A Case Study in Initiation
Ten anxious catechumens, each
from a different country, representing five continents, ranging in age from 14
to 32, gathered together at the end of a hot summer’s day in 1997 at the
Longchamp stadium outside Paris, where they met the pope.
That Saturday evening, while leading a teeming multitude in a service of
the word, Pope John Paul II baptized and confirmed all ten.
The next morning, Sunday, August 24, they shared communion for the first
time at the mass concluding World Youth Day.
This extraordinary event used
the ritual for the Christian Initiation of Adults in Exceptional Circumstances
(RCIA 331-369). But the pope did
not slavishly follow the rite. He
Adult baptism normally takes
place at the Easter Vigil after several formational periods and liturgical
steps, but the order of initiation foresees an extraordinary occasion when adult
baptism may take place at another time of year.
The exceptional circumstances “are either events that prevent the
candidate from completing all the steps of the catechumenate or a depth of
Christian conversion and a degree of religious maturity that lead the local
bishop to decide that the candidate may receive baptism without delay” (331).
Examples of reasons for this rite include “sickness, old age, change of
residence, [and] long absence for travel” (332).
If a priest wishes to use the rite for exceptional circumstances, he is
supposed to secure permission from the bishop in each case (see, for example,
34/4, 331, 332).
This version of adult
initiation appears in the ritual text because of a pastoral decision by those
who composed the restored catechumenate after the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s most recent memory of adult initiation was a
celebration that had conflated all the stages of the catechumenate into one
liturgy. The framers of the
restored catechumenate realized that by separating the stages again, they would
challenge those comfortable with the old model.
They included this one-step version of initiation in exceptional
circumstances, then, partly because it most resembled the former rite of adult
baptism. But it also met the
pastoral need of those requesting baptism at a time of year apart from Easter
and without its sequence of preparatory rites.
It was hoped this ritual would
not be used much. When the
provisional text of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults appeared in
English in 1974, this ritual was entitled, “Simple Rite of Adult
Initiation.” The title was changed for the 1988 edition, in hopes that it
would be seen as “exceptional”, not “simple”.
The revised French edition also uses the word “exceptional”.
The restoration of the catechumenate in stages has met with such happy
success that the rite for exceptional circumstances is little noted and little
celebrated, as it should be.
Still, Pope John Paul II pulled
it out in August 1997 and celebrated the rites of initiation at World Youth Day,
making many adaptations.
The very context altered
The day: Normally initiation is to take
place at the Easter Vigil (17, 23, 26). The
exceptions noted in #331 allow initiation at another time of year either when
something prevents the candidate from participating at Easter or when the depth
of conversion and religious maturity is unusually strong.
But it appears that neither of these conditions prompted an August
celebration of adult initiation. The
reason was World Youth Day.
The location: Normally, initiation takes
place at the parish or cathedral of the catechumen, not at a public stadium
The minister: Normally, the pastor or bishop
is the minister of baptism. None of
the ten catechumens came from Rome, where the pope serves as bishop.
The two-part ritual: The order of adult
initiation always places baptism in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist,
except in danger of death. The
Paris liturgy placed baptism and confirmation in a word service, moving the
eucharist to the following day. Nonetheless,
the word service, involving two sacraments, was subtitled, “Celebration
of the Sacraments of the Christian Initiation of Adults.”
Receiving the Candidate
The first part of the ritual,
Receiving the Candidate, is to include a greeting, an opening dialogue, the
candidate’s declaration, an affirmation by the godparents, and an invitation
to the liturgy of the Word. This
part of the ceremony condenses the rite of acceptance into the order of
catechumens and the rite of election.
In Paris, these adaptations
Location: The opening rites may begin
outside, as the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens does, but it
may also begin inside. Due to the
large numbers of the faithful gathered at an outdoor arena, there was little
choice. The entire ceremony was
outside. This accommodated the
liturgy to the real needs of the people, but necessarily sacrificed the symbolic
crossing of a threshold.
