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Lent --- the Final Sprint Toward Easter

by Joyce Stolberg

Humongous hummocks of soggy snow, useless for making snow angels, stained ash gray by slush-splashing cars and coal dust from nearby chimneys, lethargically awaiting their inevitable demise under the lengthening, strengthening April sunshine, framed my childhood encounters with Lent. I remember reluctantly giving up those stops at the candy store on the way home from school, placing my allowance in the "mite" (tiny offering) box, and stopping in my parish church to pray the Stations of the Cross. I recall wondering --- if all those luscious looking milk chocolate figurines were sold before Easter, and if I couldn't purchase or eat any until after Easter --- when would I ever get to enjoy them? We were, indeed, taught about prayer, penance, almsgiving, and gloom, both in theory and in practice.

 The reinstatement of the RCIA sacramental preparation process in the late 1970s transformed Lent forever, rendering it, in my opinion, the most exciting liturgical season of the year. Restored to its original purpose, Lent now facilitates the final preparations for persons receiving the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter. What had been (and still is) a time of personal prayer, penance, and almsgiving emerged into a phase of intense intercessory prayer and sacrifice for catechumens and candidates.  After personal journeys lasting from about a year up to a lifetime, these persons are welcomed and prayed for in multiple ceremonies during Lent. With the Rites of Sending, Election, Call to Continuing Conversion, Scrutinies, Presentations of the Creed and the Our Father, and other minor rights, Lent has acquired a richness and depth beyond any experienced in the recent history of the Church. Without neglecting prayerful contemplation of the passion of Christ, practices of personal penance, and acts of charity, we continually center on Christ in the persons of the candidates and catechumens lining up for that final sprint towards toward the Sacraments of Initiation. How we long to embrace them as fully initiated members of our ecclesial community!

In the ancient Church, the Enrollment of Names, conducted 40 days before Easter, was a thrilling, suspense-filled event. Who among the catechumens would come forward to declare their intentions to receive Baptism this year? St. Augustine recounts in his Confessions, how a certain highly esteemed professor came forward, amid great cheering, to publicly enroll his name. Recreate some of this holy excitement at your Rite of Sending as you call catechumens and candidates forward by name, and share the testimony you gathered at your pre-election retreat. Post their pictures and names on your church bulletin board. This Sending takes on a literal meaning when team, sponsors, and participants must hustle out of their local church and carpool to the Cathedral in time to claim their seats for the Rite of Election, when the bishop welcomes those who have been sent to him from local parishes across the diocese. This first trip to the diocesan cathedral can be a thrilling adventure, especially for participants who come from outlying areas.

This is only the beginning. You celebrate rites each week for the first five weeks of Lent, followed by the participants' first experience of the Holy Week liturgies. When directors cooperate closely with the parish liturgist or with the pastor in implementing these rites, they bring new life to the whole parish.  The Call to Continuing Conversion, a prayer over baptized candidates, takes place on the second Sunday of Lent.  The three Scrutinies are celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent: these are prayers and blessings specifically for catechumens. They assist in clarifying catechumens' intentions to receive the sacraments at Easter. We are reading from lectionary Year A this year; therefore the Gospel from St. John is proclaimed at all Masses.  During Years B and C, the readings from Year A should be used at the Masses during which the Scrutinies are celebrated. Several options are available for the presentation of copies of the Creed, however, it should be celebrated in the presence of a community of the faithful, within Mass, after the homily (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults USCCB). Because catechumens and candidates formally congregate on Sunday, the favored time for this celebration is immediately following the first scrutiny. Likewise, the presentation of the "Our Father" should be done during the fifth week of Lent, likely immediately following the third scrutiny. Involve your candidates and catechumens in active roles, such as the foot washing, during Holy Week liturgies, and secure reserved places in processions and near the Paschal fire.

It has often been asked in one form or another, "Why is all this attention being concentrated on a few new adults while other active groups in the congregation receive attention rarely or not at all?" Our catechumens and candidates are a sign of hope for the whole community, and they remind us all of our own initiation. The salvation won for us through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is being offered to them, as it has been offered to us, and the essential missionary nature of the church is being expressed, here and now, within the whole community.

