In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults there are several aspects of formation and many moving parts that all contribute to the overall formation of the catechumens and the candidates. The pastoral aspect of formation concerns itself with the overall discipleship development of the catechumens, while the catechetical aspect helps them come to know the Word of God and brings them into intimacy with Jesus Christ. However, it is sometimes easy to forget that the RCIA is a liturgical rite and that the liturgical rites provide the grace and supernatural power that transforms the catechumens to become more like Christ and brings them into the life of grace. Therefore, it is crucially important that we both understand and fully implement all of the liturgical rites the Church provides us in the RCIA process in order to effectively form life-long disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Liturgy: The Grace that Drives the RCIA Process
First, we have to understand that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is exactly that—a liturgical Rite. It is the liturgical rites that drive the process, from marking the movement of the catechumens from one period to the other to lavishing the catechumens with the grace of Christ and the Church as they move through the joyful (yet sometimes long and difficult) RCIA journey. Without this grace and supernatural assistance—which is the living water that drives the entire process—we risk forming catechumens who are not adequately prepared and empowered by God’s grace to live the Christian life.
In discussing these liturgical rites, we can distinguish between two particular kinds of rites given to us by the Church in the RCIA process. The first is called a “major rite” which includes “the more intense moments of initiation” (RCIA, 6). Examples include the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens that begins the Period of the Catechumenate. Another would be the Rite of Election and Enrollment of Names that begins the Period of Purification and Enlightenment; and the final major rite is the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. These rites provide the grace and assistance of the Church as the catechumens progress from one period of the process to another.
The RCIA also offers a variety of other liturgical rites that are called “minor rites” that belong to particular periods of the RCIA. While these rites are called “minor rites” to distinguish them from the “major rites” that coincide with the major liturgical steps in the process, these minor rites are in no way to be neglected and are a crucial and indispensable part of the overall RCIA process. These minor rites are in fact packed with major grace that assists, strengthens, heals, and empowers the catechumens as they journey towards fullness of life in the Catholic Church.
The bottom line is that any fully effective RCIA process must employ the minor and the major rites in order to bring about the full and fruitful discipleship development of the catechumens. Let’s now explore more fully the minor rites of the RCIA process and how we can most effectively celebrate these rites.
Minor Rites Belonging to the Period of the Catechumenate
There are a number of minor liturgical rites that the Church, in her maternal care, provides to lavish grace upon the catechumens as they journey in the period of the catechumenate: “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” (RCIA, 76).
Celebrations of the Word of God (RCIA, 81-89)
The first kind of minor rite that belongs to the period of the catechumenate are Celebrations of the Word of God. These help the catechumens to become acquainted with the Word of God as heard, celebrated, and responded to in the life of the Church. As the rite states, “Among the rites belonging to the period of the catechumenate, then, celebrations of the word of God are foremost” (RCIA, 79).
Celebrations of the Word of God can be used in various instances during the period of the catechumenate, but they are particularly effective when celebrated in connection with catechetical sessions (RCIA, 84). It is advantageous to begin catechetical sessions with a celebration of the Word of God by choosing Scripture passages that are related to the topic that is being taught. This will allow the truths of God’s revelation to reach the hearts and minds of those being taught, for “indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
These celebrations of the Word of God closely model the Liturgy of the Word that is celebrated at Mass (the Rite gives a model of how to do a celebration of the Word of God in RCIA, 85-89). This helps the catechumens not only prayerfully encounter Sacred Scripture, but it also helps them to begin to understand and become familiar with the celebration of the liturgy as lived and prayed in the community of the faithful.
Celebrations of the Word of God can also be done in conjunction with the Lord’s Day. (RCIA, 83) This is often accomplished when the catechumens are dismissed from the assembly after the Liturgy of the Word for further reflection upon and study of the Scripture readings. Celebrations of the Word of God can also be celebrated in order to explain the signs and meaning of the liturgical seasons and feast days of the Church’s liturgical year by reading and reflecting upon the Scripture readings of the day or those related to the season (RCIA, 82).
Minor Exorcisms (RCIA, 90-94)
When people hear the term “exorcism,” most immediately think of someone who is being freed of demonic possession. However, the term exorcism can have different meanings and functions in the life of the Church. While a “formal” exorcism addresses demonic oppression or possession, minor exorcisms, as in the case of the RCIA, ask for Christ and the Church to help with the struggle between the flesh and the spirit and assist the catechumens as they strive for conversion away from sin in order to live in the freedom of Christ. As the Rite explains:
They draw the attention of the catechumens to the real nature of the Christian life, the struggle between flesh and spirit, the importance of self-denial for reaching the blessedness of God’s kingdom, and the unending need for God’s help. (RCIA, 90)
A good example of this divine assistance for the catechumens is seen in one of the prayers: “Protect them from the spirit of evil and guard them against error and sin, so that they may become the temple of your Holy Spirit.”
