RCIA in the Lenten Season

Word gets around. Visitors or parishioners will sometimes stop me on the sidewalk in front of church and remark, “I heard you were in the Navy…” This is, of course, a prelude to reminisce, tell sea stories, recount homeports and ports-of-call, and all manner of things true and…. well, sea stories. Back in the day I was conversant in all the acronyms of naval service. If someone asked if I ever did a loop through AUTEC, I knew what they were talking about. If someone said, “Bravo Zulu,” I understood. “COMNAVSEASYSCOM” – got it… but this century has a whole lot of new acronyms that just evade my comprehension.

We do the same thing in Church. We who work within the world of ministries have our own set of acronyms. This time of year, you can hear us announce all manner of things about RCIA.  We just assume everyone knows what it is: Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But we also assume everyone knows the what, why, and where-for of RCIA. Hopefully true, but then again…so let me outline a little.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of people who participate in the RCIA program: (a) those who have never been baptized and (b) those who are already validly baptized in another Christian denomination. What is common and shared is that both groups want to be in full communion with the Catholic Church. Technically, only the unbaptized are “converts,” as they are converting to Christianity. You often hear the moniker “convert” applied to someone from another Christian church who is becoming Catholic – but not really, they are already Christian.

The first group is called “catechumens” from the Greek katekhoumenos, “being instructed.” They are being instructed in Jesus, sacred scripture, sacraments, liturgy, and more – all the things that are part of the Tradition and traditions of the Catholic Church. It is our way of saying, this is who we are and inviting them to join us – and most importantly, to be in relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior.

The latter group is called “candidates.” While we cover many of the same things, it is more “this is the Catholic understanding” of the Bible, liturgy, ministry, and more. It is our way of inviting our fellow Christian brothers and sisters to be in “full communion” with us.

Lent is a special time for those in RCIA. It begins on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, when the catechumens participate in the Rite of Sending, a moment in time when we as a community affirm the good work of the RCIA catechists and commend the catechumens to the Bishop. That same day, the bishop will formally receive them in the Rite of Election, saying, “You are ready to participate in the Easter Vigil and become one with us.” During the weeks of Lent, depending on the Mass you attend, you might witness several rites of blessing for the candidates and the catechumens (now called “the Elect”).

The second Sunday of Lent (March 8) the candidates celebrate the Penitential Rite which serves to mark the Lenten blessing of baptized adults who are preparing to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist and thus full communion of the Catholic Church. These folks will celebrate those initiating sacraments on March 29 at the noon Mass and then celebrate Easter with us as fully-initiated Catholics.

The third through fifth Sundays of Lent (March 15, 22, and 29), the Elect celebrate the “Scrutinies” at various Masses. These are ancient rites and they may, at first, seem strange to us. But they are profoundly rooted in our human experience. The Elect are asked to examine (scrutinize) how they are, the areas of their lives where they are tempted, or seriously sin — in what they do and what they fail to do. The people of the witnessing community are called to do the same. We all need healing and the strength that can come from the support of our sisters and brothers in prayer and blessing.

Each Scrutiny is accompanied by prayers and the laying on of hands upon the Elect. The goal is that their spirit is filled with Christ the Redeemer, who is the living water (gospel of the Samaritan woman in the first scrutiny), the light of the world (gospel of the man born blind in the second scrutiny), the resurrection and the life (gospel of Lazarus in the third scrutiny). The Elect celebrate their conversion and full communion during the Easter Vigil. During that very special evening celebration, the adult and youth will be baptized, confirmed and participate in Holy Eucharist.

In the weeks to come, you may or may not see these ancient rituals celebrated at Mass. In any event, please pray for all the Candidates, the Elect, their sponsors and families – and give thanks to God for the growth in our community of faith.

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