The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”
Come and see, come and see—we echo Jesus’ words each time we invite and welcome those inquiring about Catholicism. This evening I resume the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA; also referred to as “the catechumenate”). The initial session is always eagerly anticipated by me, the RCIA team and the adults coming to inquire about Christianity in general, Catholicism, in particular. RCIA is for adults who are either unbaptized, or baptized in a Christian tradition other than Catholicism, and now want to explore our faith. They spend an extended amount of time learning about the foundations of our beliefs and traditions and will, perhaps, decide to culminate their process of initiation by coming into communion with us. Those who are already baptized in a Christian tradition other than Catholicism are called Candidates for Full Communion. This admits of the partial communion they share with us through their baptism.
I have the utmost respect for these adults who have all the same concerns we do—mortgages, utility bills, clogged gutters, children, work, school, and so much more—yet commit to immersing themselves in the faith over the course of several months or years, if necessary. Throughout scripture we see Jesus’ heart moved toward those who seek to follow him though they may limp or even be lame in their discipleship. To these and those wounded by injustice or the effects of sin, the Lord remains faithful: “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah; 42:3).
I recall one of the members of the North American Catechumenate telling me that serving in the catechumenal ministry will change the way I “do” everything. Over the years I have come to live into this statement. The perspective of the initiation process certainly has become the lens for all the ministry work in which I engage. The vision behind the RCIA process shores up that becoming a Catholic is about more than assenting to a set of religious propositions. Its emphasis is on stimulating and nurturing a life of discipleship rather than one of mere membership. Throughout the initiation process there is a concern for authenticity; that “conversion” will be manifested in one’s life; in relationships and day-to-day behavior. The process is a process of formation to the Gospel.
Anyone who serves in catechumenal ministry is quite insistent that initiation is a process—not a program. The distinction is more than mere semantics. It refers to the way candidates become connected to the Catholic communal faith. The RCIA team member is more minister than administer, more companion than catechist. They are mindful of the candidate’s family dynamic, their culture, age, maturity and stage in faith. In other words, the RCIA “minister” is, in part, teacher, family therapist, sociologist, spiritual director and most importantly, a companion and witness to the presence and activity of Christ.
Early in the initiation process the inquirers are guided to begin to recognize God’s manifestation in their daily lives. Gradually, their task will be to remain faithful to this kind of dialogue and reflection to gain a degree of self knowledge and sense of mission. This all implies that it is from within human experience that we come to meet and know the living God.
What makes the RCIA process exemplary for all ministry is this dialogical and reflective aspect. The process stimulates and encourages the inquirers to voice their doubts, concerns and struggles. Consequently, listening is integral to this ministry. A Russian proverb counsels that “sometimes we must listen another into being.” The initiation process would not be fruitful if it were only an academic, dispassionate discussion of truth claims. If I were to lecture and dictate to the candidates what the Church teaches and what they are to believe, I would merely be imparting a body of facts about the faith. In his book, A Community of Character, author Stanley Hauerwas points out that the Christian faith can only be sustained in a secularized and pluralistic society through the formation of a community of character in which Christian behavior and conviction are bred, not argued, into existence.
For so many in this type of ministry, it is fairly easy to lose sight of the vision of initiation and get caught up with all kinds of programs to “get people through.” But programs come and go; we do not want our neophytes to come and go. Poet T.S. Elliot warns in his poem, Four Quartets: “It is possible to have the experience but miss the meaning.”
The listening, talking, reflecting and sharing that occurs in the process of initiation communicates far more than any text can. It communicates and incarnates Jesus’ own compassionate patience, care and love. Having experienced this, the new Catholic can then set out on the quest for more and deeper knowledge of the beloved. This movement is beautifully expressed by St. Anselm of Canterbury, who, for me, captures the essence of the RCIA process: “The mind that believes is led by the heart that loves.”
“Come and see;” this is one of the most powerful and beautiful statements of Jesus—and an invitation to us. Come! You are invited to share his life. Jesus does not tell the inquiring disciples what will happen to them, what their future will be. He simply invites them to share his life. Just as he invites the two to share his life, he also invites the RCIA inquirer to do the same. But before he will send them forth on mission, he desires that they spend sufficient amount of time with him. At the center of their Christian life must be union and friendship with him—staying with him. The inquirer and each of us, must purify our intentions and determine to place Jesus at the center of all that we do. If he is not, we may discover that our entire activity was undertaken for ourselves and not for him; we may discover that we were looking for ourselves and not for him. “But seek first his kingdom and righteousness…”(Mt 6:33). In, with and through Jesus, we gain sight of our most authentic self; our identity, mission and destiny. Once we begin to follow Jesus we realize that our lives are not solely about us, just as his life was not about him. His life was about seeking and doing the will of the Father. What is the will of the Father? Come and see, Jesus beckons, come and see!