The season of Lent is no longer a lengthy drag; it has become a breathtaking sprint. The chocolate or lack thereof is not even important. From the ashes received on Ash Wednesday near the end of winter to the new life springing from the flowing water of our baptismal fonts in the exuberance of springtime, the whole Church rejoices in new life, new hope, and an abundant outpouring of grace on all.

Keeping Vigil with the Elect

by Joyce Stolberg

Budding crocuses and daffodils chase the slushy mounds of old, dirty snow up through the northern latitudes as the springtime sun climbs higher in the sky. Easter will soon be upon us. Now our Elect are making immediate, contemplative, intense preparations to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. The Church eagerly anticipates the moment when they will be welcomed as fully initiated members of the body of Christ. Candidates will soon, or perhaps already have been, welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church. What can we do for all our participants right now to meet their needs in these last weeks of Lent?

Chapters from the Gospel of St. John are read at Sunday Mass during these weeks, in which the scrutinies are celebrated; they provide ample material for in-depth meditation. I strongly recommend spending time in your sessions actually praying, using various methods of Catholic prayer, and practicing specific Catholic devotions. About two weeks ago, we spent our whole session simply praying: I lead the guided meditation on page 60 of God Calls You by Name; we prayed the rosary, practiced the Jesus Prayer, and experienced Lectio Divina. We concluded with Evening Prayer from the Divine Office. These prayer experiences may be quite familiar to us as Catholics; however, persons coming into the Church likely have not been taught to pray using these methods. I thought that we were doing very ordinary exercises with our group, so I was astonished when two people came and said that this was their best RCIA session ever!

Our parish holds Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings during Lent and our RCIA group led this devotion one evening. Because it was carried out in a very simple format, conducted by the laity, our Elect were thrilled to take leadership roles. Following Stations, we shared the simple pleasures of homemade meatless soup and bread. One of our young adult Elect once remarked, "In public school they were careful not to teach us religion, so I never heard the story of Jesus' sufferings before this." The liturgy, of course, is our most essential prayer; frequent or even daily reception of Holy Communion defines our piety and bears fruit in our lives. Yet private devotions nourish our spiritual life: the careful combination of vocal prayers, thought-provoking meditation and physical movement pierce our psyche, allowing the grace of God to penetrate our spirits through the actions of our bodies and minds. This leads us to a deep contemplative openness to the love of God, our Blessed Mother and the saints. The Elect are hungry for a deeper spirituality. During this period of Enlightenment, nourish this hunger through prayer, devotions, and meditation, as well as through participation in our liturgical rites.

Your major phase of intense discernment took place before the Rite of Election; yet all through Lent, the Church continues to ask the Elect, "Are you ready?" Discernment continues to take place right up until the Easter Vigil when the sacraments will be received. Encourage sponsors to be especially solicitous during these weeks in regard to any questions or doubts their participants may express. Be available yourselves to deal with any issues that may arise.

Take some time also to share the tremendous spiritual and biblical treasures compressed into the liturgies of Holy Week. Save places for your elect, sponsors, those recently received into full communion, those still discerning, and team. This will be the first time many participants take part in Holy Week liturgies.

Until several years ago, the Combined Rite brought both candidates and elect into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Now, many bishops are directing that candidates be received at a different ceremony, usually before Easter. This clarifies the purpose of each rite, honors the baptism of your candidates, and enables them to participate fully in the Holy Week liturgies. If they have been received into the Church before the Easter Vigil, engage their assistance in helping the Elect into and out of the baptismal fountain, and with other practical necessities. Include them in the procession back to the baptismal fountain. These participants have taken the journey together, and have bonded emotionally and spiritually: they should all share in some way in the climactic events of the Easter Vigil, and they should be honored at your reception following the Vigil.