Blessings of the Catechumens (RCIA, 95-97)
These blessings reveal the love of God and the maternal care of the Church as the catechumens journey to the fullness of the Christian life. As the rite explains:
[Blessings] are bestowed on the catechumens so that, even though they do not as yet have the grace of the sacraments, they may still receive from the Church courage, joy, and peace as they proceed along the difficult journey they have begun. (RCIA, 95)
A powerful example of one of the blessings: “We thank you for these catechumens whom you have called. Strengthen them in faith, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Anointing of the Catechumens (RCIA, 98-102)
This rite, using the oil of catechumens, not only anticipates their coming baptism but gives the catechumens grace to continue their ongoing conversion to Christ and to live in the freedom of Christ for their entire lives. As the rite states:
The anointing with oil symbolizes their need for God’s help and strength so that, undeterred by the bonds of the past and overcoming the opposition of the devil, they will forthrightly take the step of professing their faith and will hold fast to it unfalteringly throughout their lives. (RCIA, 99)
During the anointing, the forehead and hands of the catechumens are anointed with the Oil of Catechumens in order to strengthen their faith in both knowledge and action. Additionally, the anointing of the catechumens may be done several times during the catechumenate as a group or even as warranted on an individual basis.
Celebrating the Minor Rites During the Catechumenate
As we can see, these minor rites provide an abundance of grace and supernatural power to the catechumens as they advance in the Christian life. These minor rites should be given frequently to the catechumens during this period. Minor exorcisms and blessings can be done at the beginning of catechetical sessions in the context of a celebration of the Word of God, or at the end of catechetical sessions, or even at the end of the breaking open the Word of God sessions on Sundays.
Minor Rites Belonging to the Period of Purification and Enlightenment
The period of purification and enlightenment is the final period of preparation for the Easter sacraments, and this period provides minor rites that prepare the elect to fully embrace and live out the Christian life. These rites are essential and irreplaceable in opening the catechumens’ hearts and minds to receive the grace of the sacraments and to become life-long intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Scrutinies (RCIA, 141-146)
The scrutinies are of central importance in the period of purification and enlightenment. These rites are called scrutinies because they call the Elect to “scrutinize” their lives in the light of faith through self-searching and repentance to help them to turn away from sin and towards Christ their savior. The scrutinies are celebrated on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. Though very simple, the scrutinies are profoundly important: “These rites, therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all” (RCIA, 141).
The elect should be sufficiently prepared for the celebration of the scrutinies through effective catechesis centered on the Gospel readings related to each scrutiny as well as on the grace and power that is offered to them in these rites. Do not let the simplicity of these rites fool you! These are powerful and transformative rites with major grace that should be celebrated prayerfully and worthily with careful catechetical and liturgical preparation.
In addition to the scrutinies, the Church also offers the elect the presentations of the Creed and the Our Father to prepare them to fully live out the Christian life. These presentations should preferably be celebrated within Mass in the presence of a community of the faithful so that the Elect can be supported by the Christian community. As the rite explains:
Thus, with the catechumenal formation of the elect completed, the Church lovingly entrusts them to the Creed and the Lord’s prayer, the ancient texts that have always been regarded as expressing the heart of the Church’s faith and prayer. (RCIA, 147)
The presentation of the Creed takes place during the week following the first scrutiny. The presentation of the Creed prepares the elect to fully embrace their faith in Christ and the Church and for the Creed to become for them their rule of life. As the rite explains, “The Creed, as it recalls the wonderful deeds of God for the salvation of the human race, suffuses the vision of the elect with the sure light of faith” (RCIA, 147). During the presentation, the Elect receive a copy of the Nicene Creed with the following words: “My dear friends, listen carefully to the words by which you will be justified. The words are few but the mysteries they contain are great. Receive them with a sincere heart and be faithful to them.”
The presentation of the Lord’s Prayer takes place the week following the third scrutiny. The Elect are presented with a copy of the Our Father to remind them that, “The Lord’s Prayer fills them with a deeper realization of the new spirit of adoption by which they will call God their Father, especially in the midst of the eucharistic assembly” (RCIA, 147).
The Preparation Rites (RCIA, 185-205)
Finally, the Church provides the elect with several minor rites to be celebrated on Holy Saturday that provide proximate preparation for the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation. Ideally, Holy Saturday should be a time spent in quiet prayer and preparation for the Easter Vigil. In conformity with this spirit, the preparation rites may be celebrated in the morning or in the late afternoon or another suitable time that fits the needs of the community.
The first preparation rite on Holy Saturday is the Recitation of the Creed in which the Elect formally recite the Creed for the first time in preparation for their baptism (RCIA 193-196). The second is the Ephphetha Rite, from the Hebrew word “be opened” echoing the words of Jesus who healed the man who was deaf and mute (Mk 7:31-37) This is a blessing over the mouth and ears “that you may profess the faith you hear, to the praise and glory of God” (RCIA, 197-199). Finally, there is the optional rite of the Choosing of a Baptismal Name for those who may desire to choose a new baptismal name (RCIA, 200-202).
Living Water for the Journey
As we have seen, the liturgical aspect of the RCIA drives the entire process of conversion and provides the grace and supernatural “fuel” that brings about the full and life-long conversion of the catechumens. As pastors, RCIA directors, and teams, it is imperative that we understand and implement both the major and minor liturgical rites so as to not deprive the catechumens of the living water offered by the Church throughout their journey into the Catholic Church and new life in Christ.
Lucas Pollice, M.T.S. is Associate Professor of Theology and Catechetics and Director of Curriculum Development at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO.
This article originally appeared on pages 40-42 of the printed edition.
Art Credit: public domain photo from Needpix.com