It happens more than we like to admit: after a joy-filled Easter Vigil, many new Catholics skip out on the post-baptismal catechesis sessions. Our best plans for a riveting exploration of the rich theological and historical meaning of the sacred signs of our faith serve only a few.
Like other RCIA directors, this trend in my own parish has given me much cause for reflection. Was it something I did or didn’t do? There may be any number of reasons why someone does not attend mystagogy, but there are also good reasons why people do show up. Last year, our sessions after Easter were better attended and more appreciated than in years past, due to some changes that helped. This article will share with you a few observations and ideas from that experience.
“Fear not little flock”- Luke 12:22
To begin, we started our RCIA with a smaller group than usual. This, of course, was not a freely chosen change! While I, and the RCIA team, mourned the lower numbers and searched for any reasons for it, we soon discovered something important. This smaller group of people (about 10 candidates and catechumens plus their sponsors) bonded with each other seemingly better than any of our other groups before. The retreats and minor rites also went better. There was simply more time to devote to each person, and more impetus for each one to get to know the others. The friendships that formed among the catechumens and candidates helped inspire the improved attendance of mystagogy, I’m sure. Call it positive peer pressure.
Other little changes also helped improved attendance. For example, during the Lenten season, we mentioned mystagogy at almost every turn. It was presented as something important and exciting that we looked forward to doing with them. Part of the reason we could be so positive involves the new elements we included. I will speak of those later.
In battling the business of everyone’s schedule, we conceded a few things to the rhythm of the secular calendar. For example, on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, we did not ask them to participate in a mystagogical session apart from attending the Mass of their choice. They appreciated the break and the time with their families.
When we gathered together to unpack the sacraments, the sacred signs, and their layers of significance, the sessions were heavily driven by discussion. They each had an opportunity to speak about what was most meaningful to them in each sacrament. This was a welcomed change in rhythm from our more didactic catechumenal sessions on the sacraments. At times, their insights were amazing! One young man shared his experience of “being made totally new” by Jesus in Holy Communion.
Finally, when the concluding celebration of mystagogy took place on Pentecost, to help encourage attendance, we included a special thank you brunch prepared by the new Catholics for their sponsors. No one wanted to miss it!
Altogether, having a smaller group who got along well together was the first of several changes that God made during our RCIA last year. Sensitivity to family and more dialogical catechetical sessions helped to reinvigorate our RCIA process. However, there was still one more change that we made last year, which everyone appreciated: we discovered and engaged our local Church community (beyond our parish), experiencing the joys of warm hospitality and service.
“A full and joyful welcome” and “works of charity”
It’s been said that St. John of the Cross would take his friars on long hikes through nature so that they would not want to leave the monastery because of having spent too much time there! Something similar might be said of the catechetical sessions of the RCIA.
After months of weekly formation, many new Catholics are ready for a break from regular meetings. In my experience, even eager neophytes, who have expressed their love of attending RCIA sessions and have said they will miss the weekly meetings, still tend to be absent at mystagogy. As I mentioned before, some of the absenteeism comes from the pace of our lives. The spring is a busy time with graduations, vacations, and weddings. Many new Catholics have family members who are looking forward to them being home again. Others simply want a change of pace.
The period of mystagogy needs to offer refreshing variations. We need to lead new Catholics into a better understanding of the sacraments and signs; but we can also draw from other aspects of this period of formation.
In the RCIA book, we read the following in paragraphs 244 and 246, respectively:
[Mystagogy] is a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing works of charity.
The period of postbaptismal catechesis is of great significance for both the neophytes and the rest of the faithful. Through it the neophytes, with the help of their godparents, should experience a full and joyful welcome into the community and enter into closer ties with the other faithful.
These two dimensions of community and works of charity during the period of mystagogy, which we can easily overlook, are very important for our new Catholics. First, this period is a time for “the neophytes, with the help of their godparents, [to] experience a full and joyful welcome into the community and enter into closer ties with the other faithful”. Secondly, together we deepen our understanding, meditate on the Gospel, receive the Sacraments, and also “[do] works of charity.”