You have a retreat design for your Holy Saturday morning recollection time on page S-95 of the supplement section of God Calls You by Name, Catechists and Directors Edition. I prepared a lengthy meditation which encompasses all the readings proclaimed at the Easter Vigil Liturgy of the Word. This will enable the Elect to truly hear, ponder, and respond to these readings in a relaxed setting. I designed this reflection to compress the faith journey of the Elect, and to elicit responses that encompass their embrace of the totality of the Catholic Faith, and their loving response to God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Here, I suggest that in answer to the questions beginning with "Do you...?" you elicit a strong convincing "I do." Evoke this response repeatedly as you continue through the meditation, and your Elect will answer in the same firm, convincing manner during the ritual questioning immediately prior to Baptism. You may conduct additional activities during this retreat as time permits, such as allowing each person to share his/her choice of baptismal and confirmation names, and allowing time for any residual questions to emerge. While the Elect do not need to know all the details of the ceremonies, they should receive enough information about the basic logistics in order to be well prepared and at least somewhat at ease. They should have some essential practice in the basic mechanics of receiving Holy Communion.

The Ephphetha Rite, though an integral part of the Baptism of infants, is conducted separately with adult Elect. The performance of this rite marks a wonderful conclusion to this Holy Saturday retreat and prepares the elect to return joyfully in the evening for the celebration of the Easter Vigil and the Sacraments of Initiation. After you conclude the retreat, you will likely need to bring the sponsors into the church to rehearse for the evening rites, while the lilies are being unwrapped, the sun beams through the stained glass windows, and the choir practices the longed for "Alleluia."


Preparing for Sending, Election or Enrollment of Names, and Call to Continuing Conversion

by Joyce Stolberg

Whether we run for president of the United States or for a seat on our local home owners' association board, preparation for an election generates a flurry of activity on the part of all those involved. On the contrary, our Rites of Sending and Election or Enrollment of Names, including the Call to Continuing Conversion for candidates, which normally take place on the first Sunday of Lent, is no ordinary election process: there is no campaign, no anxious action, no cutthroat competition, no vote count, no loser!

Preparation for these rites demands serious prayer and introspection by all: candidates and catechumens, directors, catechists, and sponsors. Participants are called to peacefully discern their election by God; directors, catechists, team members, and sponsors are tasked with affirming all candidates' and catechumens' readiness to receive the sacraments at Easter; the bishop of the diocese ratifies their election after receiving the testimony of sponsors and leaders; God binds in heaven what the bishop binds on earth. In my last newsletter I urged directors, catechists, and sponsors to anticipate the discernment that necessarily precedes the Rite of Election. We should now exhort catechumens and candidates to engage in deeper prayer and introspection concerning their intention to embrace the Catholic Faith and persevere in it for a lifetime.

Challenge candidates and catechumens to continually ask themselves these questions. Have I undergone a true change of heart during the time I have participated in the RCIA process? How have I changed --- in my prayer life, in my relationships and interactions with others, in my avoidance of vice and my practice of Christian virtue? Have I gratefully accepted and do I continually accept the salvation offered me by Jesus Christ? Have I established the habit of attending weekly Mass? Do I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches, even though I cannot fully comprehend the mysteries of God? Have I made the Church's moral requirements a stable facet of my lifestyle? Have I fully chosen to embrace the Sacraments of Baptism and/or Confirmation and Holy Eucharist within the Catholic Church, and to live out their implications for the rest of my life?  If I am not sure, do I prefer to take more time? These questions will become material for reflection during your retreat prior to the Rites of Sending and Election or Enrollment of Names and Call to Continuing Conversion.

Prepare for your second retreat: this time of reflection should be themed and geared toward discernment. Go to page S-87 in the supplement portion of your catechist's edition of God Calls You by Name. Here you will find a suggested format for your second retreat. The opening meditation is a lengthy contemplative review of the doctrines you have been teaching for the past months, based on the Sunday Lenten readings from Lectionary Cycle B. This meditation initiates the introspection that will follow.

This reflection takes place in three stages. (Please note that you have permission to copy the questions placed on S-91 in your catechist's manual.) The first stage involves presenting the appropriate questions to sponsors, catechumens, and candidates, giving them time to ponder them and take notes. The instruction, "Sum this all up in one sentence" provides groundwork for a later exercise, and should be taken seriously. Allow approximately 45 minutes. The second phase of discernment requires one-on-one sharing between participants and their respective sponsors. Private reflections are shared and any doubts or reservations can be discussed. Sensitive issues may emerge here; access to and support from capable team members is important. Use your judgment on timing. If your sponsors and participants have been interacting throughout the past months, one half to three quarters of an hour may be ample. The third stage involves full group sharing. Return to those one sentence summaries. Without going into private details, have candidates share their summaries, then have catechumens share their summaries, and finally, have sponsors share their summaries. The work of this session involves developing a compressed testimony from each group that may be read before your local assembly in the appropriate place at the Rite of Sending. See your Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (USCCB) ritual for details.