Greeting: The presider is to greet the
catechumens and godparents, and is to tell the assembled friends about the
catechumens’ spiritual journey. At
Paris, after the pope greeted each catechumen and godparent, two catechumens and
one godparent themselves gave testimony on behalf of the group.
Opening dialogue and candidate’s
declaration: The presider then asks the catechumens what they are seeking and
receives their reply. He comments
on their answer and then asks if they have listened to the word, resolved to
keep Christ’s commandments, shared the Christian way of life and joined in
prayer. The catechumen answers once
to all these questions. In Paris,
however, the pope followed an adaptation found in the French edition of the
rite. He asked these questions in
sequence, and received an affirmative answer to each of them.
Invitation to the Celebration of the Word of
God: After questioning the godparents, the presider is to invite the catechumens
into the church to hear the word. This
invitation was omitted in Paris, because there was no movement of catechumens
from outside to inside the building.
Liturgy of the Word
The papal ceremony continued
with readings from scripture. The
rite for exceptional circumstances asks that these be drawn from the lections
for baptism. This happened at
Longchamp, where the community heard Ezekiel 36, 24-28; Psalm 23 (22); Romans 6,
3-11; and John 3:1-6.
After the pope’s homily, a
piece of choral music was added to the liturgy.
The rite for exceptional
circumstances then offers intercessions for the candidates.
The penitential rite of mass may follow, but it may be omitted.
An exorcism is then prayed, and the catechumens are anointed with oil, if
this has not preceded. At
Longchamp, none of these rituals was included.
Celebration of Baptism
The liturgy at Paris introduced
the Litany of the Saints at this point. The
rite for exceptional circumstances has no such litany.
The list of saints included many who came from France - like Irenaeus,
Hilary, and Joan of Arc - as well as some recently canonized from other parts of
the world, like Paul Miki and companions, and the Ugandan martyrs.
Prayer over the Water: In the rite for
exceptional circumstances, the presider then blesses the water according to one
of the formularies. In Paris, two
youth poured water into the font immediately before the blessing. After the pope gave the invitation to prayer, a French bishop
sang the main text of the blessing. The
pope then placed his hand in the water and prayed the last part, invoking the
Profession of faith: In the rite, the
presider asks the catechumens to renounce Satan and profess their faith using a
traditional threefold formulary. In
France, the pope interpolated a renewal of baptismal promises for the entire
assembly. He asked, “You who are
going to be baptized, do you renounce Satan?”
The catechumens answered, “I do.”
The pope then asked, “And all of you?”
The entire assembly of youths responded, “I do.”
Then the pope moved to the second question, “And all his works?”
First the catechumens responded, and then, at the pope’s prompting, the
assembly responded as well. He
observed this sequence of questions throughout the renunciation and profession.
There is no precedent for this in any liturgical book in the history of
Baptism: Baptism may be administered by
immersion or pouring in the Catholic Church.
The General Introduction on Christian Initiation calls immersion “more
suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of
Christ.” The National Statutes
for the catechumenate in the United States prefer immersion (17).
The pope poured water on those being baptized.
Explanatory rites: In the rite, godparents
place a new garment on the newly baptized.
Godparents also receive a lighted candle and present it to the newly
baptized. In Paris, a deacon
assisted each godparent with the candle. The
flame from the candles was then passed to the entire assembly while all sang
“Awake, o sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
At the Easter Vigil, this lighting would precede the renewal of baptismal
promises. But neither the renewal
of promises nor the lighting of the assembly’s candles appears in the rite of
initiation for exceptional circumstances.
Confirmation follows. In Paris, there was no adaptation to the ritual.
Where the rite says, “A minister brings the chrism to the celebrant,”
a deacon performed this function at Longchamp.
After confirmation, though, the
liturgy at Longchamp took its strongest deviation from the rite of initiation in
exceptional circumstances. According
to the ritual text, the liturgy continues with the Eucharist.
But at Longchamp, the newly baptized stood around the altar while the
godparents returned to their places. The
pope joined the neophytes at the altar and invited all to pray the Lord’s
Prayer. He then gave a blessing and
invited everyone to spend the night in rest and prayer.
