Wednesday, July 30, 2008

RCIA and Alpha

Recently the director of the Alpha group in our parish suggested to me that we combine RCIA with Alpha during the time period before Christmas this coming year. Alpha is a movement dedicated to proclaiming the message of Jesus to people who have little or no connection to Jesus or to a faith community in their lives. Alpha has its origins in an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican Church and many Catholic communities (including our parish) have enthusiastically embraced the program. The Alpha program consists of a series of evenings where the group gathers for a meal followed by a video on the topic for the evening followed again by group discussion. The speaker on the videos is Nicky Gumbel who is a particularly effective presenter. The topics generally offer a "generic" and personalized version of what it means to be a Christian. I participated in Alpha a few years ago and found the message to be powerfully presented and the format of the evening to be enjoyable.

So, why not combine the RCIA group with Alpha? On the surface there are some good reasons why this would be a good idea. First of all we know that the first phase of RCIA is at least partly dedicated to evangelization (a first proclamation of the Gospel). So, this seems like a good fit with Alpha. Secondly, from a practical point of view, combining the groups (in our parish both groups have even been meeting on the same evening) would be an efficient use of staff and volunteer time.

But, of course, there are reasons why this is not a good idea. Most seriously, the Alpha talks do not give anything like a complete "picture" of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Alpha pays little attention to sacraments specifically mentioning only Baptism and Eucharist. Alpha also pays little attention to what it means to be part of the Church. Finally, Alpha omits mention of anything that is distinctively Catholic (which is natural since its approach tries to be non - denominational). So, considering these shortcomings, Alpha does not seem to be an effective use of the limited amount of time available to the period of inquiry in the RCIA.

Next, the needs of the participants in RCIA in our parish during the period of inquiry generally have been more complicated than what is provided by Alpha. If all of our RCIA participants were coming from a basically "unchurched" and uncatechized background Alpha might be an effective way of providing this initial catechesis. The fact is however, that in my experience participants in our RCIA groups have tended to be mainly made up first of all of people who are married to a Catholic and who have been attending our Church. A second group has been people who have been active members of other Christian churches and who are seeking to join the Catholic church. Another group has been Catholics who have been baptized but who have not completed their sacraments of initiation. One of the things that this kind of group needs (particularly those people who have been catechized in another Christian church) in the period of inquiry in RCIA is an exposure to some of the distinctive feature of Catholicism. This gives them an opportunity to deal with any "issues" that they may have with the Church before proceeding to the next period of RCIA following the Rite of Acceptance and Welcome.

I am aware that our RCIA should ideally take up more time than it currently does. Right now, our plan is to begin in mid September and wrap up around the time of Pentecost. If we moved to a time period of one year or longer for RCIA we might then have time, for example, to use Alpha as part of the period of inquiry for those who might benefit and then begin the formal period of RCIA after Christmas with the Rite of Acceptance coming just before Easter. This would provide much more time for a greater variety of experiences. During the coming year I hope that we can explore how to make this change to our RCIA program.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Smouldering Wick

The gospel for today, Saturday of the 15th week of ordinary time, has another passage that interests me here and now. In the passage (Matthew 12:14-21) the evangelist applies to Jesus the prophecy of Isaiah 42 including the words, "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory." In the commentaries I have seen there seems to be a range of opinions about what this means and how it is to be applied but most say that it refers to the gentleness and meekness of Jesus. I liked the insight of St Jerome (quoted in the Catena Aurea): "He who despises a weak spark of faith in a little one, he quenches a smoking flax (wick)."

I think that this passage again illustrates one of the tensions facing the Church when it deals with adult faith formation, especially with regard to sacramental preparation. In our parish, for example, the RCIA director and the person in charge of marriage preparation have been troubled by the prevalence of young couples who have "irregular" living arrangements (they are as yet unmarried, but living together). When the pastor asked an outside expert about the seriousness of these "impediments" the expert answered that on the most basic level the answer depended on your point of view. If the pastor thinks that the Church should be smaller and more faithful to Church teachings he will act one way. If the pastor thinks that the Church should take care not to quench the smouldering wick he will act another way.

I like the point of view about taking care not to quench the smouldering wick. Sometimes people, for various reasons, are not capable of giving full expression to their faith in all that they do. In these cases these people need to be treated with the gentleness of Christ, welcomed, and invited to a fuller encounter with Christ and his Church. So, on the one hand, the Church must be welcoming; but on the other hand, the Church needs to be faithful to its message. This is clearly something that is done on a case by case basis and requires great understanding on the part of the Church representative dealing with this issue.