Serve a simple lunch; a potluck with contributions from all is appropriate here. The work of discernment in the morning has been heavy; choose a lighter project for the afternoon, such as "Time line of My Life," which can be found on pages S-92 through S-94 of your catechist's edition of God Calls You by Name. You have been given permission to copy the time line and symbol sheets (on separate 11" x 17" papers) for everyone. Materials needed include colored pencils (my preference) or fine line markers, scissors, and fresh glue sticks. Sponsors and participants can work together to create their time lines by pasting suitable symbols in appropriate time slots of their lives. This engaging activity supports the discernment theme of the retreat.  Many of the symbols that I placed on page S-94 represent poignant experiences in my own life.

Here comes your insider secret! I deliberately designed this particular activity to enable participants to leave the table without disrupting the group, to speak privately with a priest, team leader, or catechist about specific personal issues and to express their choice to become Catholic or not. I suggest ensuring that each candidate and catechumen takes this opportunity: it will normalize the conversation and also provide an opportunity to "gel" and communicate their readiness to enter the Catholic Church. Team leaders should also consult with each sponsor either prior to or at this point. After all this is completed, allow time for each person to share their time line with the whole group.

Depending on your schedule, you may choose to have candidates and catechumens formally declare their intention now in a prayerful ceremony, or you may postpone this ceremony until your next regular weekly session. Spend some time explaining the rites without describing every detail and, if necessary, planning your trip to the Cathedral. Conclude your retreat day by spending some time in prayer. Dismiss the candidates and catechumens, then rehearse the ceremonies with your sponsors.

By completing these above mentioned exercises and conducting this retreat seriously and meditatively, you will be making immediate preparations to enable candidates and catechumens to quietly and genuinely respond to their election by God. You will also be fulfilling your own responsibility to your bishop and to God by assuring that they are making a conscious uninhibited choice and are fully ready to approach the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter.

What's in a Name?

By Joyce Stolberg

Shakespeare once asked through his character, Juliet, "What's in a name?" This short line compresses the unsolvable conundrum of Romeo and Juliet's romance. In biblical writings, in liturgical ceremony, in Christian living --- and before the throne of God --- a name means everything!

The Holy Trinity has revealed to us the names of the three Persons in the one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "The Sacrament of Baptism is conferred "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 2156). The Angel Gabriel instructed Mary to name the Son of God "Jesus" (Luke 1:31) and gave Joseph the same instruction. The name Jesus means savior; Jesus would save the people from their sins (Mt 1:21). When Moses asked for God's name, God answered, "I am who am" (Ex. 3:14). That name meant that God's essence is to exist. God often gave a new name to a person together with a calling to a new mission. For example, Jesus gave Simon the name "Peter" when he placed him at the head of his Church. "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Mt. 16:18).

The conferral of a saint's name at Baptism gives us a special person in heaven whose virtues we can emulate, and someone upon whom we may call for help. When presenting infants for Baptism, parents were formerly required to choose a saint's name, at least for a middle name. The 1983 revised Canon Law simply states: "Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given" (Can. 855). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "God calls each one by name. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it" (CCC 2158). "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine" (Is. 43:1). This is precisely the text that inspired the title of my book, God Calls You by Name.

Our baptismal name is one asset we take with us when we die. It will somehow characterize our identity in heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The name one receives is a name for eternity. In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God's name will shine forth in splendor" (CCC 2159). Everyone's name is sacred.

