The road that leads to the glory of Easter

Reflection on the liturgy can be seen as the third stage of liturgical catechesis:

  • Preparation to participate in the liturgy
  • Participation in the liturgy
  • Reflection on our participation in the liturgy.

It can be a key catechetical moment but like all such moments we do not ask others that which we have not asked of ourselves. So before we can ask the elect to reflect on their experience we must first reflect for ourselves. This is not to provide a stock of right answers but so we know what it means to answer the question.This week’s posting is a reflection on celebrating the Rite of Election by network members. Reflecting on what we do is a key part of the guidelines of the Network and so it seems appropriate to offer this space. What follows is not the story of one Rite of Election but a snapshot from around the country which will grow over the coming week. 

I am always struck by that moment when Catechumens and Godparents and then Candidates and Sponsors stand up. In part because at these moments you see the people the liturgy is about. They are not isolated people but nor do they have the solidarity of standing in a large group. The answers of Godparents and Sponsors this year to those questions which go to the heart of the Rite were clear and certain. And then the sign of friendship and support seems to have a warmth and depth that speaks of a journey walked together.

The numbers of people is what makes the most stirring impression. Assuming that people are truly meaning what the Rite would have them mean – or even that they are attempting this – it is amazing and encouraging and challenging to see so many people coming to make a public profession of ‘new’ faith.

In the case of this diocese it is sad that the response to the numbers has been to abandon a principal symbolic action (the calling out or their names and the signing of their names by the elect) and to obscure the significance of the presentation of their names by combining it with the welcome of candidates for reception/completion of initiation and obscuring the presentation of (both sets of) names with a handshake with auxiliary bishops. The gesture of welcome is a genuine one, and well received by the elect and candidates, but it lacks the personal punch and commitment of the symbol of the declaration and handing over of the name

When I saw primroses flowering in the woods on Saturday, I thought of the wonder of creation and how these tiny flowers were being propelled into our world much earlier than usual. But don’t we always have primroses in Lent and isn’t creation just adapting and keeping in time, so all the concerns about it being an early Rite of Election this year melted into the sunlight.

Creation cropped up again when proclaimed in the Scriptures, a story that reflects a disastrous choice, and so I turned to the Rite and saw just how many choices have to be made, that enable the Godparents, Catechists, Sponsors, clergy, local community and the catechumens to be able to affirm that these in our midst are ready to go forward and become the ‘elect’.

It’s worth having a renewed look at the rite: being able to remember ‘the lengthy period of formation … of minds and hearts’#118, the ‘conversion in mind and action and to have developed a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching as well as a spirit of faith and charity’ #120, for that will need to sustain the elect during the period of purification and enlightenment.

They also have the experience of having shared the rite with their fellow catechumens, and candidates from throughout the diocese in a ceremony whose symbolism tells of the worldwide Church. I thought what a wonderful liturgical gesture: to have the elect (and candidates) walk down the side aisles of the cathedral, and when called, walk forward towards the Bishop, who in turn walked to greet each one. So there was a continual flow of movement as the Bishop greeted first on the right and then crossed to the other side; the person then turned and walked up the central aisle with their Godparent (Sponsor), through the womb (or heart) of the church. Whether by design or accident, it was rich in symbolism. Congratulations also to our Bishop who individually greeted around 37 catechumens and 130 candidates.

And finally I return to primroses: for as I saw the radiance on some of the faces of those presented to the Bishop, I fleetingly thought of the primroses radiant in the Lenten sunshine.

At St Barnabas’ Cathedral in Nottingham, Bishop Malcolm welcomed the 125 candidates and catechumens who gathered for election. Our theme this year was ‘Give as a gift – receive as a gift’, based on Matthew 10:8. The sight of the candidates, catechumens and their sponsors processing into the cathedral behind the Book of the Elect was an awesome sight and profoundly moving. In advance, candidates and catechumens had been sent a scroll and invited to write down a passage from scripture which had touched them in some way. These were gathered in as they entered the Cathedral and after signing the Book of the Elect they were invited to take away a scroll as a gift. The word of God alive and active and a gift received and shared. We’re only aware of one person who received their own scroll back!

