Friday, December 31, 2010

Baptism and Conversion

The RCIA, as it existed in ancient times, was clearly about conversion. Baptism involved a radical turning around of ones life. First of all there was a history of persecution of Christians, so that until the fourth century becoming Christian might well entail risk of death. Secondly, because pagan culture was so pervasive the newly baptized Christian was restricted in the things he/she could do for a way of life. For example, Michael Himes, in his book Mystery of Faith lists architecture, painting, sculpting, teaching, and acting as just some of the professions that were "out of bounds" for Christians. Of course belonging to the military also was frowned on since soldiers were bound to make an oath to the emperor.
Fr. Himes points out that this is one reason why the theme of death figured so much in the liturgy of baptism. Paul wrote that when we were baptized we were baptized into the death of Jesus and when we came out from the water we rose with him. In fact the liturgy for funerals has many similarities with Baptism. The holy water, the white garment/pall, and the Christ candle are important symbols in both liturgies.
The problem is that in the modern RCIA (or at least in my experience) it is very difficult to help people understand that being baptized involves change. To be sure some people do come with a sense that they need to change their lives but most of the people I meet come with only a vague sense of unease, curiousity, or obligation (they have a Catholic spouse). The only good analogy for radical conversion is that of the alcoholic entering Alcoholics Anonymous. The problem is most people in RCIA have trouble relating to that. We also seem to have a problem with the notion of sin. Few people that I meet have a sense of personal sin and therefore have little sense of their need for conversion.
Some time ago I listened to an audio to talks given by Paula D'Arcy and Richard Rohr. In the first of this series of talks D'Arcy describes an experience of hers that caused her during the course of a week long retreat to change the way that she was viewing her companions on the retreat. It seems to me that conversion as a change in the way I look at the world is another way of trying to promote understanding of what it means to be baptized for the catechumens in our RCIA

1 comment:

Gary said...

My experience of the 'problem with modern baptism and conversion' is similar as you described. I would also expand on this to assert that the same broad issue of change/conversion is encountered when parents bring children for baptism. Rather than an opportunity for growth, celebration and conversion for the whole family the issues are often feelings of obligation, a sense of "that is what is done", without much thought as to why. A diminished sense of faith along with a diminished sense of sin also complicates issues of growth in faith and salvation.