So, would I as someone involved with RCIA, ever send someone away from the group on the basis that they are not fit or ready for Baptism. I think that the answer has to be that I would not want to send them away but in certain circumstances (that I don't think I could outline right now) I would suggest that they delay Baptism until some future time. This is what has been done in the group I work with. A few years ago a man from a strong evangelical background came to us. During the Catechumenate he had great trouble with the doctrines surrounding Mary. When the time came for reception into the Church (at Easter Vigil) he was told that he needed to decide on his own if he could make the public promise that people being received into the Church make. He decided that at that time he could not, but a couple of years later was received into the Church. So, he was not excluded by the pastor or the RCIA director, but was invited to discern for himself the path he should follow. This, I think, made things work out for the best.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bring Fire on the Earth

The Gospel for Monday of the 15th week of ordinary time presents some interesting challenges. In this Gospel (Matthew 10:34 - 11:1) Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace but the sword and to set members of a family against one another. A similar passage in Luke (Luke 12: 49-53) adds, "I have come to bring fire on the earth...." This passage seems to contradict the many passages in the New Testament that emphasize love and the need to preserve the unity of the community.

Some commentaries suggest that the images of fire and conflict represent a judgement against non-believers. Other commentaries suggest that the passages refer to the conflict that already faced the early Church because of persecution by civil and religious authority. I suspect that the second explanation is the best one. Still, I think that the passage could have an important message for the Church today.

We know that we live in a society that believes that each individual constructs their own reality. Increasingly people seem to feel that ideals which come from an external source (like that magisterium of the Church) are invalid and damaging to individual freedom. Some people seem ready to reject the teaching authority of the Church simply on the basis of personal opinion. This creates problems for the Church. On the one hand we want a Church that is welcoming and is intended to embrace as many people as possible and so we, in the Church are often reluctant to "correct" Catholics who hold positions that are contrary to established Church teaching. The controversy over abortion is an especially vivid example of this. The question of the ordination of women is another example.

Now some people feel that not correcting these Catholics who they call "Cafeteria Catholics" is a disservice to both the Church and the individual. They suggest that allowing such dissent to continue unchecked blurs the truths the Church has worked for centuries to pass on. Further, they suggest, that to be charitable to someone who dissents without seeking to correct them tends to jeopardize the salvation of their souls. So, sometimes it might be necessary to have confrontation in the Church in order to provide correction of some kind. So, for example we see the controversy over a bishop refusing the Eucharist to a pro-abortion politician. Agreeing with this point of view has some risks however. The danger of an over zealous emphasis on correctness can result in a cold emphasis on the externals of faith rather than on personal faith and relationship to Jesus.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Touching the hem of the garment

One of the gospel passages that has fascinated me for a long time is the passage from today's Eucharist (Matt 9:18-26). The main focus of the passage seems to be the leader of the synagogue who summons Jesus to revive his daughter. While on the way Jesus encounters the women who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Commentators note that this ailment would have made the women ritually "unclean" and she would therefore have been an outcast during all this time. Because of her shame the women can not bring herself to stand before Jesus to ask his help as the leader of the synagogue had done. Instead the best she can do is to reach out to touch the fringe of his cloak (hem of the garment) in the belief that by doing this she will be made well and her faith is rewarded. Her faith has made her well.

On one level both stories are of faith. Both the woman and the leader of the synagogue have great faith and their faith is rewarded by Jesus. On another level the story shows an important part of the mission of Jesus. These miracles are signs that the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is indeed at hand. Still, I am struck by the difference in status between the leader of the synagogue and the woman. He is a man of great status and we see this when Jesus encounters a great crowd at the leader's house. By contrast the woman is an outcast. Still, the results of their encounters with Jesus are the same. Jesus fulfills their deepest needs. So, an important message that I get from this passage is that we should be careful about judging the faith of people by externals or by status. We see something similar in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. The faith of people is not something external and cannot necessarily be judged by the Church groups a person belongs to or even (perhaps) how often a person attends Mass. Of course eventually faith does have to manifest itself in works of some kind. I find this insight helpful when dealing with inquirers to RCIA. We want them to tell their stories but we want to be careful about judging their initial motives for signing up. We do of course, want them to experience growth as they go through the process that is part of the RCIA.