We can help our new Catholics discover and grow in love for the local Church of our own dioceses, by heading out of our parish to visit and serve others. Coming together to pray and serve builds up the Body of Christ, even as it makes tangible the communion the members of the Body share in Christ. Last year, we planned two trips that also helped connect our neophytes with the long history of the Church through living contact with our brothers and sisters.
We first traveled about an hour and half from our parish in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to an abbey of contemplative Benedictine monks in Hulbert. Our Lady of Clear Creek is rich in vocations, with numerous young men from all over the world joining them in a monastic life of ora et labora, prayer and work. This community prays and celebrates Mass in the extraordinary form (that is, in “heaven’s own native Latin,” to quote a venerable, old Dominican). There is also a women’s retreat house, which is always in need of gardeners.
New Catholics, their families, their spouses, their sponsors, and our RCIA team caravanned deep into the countryside, where Our Lady of Clear Creek lies nestled among the hills and skirted by a spring-fed creek. The new Catholics experienced the Mass in Latin for the first time, received a brief talk from one of the monks, and visited the gift shop with its many religious articles, books, and monastery-crafted foods. After a delicious lunch together at the women’s retreat house, everyone rolled up his or her sleeves and lent a hand in beautifying the grounds.
Every aspect of the day added something to the love of these new Catholics for the Church. For weeks after, they continued to thank me for arranging that experience for them.
When we came together again for catechesis in the parish, the group was particularly happy to reconnect over coffee and donuts. They had discovered the Church more deeply and had strengthened their friendship with one another by serving together. This was not their first opportunity to serve together, but it was the first opportunity after having become Catholic themselves. It was refreshing to do something out of the ordinary by meeting these men and getting a taste of their simple and pure lives of prayer and work.
So, while the “principal” setting of mystagogical catechesis is the Sunday Mass and its emphasis is on unveiling the spiritual substance of the sacraments, it’s helpful to break from “the routine” occasionally. Instead of participating at our own parish Mass and the regular formal catechesis that Sunday, we knew the Mass, homily, and experience at the abbey would more than suffice for their catechesis.
A few weeks later, we spent an evening at St. Therese Maronite Catholic Church in Tulsa. The Maronite Rite comes from Lebanon and Syria, and our local Maronite parish is shepherded by a Lebanese priest. The Mass is prayed mostly in English. However, the prayers of consecration are chanted by the priest in Aramaic, the very language of Jesus.
Besides Mass, our evening included a delicious Lebanese dinner and a presentation about the Maronite Catholic Church from the priest. We learned about their history, their liturgy, their great saints, and our unity within the Catholic Church. It was another eye-opening experience of the communion of the Church through history and across cultures. The response of our neophytes was similar: amazement, joy, and gratitude.
Every diocese has something special for new Catholics to discover. We might live far away from the cathedrals and landmarks of faith that can be found in Europe or the Holy Land, but we can still offer our new members the opportunity to know the Church better through the living witness of those around us and through loving service.
These mutual works of giving and receiving have helped our new Catholics know and love their local Church. In loving the Church, we love Christ. Each act of love leads us to a deeper knowledge of God who is Love. In the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, “One single act of love will make us know Jesus better… it will bring us closer to him for all eternity.”[i] God bless you, your local Church and the new Catholics you’re welcoming!
Mystagogy –The final period of formal instruction (literally a “deepening in the mysteries”) in the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, lasting for seven weeks from Easter to Pentecost. This time is also referred to as the period of post-baptismal catechesis. –RCIA Leader’s Manual, The Association for Catechumenal Ministry (ACM), Clinton, Maryland, 2007, xv.
Neophyte Year – The first year that a person is a Catholic, from the point of his or her initiation to the first anniversary of that event. The initial seven weeks of this year are collectively referred to as the mystagogy period. –RCIA Leader’s Manual, The Association for Catechumenal Ministry (ACM), Clinton, Maryland, 2007, xv.
Christine Myers, PhD, was recently appointed Director of Religious Formation for the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma. She spent the last several years as the director of RCIA and adult education at St. Bernard of Clairvaux parish in South Tulsa.
[i] Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Volume I: General Correspondence 1877-1890 (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1982), LT 89.
This article originally appeared on pages 29-31 of the printed edition.