Throwing fish to the penguins?

Like many others my understanding of the task of the adult catechumenate has developed over the years – or at least I think (and hope) it has.

I’m sure that when I was first involved in the process as a catechist my first instinct was to try to teach the faith, only. And the faith I tried to teach, or share, was largely to do with belief about this or that. Such beliefs are important. And we are instructed that one of the tasks of the process is that encounter with the tradition of the Church. Cf RCIA 75.

My first approach has been challenged by the experience that that there was often a world of difference between what I was trying to teach and what was being learnt. And often enough this gap existed because the ‘teacher’ hadn’t paid enough attention to those he wanted to teach/wanted to help learn!

RCIA 75 also requires that part of the work of the one charged with enabling the formation of catechumens is to help them to share in our life in common. If that is not being achieved in the catechumenal group – not just in terms of warm fuzziness, but in terms of careful attentiveness, and readiness to serve actual need then the effectiveness of other dimensions of the formation we offer is going to be compromised. Faith is also about relationship. Relationship with God and relationship in the Church.

So, over time, I’ve moved from process which is mostly about input, to process to which is more about engaged and mutual reflection. How are we finding God? How are we finding each other? This reflection is not empty of belief about this or that, or God or the Church. But it is about much more than that belief alone. It’s about how these things matter to us, and why. Not just why they could or should matter to ‘them’, but why they matter to me, and maybe will matter to ‘us’.

It’s quite challenging, is this. It leaves the catechist somewhat more vulnerable to the process because it requires more in the way of personal commitment and transparency to the group. It’s less like throwing fish to the penguins, and more like getting in the pool, joining with the others in the search for that food, the ICTHUS, the nourishment of life or heart and soul that only God can give.

In the past year I’ve returned to parish ministry – after some years doing other things. I find myself once more taking part in the work of the adult catechumenate in a particular parish community.

And I’ve inherited a format which is resiliently based on the school year, a six months all-in-one structure. And this brings a challenge. How best, within those present constraints, to equip those in the group for Christian living beyond their (relatively short) time in the RCIA group? Adult learning often goes quite slowly – even when people more, more or less, volunteer for it. Responding to people’s sometime active and passionate desire to learn and grow helps, of course; as does putting the effort into trying to discern what it is that the group experience can help people to learn helps that process along, but there are still very clear limits to what can be achieved in 6 months or so.

Given these circumstances, and my reading of them, I think my understanding of my role, during this year and over time, has shifted yet again. We try to focus on responding to what those searching for faith and those beginning to live more deliberate and consciously faithful lives are ‘ready for’. And we try to be aware of how the members of the group have a right to know what the Church believes about God and herself and the world – at least in the basics. But there’s been something more too, and that’s trying to remain ever conscious of how what we are doing and sharing in will give our catechumens and candidates skills to draw on the resources of the Church in the future.

What does this amount to – well, for example, not only teaching about the scriptures and making use of the scriptures in our gatherings, but again and again speaking of how in our prayer with scripture outside of these gatherings, and outside of Mass, we can meet with the Lord and deepen our knowledge of him. Or, another example, focusing on how we pray the Mass and the presences of Christ there, building up an expectation that, week on week, what we should expect to change at Mass is not just bread and wine, but us. And the other – answers on a postcard please, because I’ve really not made much progress on this one – is trying to see how we can continue to support the members of the group after the ‘given’ period of mystagogy.

One challenge in this, that our catholic parishes as a whole are really very a-mystagogical in the way we live, share in sacraments, and consider our faith. Maybe, just maybe, the way we resource our catechumens and candidates this year will help them to serve as a sort of leaven in the batch.

Allen M