labor rest" and not ponder your own eternal destiny?  The very moods created by the environment, music, colors, and use or withholding of liturgical enhancements such as incense all contribute to our catechesis.  When you simply can't --- try as you might --- correlate a sequential lesson with a specific Sunday reading, consider the pedagogy prompted by the deeply seasonal aspects of the liturgical cycle itself.

  Jesus Christ, whose laws all times and seasons obey, himself celebrated the festivals of the seasons during his earthly pilgrimage.  By so doing he made the seasons themselves a source of both grace and catechesis for us.  Let us complement our application of the lectionary by incorporating the broader aspects of the liturgy into our weekly lessons.

Good Seed in Rich Soil: a Design for Summertime Catechesis  

By Joyce Stolberg

Following the jubilant Easter season, which actually closed at Pentecost, the Church now seems to ease back into Ordinary Time slowly and somewhat reluctantly.  This Sunday (June 26) we experience the full and glorious celebration of Corpus Christi, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ when, according to our best traditions, the whole body of Christ, the Church with all its ranks and members, follows the sacred Body of Christ through the city streets in a supreme public display of Faith and devotion.  When I was a child, we would don, one more time, our First Communion or Confirmation dresses and veils or suits and carry huge calla lilies in procession before the Blessed Sacrament.  The Blessed Sacrament would then be exposed in church for 40 consecutive clock hours.  The lingering June sunlight made it easier to walk to and from church in the evening.  Encourage both neophytes and new inquirers to take part in any special devotions held in your parish church on the feast of Corpus Christi.  Miraculous healings, both of body and spirit, have been known to occur during these processions.  This feast is followed on Friday (July 1) by the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The following Sunday (July 3), the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is the first Sunday on which you will actually see green vestments worn (though they have been worn during weekday masses).  I usually wear what I call my "grasshopper outfit" --- a lightweight avocado green pantsuit, to greet this early summer liturgy, and give my white dress a well-deserved cleaning.

Summertime is a season of hope and harvesting, growth and development, rest and relaxation, vacations, holidays and a time for slowing our busy lives to take in the smell of flowers.  The readings of the summer Sundays give us a window of insight into the human journey of Jesus Christ and also into his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  They also teach us to gain mastery over our passions and root out the capital sins --- the chief tendencies toward sin, and plant, nourish and develop Christian virtue.  This is a special period of catechesis, when you can introduce your inquirers to the human and divine person of Jesus through his miracles and teachings.  The goal for the gentler calmer season of summer is to foster spiritual growth in an unhurried fashion.  Go to lessons 11 through 15 in "New Beginnings" for a leisurely summer catechesis.  These lessons include the Beatitudes and the Our Father, two of Jesus' most important instructions.  They pulsate with the rhythms of nature in summertime and are supported by readings in all three liturgical years. If summer absences can be anticipated because of scheduled vacations, a retreat day or campout can compress several lessons and perhaps culminate in a joyful recreational event shared by catechumens, sponsors, neophytes and families.  Flexibility and creativity are keys to a successful summer catechetical program. The lessons may be utilized in a retreat design to prepare for the Rite of Acceptance into the Catechumenate.

Under the inspiration and gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit, the good work begun during Lent and throughout the Easter season has hopefully produced in some inquirers the "first fruits" of initial conversion, a movement of faith and a desire to declare their interest in the Catholic Church by enrolling in the catechumenate.  The Rite of Acceptance into the Catechumenate may be celebrated whenever a group of inquirers are ready to take this step; celebrating this rite several times a year is encouraged.   The logical and more weighty lessons in Catholic dogma can now take a vacation until they reappear in your autumn sessions.

"New Beginnings" for New Beginners

by Joyce Stolberg

Even as we draw our mystagogia season to a celebratory conclusion, we are preparing for the coming year. Especially for those who have received no prior Christian initiation, education, or inculturation, inaugurating the new inquiry or precatechumenate sessions during the spring and summer months offers opportunity for the seeds of faith to take root and begin to grow.

