A Harvest for God: Christian Initiation in the Rural and Small-Town Parish.
Clay. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications 2003. Pages, 184.
A book on the rural catechumenate comes as both salvation and surprise. It comes as salvation to small town ministers who quail at the catechumenates city parishes run with larger staffs, more volunteers and numerous initiates. But it will surprise students of history that we need such a book at all. Patristic origins largely locate the catechumenate in cathedrals, but its 20th century restoration intended to evangelize underdeveloped countries. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was compiled with rural needs in mind. Somehow, it found a home back in large city parishes and scared away smaller communities.
Michael Clay strips away the fancy stuff and presents a humble, spiritual how-to guide in his approachable book A Harvest for God: Christian Initiation in the Rural and Small-Town Parish.
After an opening essay on ministering to rural and small-town people, Clay steers the reader through the four periods (precatechumenate, catechumenate, purification and enlightenment, and mystagogy) and three ritual events (acceptance, election, and the initiation sacraments). This is familiar ground, but Clay’s tour takes a unique perspective, and his opening essay (pp. 1-11) is worth the price of the book. There he treats issues significant to rural life: relationships, groups, resistance to change and conflict, the image of a strict God, social justice, oral communication, experiential faith, introspection, witnessing to the faith, and showing rather than telling. These pages caught this reviewer – pastor of both a small-town and a rural parish – nodding his head again and again.
Predictably, the descriptors do not always fit. Some city people imagine a strict God. Some rural people are anything but introspective. The paragraphs under the heading “What is Rural?” (2) admit the answer is not easy. One must avoid stereotypes, but one has to begin somewhere to describe the rural experience. Clay’s opening chapter deftly enters a field where the right words are hard to find.
The paradoxical result is a book that promotes orality. Clay does not just tell the reader the importance of stories in rural communities. He tells stories. He employs the method he extols by writing a book about not relying on books.
Immensely practical are sample session preparation forms in the appendices (159, 167, 175, 177-182), as well as the tools for discernment of spiritual progress (173-174). Also helpful are the distinctions among candidates already baptized in other Christian Churches (21-24). These tools will help parishes of any size.
Some ideas yearn for more discussion, like the seating and unseating of candidates at the rite of acceptance (42) and options for dismissals (52). Circumstances allowing the rite of election in a parish are undertreated (76), and the sequence and occasion for the presentations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed (114, 118) are changed. The term “mystagogy” is used precisely (142) and analogously (e.g. 47), but indiscriminately. Eastern rite Catholics do not need to join a Catholic Church, as the text seems to imply (139), the Year A Easter gospels are not as old as the author holds (150), and the advisability of conditional baptism is more questionable than it appears (184).
Rural life is beautiful, and Clay’s stories read like Norman Rockwell looks. But not everything is rosy. Rural people may be ostracized by family members and local businesses if they leave one church and join another. They may try out joint membership. Their names and pictures will appear in local newspapers for everything from duck hunting to speeding tickets. It is not all a field of dreams. Heaven and Iowa are not the same.
Overall, though, this book is a winner. It will help city parishes. It illuminates important developments in the modern history of the catechumenate. It fills a void. Most importantly, it delivers what its title promises. It helps people in small communities reap a harvest for God.
This review first appeared in Worship 78/4 (July 2004):371-37