In his homily, Bishop Malcolm spoke of the temptations around us, highlighting the temptation to individualism and the commitment of the candidates and catechumens to life as community. He spoke of the way faith was shared and spread in this part of the world, referring to St Bede and reminding us that our faith is received as a gift and is a gift to be given and shared. Each of the elect received a prayer card with the prayer the Diocese of Nottingham is using to focus on how we hand on our faith, and the front of the card showed an image of The English Cross, a cross carved from a dead tree by local artist, Rev Jean Lamb.

At the Rite of Election this year one young woman arrived on her own to be presented to the Bishop as a candidate. She was very nervous and did not have her request for admission form with her. We were able to provide her with a new form and she was befriended by a member of another parish who sat with her and accompanied her to meet the Bishop. How she had been sent forth from her parish on her own I do not know but thank God for the kind stranger who is now a friend. Both women were very moved by the experience and saw God very much at work in their meeting and participation in the Rite of Election.


Will there be fewer people at the Rite of Election this year?

I received an email newsletter just before Christmas which, with an apologetic tone, reminded me that it was only 5 and 1/2 weeks until the beginning of Lent. Easter is almost as early as it can be this year — it can only fall on 22 March before that and that won’t happen in our lifetimes (2285 if you really want to know!). An early Easter means an early Lent and the First Sunday, the normal date for the Rite of Election, will be on 10 February. Hence my question. Or at least the origin of my question. What’s behind is a question about whether the discernment which is proper before the Rite of Election might say we need a bit longer before we can answer the questions asked of us at the Rite with integrity.

  • Have they faithfully listened to God’s word proclaimed by the Church?
  • Have they responded to that word and begun to walk in God’s presence?
  • Have they shared the company of their Christian brothers and sisters and joined with them in prayer?

Before looking at what the Rite says about being prepared for the Rite of Election and the length of the catechumenate a story.

Last autumn I was in Tours, France and I took the opportunity of visiting the shrine of my patron saint — St Martin. The shrine is a 19th Century basilica and in the crypt is the tomb of St Martin (died 397). Nearby is a museum which tells the history of both the Basilica and of St Martin himself through fragments and art works. One of the most famous incidents in his life happened when he was 17 and a soldier in the Roman army at Amiens. On a cold winter’s night he met a beggar and though he had little he shared is cloak with him. That night he had a vision of Christ in the guise of the beggar. He heard Christ say to the surrounding angels:

Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.

Though I was familiar with the story and some of the many images associated with it I had not come across the last line before and it served as a reminder both that one time to be a Catechumen was a distinct stage in a person’s life and that God is working during this period. The Life of St Martin, written quite soon after Martin died, says that he became a Catechumen when he was 10 and shortly after his vision he sought to be baptised at the age of 18.

Looking at the Rite

In the introduction to the Rite of Election it states:

Before the rite of election is celebrated, the catechumens are expected to have undergone a conversion in mind and in action and to have developed a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching as well as a spirit of faith and charity.

RCIA 107

And the length of the catechumenate…

The time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough — several years if necessary — for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong. By their formation in the entire Christian life and a sufficiently prolonged probation the catechumens are properly initiated into the mysteries of salvation and the practise of an evangelical way of life. By means of sacred rites celebrated at successive times they are led into the life of faith, worship, and charity belonging to the people of God.


And why not?

The phrase ‘several years if necessary’ is probably one of those we pass over thinking, if at all, that it applies elsewhere. The challenge is how to faithfully respond the request that the catechumens made at the Rite of Acceptance and to recognise that it takes time.

It is perhaps worth articulating some of the reasons that we find this challenge difficult:

  • we see discernment as, at best, a one-way process by the catechumens not as a shared responsibility which is integral to the Rite
  • Seeing the process of Initiation as a single timetable for a whole group — for whom is such a timetable designed?
  • A year seems a long time to wait for next Easter. Our language can also seem negative: initiation can be delayed or put off.
  • All this pre-supposes a team and a process that can cope with people at different stages over the year.
  • There is also a need to make clear differences between the different periods particularly in terms of catechesis. The period of purification and enlightenment is not the time for a final catch-up on matters of doctrine but a time of spiritual preparation for Easter.

This would not be the time to suddenly decide that your Catechumens will not be going to the Rite of Election! Nor is it a proposal that, like Martin, the Catechumenate should take 7 years. It is an encouragement to continue to reflect on what the potential of Catechumenate is.

  • For further thoughts on these issues see recent postings in Team RCIA
  • The 11 March posting will be reflections on celebrating the Rite of Election – contributions welcome.

Martin F