Go to the section titled "New Beginnings" in the supplement of the catechist edition of God Calls You by Name. You will find a series of very basic lessons oriented toward evangelization and initial catechesis. They introduce many of the topics that are discussed in detail in the main body of God Calls You by Name; materials are presented in a very simple, informal format. The first 10 lessons are designed to correspond with the liturgy of the Sundays between Easter and the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Subsequent lessons are designed to correspond with the liturgies of summertime, and they correlate spiritual growth with the natural growth of summer. These simple lessons are addressed to the catechist, unlike the lessons in God Calls You by Name, which are addressed directly to the learner; therefore, you do not need to provide books for your participants at this early juncture. All these lessons are very versatile and can be used in many ways. Even if you conduct an inquiry session once or twice per month throughout the summer, you can use these lessons to present materials very simply. The concept at this stage is to facilitate spiritual growth and development in an informal comfortable setting and to introduce catechetical material that will be covered in a more organized fashion in the formal autumn process. These lessons may be paired or grouped to adjust to your timeframe. They are also designed to allow plenty of time for storytelling, group formation, and for answering basic questions.

Organize some fun activities as well. Cookouts and picnics provide ideal occasions for bringing your new catechumens and inquirers together with your neophytes. Both groups can interact, share experiences, and build community in the Lord together. These activities will keep neophytes engaged and foster their growth as new Catholics.

Remember to take care of yourself. Take time out during the summer months to recharge your own spiritual and emotive life, and to enjoy the beauty of God's creation.

Mystagogia: Nurturing Neophytces

by Joyce Stolberg

The Elect have gone through the waters of Baptism; they have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit; they have been invited to the table of the Eucharist for the first time. They are now neophytes, or new Catholics. We spend the time frame from Easter to Pentecost nurturing this new growth. Mystagogia offers both a time for reflection and opportunity for presenting a broad range of continuing education topics.

This period begins with intense reflection upon the mysteries that have just been experienced. Allow time for reflection and feedback. The main pedagogical objectives for this period include further incorporation into the community, practicing some practical aspects of social justice, and reviewing any points of interest on which further discussion is requested by neophytes. In our process, we also try to engage speakers who are leading various parish ministries. Oh, yes, if this appears to be a recruitment drive, it is! Without getting them over committed, we try to involve neophytes in parish life, social service, and ministry as soon as possible. Have them actually register as members of the parish if any of them have not yet done so. Ask the neophytes themselves if there are any issues or topics about which they desire more information. Last year, some in our group requested more information on the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible; this led to a deeper discussion of biblical languages, time frames, types of literature, and the establishment of the Bible's canon.

Continue gathering the neophytes and sponsors in your reserved seating area from now through Pentecost: these Sunday Masses are called "Masses of the Neophytes." They can be seen together and further welcomed as new members of the community. (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults #237, 238) The candidates have made their first confession prior to their being received into the Church; however, the newly baptized have not done so. Mystagogia offers a good time frame for reviewing the steps to making a good confession and encouraging the neophytes to do so for the first time. Of course, Reconciliation is not obligatory because all sins had been washed away through Baptism. Yet the confessing of minor sins and faults can be an occasion of tremendous grace. In this case, we strongly encourage them to make a devotional confession in order to experience the sacrament and develop a comfort level with it while they still have the support of the RCIA process.

Because Easter came so late this year, you may experience some difficulty carrying the mystagogia process completely through to Pentecost. It has been my experience (this may not be true for all parts of the country) that, following graduations in May, people want to begin vacations, and it becomes more difficult to maintain attendance. Plan a final celebration as close to Pentecost as possible, but in a timely fashion, to wrap up your process; this may be accompanied by a special Mass, local custom permitting. (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults #239).

Neophytes should be nurtured in a special way during their first year of Catholic life. Planning a monthly meeting during the following year will provide continuing support and will enable you to present enriching materials for which there simply wasn't time during the essential RCIA process. Several things I have tried to do at this time include offering more explanation and experience of traditional Catholic devotions, discussing current events from the viewpoint of Catholic teaching, exploring more deeply the Documents of Vatican II, and presenting the spirituality of some of our great Catholic writers. These can be very informal meetings, conducted in a discussion style. Of course, your team is busy working with new inquirers, particularly those who have had no prior Christian experience or catechesis. Perhaps you can plan one summer event, such as a picnic, to which both your new inquirers and your neophytes can be invited, and offer them the opportunity to get acquainted and socialize with one another.

Finally, always remember that an essential mark of the Catholic Church is its universality; neophytes have entered the worldwide Church. June is often the month of transfers. Particularly if you live in a military or a college environment or a city which houses military or educational establishments, you may find your neophytes quickly transferring to parishes in other localities. As an RCIA leader, you can support their transition and encourage them to grow in the Catholic Faith wherever they may be. Rejoice that you as a leader have been offered the opportunity to build up and strengthen the local Church in areas of the world which you yourself may never visit. The blessing you give will come back to bless you when you least expect it!

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