Our Puritan ancestors in colonial America developed the custom of naming their children after particular virtues (World Family Tree); these virtues included what we Catholics identify as the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Though baptized Catholic, I was named in this tradition; my name, Joyce, has guided my whole outlook on life. (Though a cradle Catholic, I have Puritan ancestors.) When I was 11 years old, my family made a December move that was intensely thorny for me. With friends left behind, I felt unhappy and unwelcome in my new school. Younger, smaller, poorer, and less athletic than my new classmates, I became easy prey for bullies. My clueless new seventh-grade teacher exacerbated the predicament and my parents were emotionally absent. Depression and isolation gnawed at the core of my budding spirit. Then, as a melancholy 12 year old, I made a resolution that identified and reconfigured me for life --- I determined to live up to my name. Because I was named "Joyce" I would smile and express joy whenever I met someone, regardless of their behavior toward me. I persevered in this pledge, and it seemed to work. That forced smile slowly became genuine, the bullying gradually declined, and tensions eased. I also grew at least 5 inches during my eighth grade year. I had rewired my psyche, if not my brain itself, to radiate that fruit of the Holy Spirit for which I had been named.

As RCIA directors and catechists, we may not be directly involved in the Baptism of infants, although we are probably working with parents and potential parents who will be presenting children for Baptism at Easter or in the future. Therefore, we are tasked with teaching parents the importance of choosing a saint's name or a name compatible with Christian tradition.

We strongly encourage catechumens to choose a patron saint for themselves when they approach the waters of Baptism. Both catechumens and candidates may select an additional name to be conferred when they are confirmed. In this case, we are not attempting to change anyone's legal name; that will remain as it is. These are spiritual and devotional names. To prepare them to use this privilege wisely, we can and should be encouraging our catechumens and candidates to leaf through several books of the lives of the saints and to read more deeply some lives of some saints now. Keep the importance of baptismal names in mind as you continue your catechesis on the sacraments.

When you give instruction on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, add a tour through the reconciliation room of the church in order to enhance the comfort level of your candidates with the practical aspects of confession. A review of the things forbidden and required by the 10 Commandments, from God Calls You by Name, end of Chapter 7, may be done in examination of conscience form; or the meditation, "Journey of Self-Discovery Based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son" at the end of Chapter 14 will reinforce your catechesis on Reconciliation. If you haven't done so already, coordinate with your pastor to provide a reconciliation service at some point during Lent before the candidates are received into full communion with the Church. This first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation should be unhurried, allowing candidates to unload the baggage of a lifetime without worrying about keeping others waiting. A genuine, sincere, and heartfelt confession will make happen for the candidate the cleansing and life-giving rebirth that Baptism effects for the catechumen. A liturgically enriched reconciliation service which includes private confession should bear the weight of the marvelous mystery of God's mercy and forgiveness. The Sacrament of Reconciliation effects the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, therefore Catechumens do not receive it at this point. Yet they should be familiarized with both the form and the location of this sacramental rite. All participants should be advised to identify their status as candidates (or later as neophytes) to the confessor when entering the reconciliation room or confessional for the first time.

World Marriage Day, February 12, is a time for celebrating the sacredness of Christian marriage. Look for activities in which your own parish or diocese offers participation, and encourage your married catechumens and candidates to share in these activities. Tie this celebration into your catechesis on the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Stay in touch with your sponsors during February, and ensure that they are interacting with their catechumen or candidate. Require the establishment of the habit of attending weekly Mass, and encourage the development of a deepening prayer life, the practice of Christian virtue, and the rooting out of habits of sin. As the time of discernment approaches, continue posing these rhetorical questions: How have I changed in response to the grace of God? Am I ready to embrace all that the Catholic Church teaches, not necessarily free from questioning, but open to the wonder of God's love? Am I ready to die to myself and be born again in Christ through the waters of Baptism? Am I firmly resolved to maintain this commitment for the rest of my life?

Continue asking yourselves and your sponsors the questions: Has a true metanoia or change of heart taken place within each candidate or catechumen? Are they truly embracing the Catholic Faith with the intention of remaining in the Church for a lifetime? Are they making a free internally motivated choice? If you are conducting a catechumenate for children of catechetical age, are the children preparing to freely embrace the call to Baptism and Christian life with their parents and godparents' help, and not from parental coercion? If you think about these questions throughout this month, you will be well prepared for the stage of intense discernment prior to the rites of Sending and Election at the beginning of March.

