Sorting Fish: A Task at the Beginning (Part 2)

Sorting Fish

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus’s parable about the reign of heaven being “like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind” (13:47).  I suggest that a parish evangelizing outreach is like a net that may collect “fish” of every kind:  unbaptized adults and children of catechetical age, baptized uncatechized Christians, baptized catechized Christians, baptized Catholics needing Confirmation and Eucharist, baptized Catholics needing only Confirmation, fully initiated Catholics who have been alienated from the Church and seek to return, and Catholics seeking an update. Unlike Jesus’s parable in which those who have hauled the net ashore put the good fish into buckets and throw away the bad fish, the parish ministers’ sorting task is not so much to throw away any “fish” as it is to discern the path each will take.

To explore this, I will set up a hypothetical beginning group and look at each case in light of the pertinent documents:  canon law, the RCIA, and the National Statues for the Catechumenate (NS).

During the seasons of Lent and Easter, St. Barnabas Parish made a concerted effort to reach out and welcome people who were interested in the Catholic Church.  Seven people responded.  By the end of May, these seven began meeting with parish sponsors and the catechumenate team.  Through personal interviews, sponsors’ informal meetings, and the first few group sessions, catechumenate leaders could piece together the needs and options of each respondent:  the questions to be discerned.

Returning Catholics.  Anna is a fully initiated Catholic who has been away from the Church for almost thirty years.  She left the Church when she married.  As she prepared for marriage, her pastor told her that because of her fiancé’s previous marriage, she could  not participate in the sacraments if she married him.  She went ahead with the wedding and discontinued participating in church activities.  Now she has been widowed for almost two years and she wants to return.

Since the catechumenate is intended for persons who have not been baptized or fully initiated, it is easy to see that it is not the path for Anna.  If Anna passes through the rites and periods of the catechumenal process as a way to “update,” it would be frustrating because neither the rites or periods apply to her.  She could easily lose interest.  The more appropriate path for her would be to  participate in a returning Catholics experience (for example, a Re-Membering Church Community).

Unbaptized Adults.  There are two unbaptized adults in the group, Ben and Charlene, both of whom are interested in becoming Catholic Christians.  Ben was raised in the Middle East with no religious affiliation.  Only since his move to the United States has he come into contact with Christians.  It is through the influence of his neighbor that he came to St. Barnabas inquiring about Catholic Christianity.

Charlene is the wife of one of the parishioners.  She has been participating in the parish because she and her husband have been raising their two children in the Catholic faith.  The children are both enrolled in the parish school.  Charlene’s involvement with their education is her primary source of contact with the parish.

It is obvious that the catechumenal process is designed for both Ben and Charlene.

An adult who intends to receive baptism is to be admitted to the catechumenate and, to the extent possible, be led through the several stages to sacramental initiation, in accord with the order of initiation adapted by the conference of bishops and the special norms published by it.  (canon 851:1)

Consequently, their initiation will be according to the RCIA approved for the dioceses of the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 11, 1986, confirmed by the Apostolic See by decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship on February 19, 1987, and mandated for use as of September 1, 1988.

There are three possible orders of initiation within the RCIA to consider as we discern which is the best path for Ben and Charlene:  the usual form (36-251), the form for exceptional circumstances (331-69), or the form for people in danger of death (370-99).  Neither is in danger of death, so that path is inappropriate for both.

Ben will probably need the complete experience, with the second period (technically called the catechumenate period) being a truly extended period of time.  In the National Statutes, this period is defined as follows:

The period of the catechumenate, beginning at acceptance into the order of catechumens and including both the catechumenate proper and the periods of purification and enlightenment after election or enrollment of names, should extend for at least one year of formation, instuction, and probation.  (NS, 6)

Charlene, on the other hand, has various possibilities.  Because of her involvement in the parish community and in the school community, she may already have begun a bonding process with the Church.  Similarly, she may already have begun her own catechetical formation through participation in her children’s sacramental formation.  Consequently, it is feasible that, though she may pass through essentially the same rites and periods as Ben in the RCIA, the length of the journey may be shorter.  Her circumstances are not really exceptional (see RCIA, 331), but an abbreviated catechumenal path may be understandable because of the depth of Charlene’s Christian conversion and her degree of religious maturity.  That possibility must be discerned carefully.

From my pastoral experience in circumstances similar to Charlene’s, I am inclined to favor the position that further pastoral formation would be needed and beneficial.  I would not rush into an abbreviated form.  It is clear from the National Statutes that the use of this simpler form (especially carrying out the rite in one celebration) is not the  preferred practice.

The abbreviated catechumenate…should extend over a substantial and appropriate period of time.  The rites prior to sacramental initiation should not be unduly compressed, much less celebrated on a single occasion.  (NS, 20)

In light of this, I would anticipate that Charlene would participate in the complete rite, although the catechumenate period will probably be shorter than twelve months.  It is likely (but not promised) that she will be ready to celebrate the initiatory sacraments at the next Easter Vigil (NS, 21).

Return to part 1                                  Continue to part 3

Reprinted from Catechumenate A Journal of Christian Initiation article by Ronald A. Oakham “Sorting Fish: A Task at the Beginning” © 2014 article was first published in May 1989. Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications 1-800-933-1800. All rights reserved.  Used with permission.