The Road to Faith: Reflections on Christian Initiation

On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land…we are made one with His sufferings… suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified.
Lumen Gentium 63, Vatican Council II

It was a walk into an unbounded future. On Saturday, March 8, I was one of many Knights of Columbus who came to add solemnity to a large group of catechumens and candidates taking part in the annual Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (often referred to as “RCIA”). Those seeking to become Catholics gathered here from the parishes of Southern Oregon to be called to faith by our archbishop. They entered a church awash in light and suffused with the layered rhythms of music.

The Rite of Initiation, an element in the Catholic liturgical reforms of the 1960s, is a journey culminating in the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
The Rite of Initiation, an element in the Catholic liturgical reforms of the 1960s, is a journey culminating in the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

Two by two the catechumens and candidates passed in a seemingly endless flow as a colleague and I wished each of them a quiet “welcome.” Interspersed among them were their sponsors, parish priests, and catechists.

The choir sang out:

Somos el cuerpo de Cristo,
We are the body of Christ.
Hemos oído el llamado.
We’ve answered yes to the call of the Lord.

That morning even the building exuded a spirit of welcome. As one moves from the relatively narrow entry hall into the nave of the Church, the ceiling seems to float upward, and with each step forward, the church spectacularly broadens and beckons the first-time visitor forward to the warm, inviting space of the sanctuary. In many ways the event, just as the setting, was a counter-cultural experience.

There is something about modern life that constantly bids us to step off the road of life to dwell within our own self-awareness. Constrained by our cell phones, alone in our automobiles, passive in front of our entertainment systems, we find ourselves in a world that in its urgency to celebrate the moment has no past, nor future.

Yet the Church will not allow us to remain in isolation. “A Christian isn’t someone who is baptized and then goes his own way,” Pope Francis reminds us. The process of becoming a Catholic inevitably involves learning to walk with others.

At Shepherd of the Valley Parish, each year in September, a new group begins meeting weekly to explore the Catholic faith. The majority of them, as Joyce Eason, the program director explains, “want to enter the church yesterday. They see this as their home; this is where they want to be. They want the Eucharist.” But the Church does not hurry this walk: for some six months the group, averaging two dozen persons, works together learning how to support one another, and to pray and reflect upon God’s Word.

Among those seeking full communion with the Church there are differences. Those who have already been baptized in another Christian community will not be baptized again. They are “candidates.” Those who have never been baptized are “catechumens,” a word from ancient Greek signifying a person being instructed. Together they are on a journey.

Two months into the program, each candidate or catechumen receives a sponsor from the Catholic community, of a similar age and interest, to serve as their partner in prayer and support. From this point on, many of the sponsors take part in the weekly discussion and prayer sessions.

The music swells as a kaleidoscope of faces of women and men, boys, girls, young and old, pass by me. Each has found herself or himself called to take this walk. Each is accompanied by his or her sponsor. There is something very humbling in believing that ultimately it is not we who choose Christ. Rather it is Christ who calls us, who walks with his sheep, and who binds us into a single body

One week earlier, in the various parish churches, those seeking entry into the Church wrote their names in the Book of the Elect in what is known as the “Rite of Sending.” This sending had brought them – nearly 100 catechumens and candidates – to this liturgy. The formerly empty pews are nearly filled. The voices of those entering in procession merge with those of the congregation:

Somos El Cuerpo de Cristo
We are the body of Christ.
Dios viene al mundo a través de nosotros,
God is revealed when we love one another.

At the end of the procession, the Knights of Columbus Color Corps passed by, followed by the tall, youthful person of the Archbishop of Portland, Alexander Sample. He too joined in the song. In the ceremony that followed, every candidate and catechumen was called by the Archbishop acting in the person of Christ, and invited to continue onward to Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. The Rite of Election that day was a step along that journey.

In the face of a world that celebrates individuality, the Church presents the ancient, broader perspective of life and Faith in which we are invited to walk in the greatest of all pilgrimages. As Pope Francis explains, this is a “journey of the People of God with Jesus Christ, our Shepherd, who guides us in history towards the completion of the Kingdom of God.”