A "very disturbing" trend, becoming more common in Europe, has been making headlines in the news recently: this trend is being called "de-baptism" but it is really a very serious act of apostasy. Msgr. Charls Pope reports on the Archdiocese of Washington website that some persons, especially young people in Europe, are going to the parish of their Baptism requesting that their name be taken off the baptismal registry. They complain that they were baptized as infants when they had no choice. Msgr. Pope questions whether they are acting out of conviction or are merely rationalizing sin. Be assured that the Church cannot remove a name from a baptismal registry; however, annotation is made that the person made a choice to renounce the Faith and henceforth will be denied the Catholic sacraments and Christian burial. Msgr. Pope recognizes that the "Book of Life" mentioned in Revelation is a symbol and not specifically identified with the baptismal registry. Notwithstanding, he issues a stern warning that it is a very serious act to deliberately remove one's name from the baptismal registry and risk removing one's name from the heavenly "Book of Life." I suggest reading Monsignor Pope's full article on the Archdiocese of Washington website. Type "de-baptism" into the search block.

While "de-baptism" is primarily a cradle Catholic phenomenon, those of us who serve in the RCIA are all too familiar with the distressing experience of witnessing catechumens and candidates receive the Sacraments of Initiation and later fall away from or deliberately renounce the practice of the Catholic Faith. We need to prevent this recidivism by properly instructing our catechumens and candidates with solid catechesis that conforms to the Teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Even more, we are charged with forming them in a deeply Catholic and sacramental spirituality. We must promote the development of a correct conscience in keeping with Catholic moral principles and lead them to be fully open to the Salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Our mission is to inspire a true conversion of heart rather than a mere change of practice from one religion to another.

Shakespeare's Romeo was willing to renounce his name and his earthly family and heritage for the love of a woman: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo." By diligently fulfilling our responsibilities in directing our RCIA process and through our catechesis, we participate in the essential missionary nature of the Church. We strive with the help of God's grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ensure that all those whose names we register in the Book of Life during our upcoming Rites of Sending and Election and the Sacraments of Initiation will remain faithful to the practice of the Catholic Faith. We earnestly pray that they persevere and claim their eternal inheritance as they wear their white baptismal robes before the throne of God while celebrating the final victory.

Presenting the Sacraments

by Joyce Stolberg

We have celebrated with great joy the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God become man; we now observe the feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles --- that is --- to the whole world. To capture the awe and wonder of this feast, we turn to the antiphon preceding the Magnificat of Evening Prayer II for the feast of the Epiphany: "Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the River Jordan to bring us salvation." The key word here is "today". The incarnation, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all aspects of the one Paschal mystery: in this portion of the Christmas season the Church celebrates will of God to extend the grace of Salvation to each of us and to every human being. Through our work in the RCIA, we become the donkey on which Jesus rides to reach the open hearts entrusted to us. The Sunday readings for the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus, and the early Sundays of Ordinary Time seamlessly unravel the mystery of God's saving grace for us today.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan concludes the Christmas season and begins Ordinary Time. This year, on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with St. John's account of Jesus' baptism. These readings offer us the perfect liturgical opening for our instruction on the sacraments, through which the saving grace won for us by Jesus Christ becomes available to us today.

Almighty God honors our human nature and values the gifts this earth offers. In the sacraments, God touches our spirit through the use of physical elements. Chapter 11 of God Calls You by Name presents general information concerning the sacraments and the "economy of grace". Sacraments are efficacious signs: through the use of material elements, combined with the words of the sacramental minister, they actually make happen the action of grace in the soul that they signify. They are instituted by Christ: Jesus touched and changed those among whom he walked while he was on earth. This ministry of Jesus is extended to us in the sacraments. Jesus became for us a sacrament, or a living, visible encounter with the invisible God. The sacraments were entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ through the " laying on of hands" --- the visible passing on of power from Jesus to his apostles and down in direct succession to the priests of today. Through the sacraments, divine life is dispensed to us, not through empty cults or magic, but through full rich ritual celebrations that honor and affirm the essential goodness and heal the weakness of our human nature. God wills that his saving grace comes to us through the very essence of our human nature.

