Lost in the Crowd of Catechumens: Ecumenical Transfers and the Misapplied RCIA

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By Mark Florig, Yale University

I will be among the first to affirm the revival of the catechumenate and the general concept of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), but a common pastoral practice is a blurring the lines of what is intended by the rite itself. The RCIA is first, and foremost, for catechumens, that is the unbaptized being initiated into the Church for the first time. However, in the United States and many other countries with at least nominal Christian majorities, this poses a problem for those whom Dr. Maxwell Johnson notes as playing “Ecclesial Musical Chairs” in his article, “Let’s Stop Making ‘Converts’ at Easter.”[1] While I do not have any statistics on hand, I can report at an anecdotal level that roughly two thirds of those whom I have seen received into full communion with Rome in my American university-related parish context, were already baptized Christians. At a fundamental level, the RCIA and the rites of the Easter Vigil were not designed with them in mind. The RCIA and the Easter Vigil are primarily for catechumens, or non-Christians.

While Johnson notes that combined rites have been issued to facilitate the reception of other Christians into full communion with the Catholic Church, he, and I for that matter, have serious misgivings about the way other baptized Christians are lumped together on a practical, albeit not ritual level. Johnson notes:

According to the RCIA, for example, candidates for full communion are not supposed to sign the book of the elect, are not supposed to be exorcised with the elect, and are not supposed to receive other rites designated for catechumens alone. But by placing various groups together in the same catechumenal process and celebrating both Christian initiation and reception/ Confirmation together at the Easter Vigil, it is not always clear that the distinctions between these groups is clear either to the liturgical assembly or to the elect and candidates themselves.[2]

In his footnotes, Johnson recognizes that while the rites, themselves, do not endorse such practices, they are still inadvertently done in many places, presumably by well meaning priests and directors of faith formation. The confusion caused thereby, however, is both ecumenically undignified, as it may give Catholics in the pews the false notion that a baptized Christian’s reception of said sacrament is ineffectual or that the RCIA is simply a church membership class with some sacraments at the end of it. This ultimately diminishes both the dignity of the baptized Christians who could be made to feel as though they are not really Christians, as well as takes away from the significance of the initiation of the catechumens at the Easter Vigil. Yet thousands of parishes persist in putting both into what amounts to the same sorts of instruction, and both initiating catechumens and receiving candidates into full communion on the same occasion. The book of Rites itself, for the above reason, says that this is what we should not be doing:

It is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil lest there be any confusion of such baptized Christians with the candidates for baptism, possible misunderstanding of or even reflection upon the sacrament of baptism celebrated in another church or ecclesial community, or any perceived triumphalism in the liturgical welcome into the Catholic eucharistic community.[3]

When should the candidates for full communion be initiated? Johnson is quick to argue that Maundy Thursday would be a bad idea, as it would be reminiscent of the medieval Rite of Reconciling Penitents who had been ritually expelled from the liturgical assembly at the start of Lent.[4] While this was a godly discipline, and the restoration thereof is much to be wished, I will note that Reconciliation of Penitents happened before, not during, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Assuming the RCIA classes are not properly divided so that catechumens and baptized Christians receive separate, appropriate instruction according to their needs, and a general Easter Triduum “course” timeline is desired to be followed, Maundy Thursday would in fact be quite appropriate, so long as the reception of candidates for full communion is done in the proper context.

When the average Christian from another denomination is welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church, they are normally administered confirmation/ chrismation, and Holy Communion. Courtesy of the Chrism Mass earlier that day, or, more likely, several days earlier, the Holy Oils for the next year have been blessed. Moreover, it is permitted, in the United States, at least, that the parish’s collection of Holy Oils be carried in the entrance procession of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.[5] This is where I would be tempted to place the reception of other Christians into full Communion. Perhaps, as a thought experiment, once the homily is concluded, and the principal celebrant begins to prepare for the mandatum (the washing of feet), the candidates for full communion are chrismated. They have had their bath (baptism) which is now completed by the anointing, (chrismation, as in many ancient Mediterranean bathing practices). They are then treated as Simon Peter and have their feet washed in the mandatum. This is a humble, rather than triumphalist sign of the hope that all might be one in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. The sacrament which “makes the Church,”[6] the Eucharist, is then celebrated and through common participation in the sacrament, the unity of the members incorporate in the Church are united in the once-for-all sacrifice to which they pledge their faith.

This is, of course, speculation of how Maundy Thursday might be a potentially suitable place for reception into full communion, as there is no greater affirmation of common faith than common participation in Holy Communion, save perhaps common martyrdom. Johnson does, however, note that he would prefer the reception of Christians across ecclesial traditions be entirely divorced from the Paschal cycle. On the whole, given there are as many degrees of preparedness as there are Christians seeking to join in full communion with the Catholic Church, the real solution is to take on a much more individualized approach to catechetical preparation and welcome our brethren as soon as they are ready, as much as one can ever be ready, for the sacraments. This is not to say that it should be done privately, but insofar as “full communion” implies “eucharistic communion,” I would like to see it done in the context of the mass. It could be a feast day, or a Sunday, or even a daily mass. The united end goal of the sacraments should be sufficient. Though if I had to pick some feasts that don’t fall under the “Easter” schedule, Corpus Christi would be my first choice, followed by Christmas, Annunciation, All Saints, and Exaltation of the Holy Cross, whichever is coming up and suitably expresses the Incarnate Christ uniting us through, with, and in his mystical Body and Blood.

[1] Maxwell Johnson, “Let’s Stop Making ‘Converts’ at Easter,” Catechumeneon Quarterly, Winter 2021, pp. 2-5, p. 2. (article first published in Catechumenate, 1999). https://www.catechumeneon.org/resources/catechumeneon-quarterly.pdf

[2] Johnson, p. 3-4.

[3] The Rites, vol. 1, para 33, p. 347.

[4] Johnson, p. 5

[5] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Order for the Reception of Holy Oils.” Accessed March 29, 2021. https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year-and-calendar/triduum/order-for-the-reception-of-the-holy-oils

[6] This is an Henri de Lubac quote originally, though I don’t know the exact provenance, probably Corpus Mysticum. Paul McPartlan references it heavily in his book The Eucharist Makes the Church.

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