He led the assembly in singing the Magnificat.
At the Sunday Eucharist, the
pope’s introduction to the mass recalled the baptism and confirmation of the
night before. He drew the
presidential prayers from the ritual mass for baptism, not the Sunday in
Ordinary Time (338).
The scripture readings were
specially chosen for the event, coming neither from the lectionary for that
Sunday nor from the readings for Christian initiation: Deuteronomy 7, 6-11;
Psalm 26 (25); 1 Corinthians 1, 18-25; and John 1, 35-45.
After proclaiming the gospel,
the deacon brought the book to the pope, who venerated it and gave a blessing
with the book while all sang the alleluia again.
The ten neophytes also venerated the book of the gospels, held in the
hands of the pope. After the
homily, the choir inserted a song.
The pope led a renewal of
baptismal promises in place of the creed. The
newly baptized encircled the font and responded with the assembly as the pope
asked the traditional questions. Instrumental
music punctuated this profession of faith.
Before mass ended, the pope led
the assembly in the angelus.
The pope. One of the ecclesiological issues surrounding the present
papacy concerns the relationship of the pope to the Church at large.
At the beginning of Catholic Church history, the pope was largely
perceived as bishop of Rome. But in recent centuries, many people perceive him as bishop
of the entire Church. Pope John
Paul II has tacitly accepted that interpretation in many subtle ways, including
his presiding over the initiation rites in Paris for a group of catechumens
representing five continents. The
ten catechumens had not been formed as a group.
They did not even speak one another’s languages.
The celebration of their initiation took place apart from their local
communities. Their initiation
signified the global ministry of the pope more than the evangelical ministry of
The Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults in Exceptional Circumstances.
Compared with the full rites of initiation, the rite for exceptional
circumstances looks truncated. But
in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, it would have
looked normal. The rite is designed
for exceptional circumstances, and clearly states its preference that a longer
form be used – either the full rites of initiation or an expanded version of
the abbreviated form. “Merely to
use the abbreviated form of the rite. . . could mean a spiritual loss for the
candidate, who would be deprived of the benefits of a longer preparation for the
sacraments of initiation” (332). Even
though the pope followed this ritual at World Youth Day, its usage should remain
exceptional. If the full rites of
initiation cannot be used, an expanded form is preferred over the abbreviated
version celebrated at Longchamp (334).
The papal adaptations.
Any time the rite is adapted, it is subject to criticism.
Some of the adaptations at Longchamp were laudable.
Others are questionable. It
is disappointing to many in the field of initiation that World Youth Day became
a venue for initiation, which should normally take place at a cathedral or
parish church at the Easter Vigil. The
rarely used rite for exceptional circumstances received unusually public notice.
The pope also missed an opportunity to promote baptism by immersion.
The separation of baptism from the Eucharist is hard to justify.
But some adaptations were quite positive, including the expansion of
questions in the opening dialogue, the testimony by representatives of the
catechumens and godparents, the expanded role of the deacon, and the placement
of the catechumens and neophytes around the table and the font, as well as their
veneration of the gospel book.
Principles of adaptation.
These adaptations took several principles into account.
They plumbed the liturgical, initiatory and musical traditions of the
church to fashion new expressions based on old practices.
They employed a variety of ministers.
They let the length of the liturgy serve the purpose of the liturgy,
eliminating some parts that seemed inessential, adding some features to enhance
the role of the participants and the assembly.
They made practical accommodations for the setting, the architecture and
the size of the assembly.
Need for adaptation.
If the ritual at Longchamp teaches nothing else, it proclaims the need
for adaptation in all circumstances. Sometimes
the shapers and users of liturgical books fear that adaptations may diminish the
force of the liturgy. But
adaptations allow a liturgy to breathe and grow.
They permit a more personal relationship between the rite and the
community. They invite a spirit of
creativity that can enliven prayer and awaken the community’s sense of the
divine. And adaptations begin to
shape new traditions for future generations.
Even the pope seems to agree.
This article first appeared in Catechumenate: A
Journal of Christian Initiation 24/5 (September 2002):2-9.
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