Present this general information, which defines the basic nature of the sacraments. Then discuss each sacrament individually --- see Chapters 12 through 15 of God Calls You by Name. You need not attempt to achieve a week by week correlation with the Sunday readings. When presenting the sacraments, it is strongly advisable to obtain speakers who can offer some lived experience of each sacrament. We always attempt to have a married couple present the Sacrament of Matrimony, (the deacon in our parish works in marriage preparation, and loves to teach this segment) and we invite our bishop or priest to present the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This lends authenticity to the teaching. I usually add a short segment on the tremendous value of religious consecrated life, the evangelical counsels, and single life, with or without the vow of chastity, dedicated to the service of the Church.

At this time, the Gospel readings move from Jesus' baptism by John, through his call of the apostles, to the Beatitudes and teachings on Christian living and forgiveness contained in his Sermon on the Mount. Pay attention to the rich content of these readings. Interestingly, the rather lengthy Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 13, discusses anger and reconciliation, as well as divorce and adultery. Conversely, you do not hear the delightful reading from John about the wedding feast at Cana this year. Therefore, I strongly recommend combining the tremendous energy evoked by the Feb. 13 Gospel passage with the emotional vigor generated by the secular feast of Valentine's Day to develop a powerful teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony and the holiness and permanence of the married state. But --- be very sensitive to those who have suffered through a divorce; this passage is extremely painful for them to hear. Very often, your best teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony is intensely difficult for divorced persons undertaking the RCIA process. Offer special encouragement to those who are undergoing the diocesan process leading toward a declaration of nullity. Offer them realistic expectations: if they are remarried, their participation in the rites and sacraments will be delayed until the process is concluded and the declaration of nullity is granted. Yet, in every other way, they can become part of the community and receive the loving support of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

In addition, January brings the time to begin serious discernment concerning candidates and catechumens' readiness to receive the sacraments at Easter. As you return from your Christmas and year-end break, you might begin to gauge the spiritual development and committed interest of your candidates and catechumens. Remember: active interest can be estimated, not only by attendance and participation, but also through the participants' assuming of responsibility for material missed when an excused absence is necessary. Have they grown in virtue and in habits of prayer? Have they set aside vice? The willingness to make lifestyle changes as needed to come into conformity with the demands of the Ten Commandments and the moral requirements of the Church is an important indicator of readiness to prepare for the sacraments. Don't wait until March!

You will also want to assess the development of sponsor-participant relationships. Useful (but not obligatory) tools include holding a meeting with sponsors at this point, and/or making individual phone calls. Remind sponsors that they will be called to affirm publicly, both before their local assembly and before the bishop, the moral uprightness and readiness of their catechumen/candidate to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter. To do this honestly, they must be aware of their participant's lifestyle. If these relationships are developing throughout the RCIA process, then the work of discernment concerning this readiness will proceed smoothly through February and March.

January also reminds us to document in a timely manner the valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism by candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church. They need to obtain baptismal certificates, copies of church records, or at least a letter from someone who directly witnessed their baptisms. The Catholic Church vigorously affirms that baptism, conducted using the Trinitarian formula (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) combined with pouring water over the head of the person being baptized, is the gateway to Christian life and is to be performed only once. (Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism, USCCB) At the November, 2010 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Roman Catholic bishops signed a statement recognizing that baptism establishes the bond of unity existing among all Christians who are already a part of Christ's body. Go to the USCCB website, www.usccb.org and access the document: COMMON AGREEMENT ON MUTUAL RECOGNITION OF BAPTISM. This document affirms the mutual respect among Christian churches of one another's baptism; it affirms clearly and concisely the practice of recognizing Christian baptism, properly performed. This means that when you conscientiously follow the list of Christian denominations that is available from your diocese, whose baptism the Catholic Church recognizes, you can be morally certain that a candidate providing documentation of his or her baptism is properly baptized.

Taking these actions now will enable you to prepare in a timely manner for both the Rites of Sending and Election at the beginning of Lent and for the powerful celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. May the grace of God be with you as you continue your journey with your candidates and catechumens toward the joy of the Sacraments of initiation.

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