Adapt the Rite? Of Course!  But. .

Adaptations are integral to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Some of these were foreseen and implemented by episcopal conferences.  Other changes happen in parishes, subtly and effortlessly, or creatively and complexly.  Some of these surface in Journey to the Fullness of Life: A Report on the Implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States (for example, p. 18).  Which adaptations have succeeded?  What still needs to be done?  Here are a few ideas.


Journey to the Fullness of Life says parish adaptations include “accommodating the use of B and C cycle readings in Lent” and “adapting the scrutinies to cultural or personal contexts.”  The meaning of that first phrase is not clear, but it seems to refer to the adaptation of the litanies and exorcisms of the scrutinies to the scripture readings in Years B and C of the three-year cycle.

Go to any three parishes during weeks three, four and five of Lent and you will probably see scrutinies celebrated in three different ways.  Texts, postures and gestures vary considerably.  That may not be all bad, but it makes one wonder how well the ritual text conveys the meaning of the scrutiny and how well catechumenate teams understand it.

First, consider the scriptures.  During Years B and C of the three-year cycle, parishes may read the Year A scriptures on Sundays three, four and five of Lent.  This may happen any year, any mass, whether or not there are elect.  But this permission certainly has scrutinies in mind.  It allows each year’s elect to hear the gospels of the woman at the well, the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus.

Although this permission was meant to be helpful, not everyone has welcomed it.  Homilists have balked at preparing different talks for the same weekend.  Liturgy planners have bewailed the loss of a few Year B and C readings.  (The most common and erroneous complaint is, “People would never hear the story of the Prodigal Son on Sunday.”  Yes, they will.  That gospel appears twice during Year C: the Fourth Sunday of Lent and the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.)

This reticence to let go of the B and C readings has spawned the rewriting of some parish scrutiny prayers.  The intercessions and exorcisms already come with two versions, but one of them draws on imagery from each week’s Year A gospel.  This has inspired some people to compose scrutiny texts that blend with the readings for years B and C.  But the B and C readings fulfill Lent’s second purpose, the renewal of the entire Christian community.  The best readings for the scrutinies are always those for Year A.

Journey to the Fullness of Life mentions other adaptations for the scrutinies, more necessary ones made for “cultural or personal contexts.”  The intercessions especially should meet the personal needs of the elect.  In some cases, though, adaptations have overemphasized the negative purpose of scrutinies at the expense of the positive one.  They stress the sin and ignore the grace redeeming it.

Cultural adaptations may alter the posture and gesture of the elect, the arrangement of the elect and sponsors in the sanctuary and nave, the music to be sung and the ministers to be involved.

It is popular to adapt the scrutinies.  Good adaptations are made with one eye on the tradition and meaning of the rite, and the other eye on the cultural and personal needs of the elect.

Inclusive language

Many parishes change liturgical texts for more gender-inclusive language.  Normally this pertains to the horizontal language about the community but sometimes to the vertical language of references to the Deity.  Although examples of gender-neutral Deity language can easily be found in the sacramentary’s prayers (“Almighty God,” for example), Roman liturgical texts consistently use the masculine pronoun to refer to God.

Regarding gender-inclusive terms for the community, though, the liturgical documents are uneven.  One of the sources most benign to these terms is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Expressions like “brothers and sisters” and “friends” can be found where formerly one would have seen “brothers”.

It is not clear from Journey to the Fullness of Life where parishes are making the inclusive language adaptations.  They probably happen more in texts from the lectionary and sacramentary, which followed other principles of translation.


Another broad category of adaptation reported by the bishop’s document is multiculturalism.  Communities in the United States find in their midst an increasing diversity of cultures.  The differences, once a source of fear and division, are becoming more a source of strength and celebration.

Take languages, for example.  At a typical diocesan rite of election one can expect to hear readings and intercessions in more than one language.  Often a printed program gives English translations for the assembly, but complete programs in other languages are rare.

Americans are widely ignorant of foreign languages.  We may have had a year or two in high school, but our ears are not trained to hear them nor our eyes to read them.  We may be able to say, “I have a pen,” or “There is the window.”  But liturgical texts require more complex grammar.  The most loving action an American can do to promote multiculturalism is to learn a foreign language well.

Music is universal in its appeal.  Americans enjoy music from other countries almost as much as we enjoy ethnic food.  Some Hispanic liturgical music, for example, is crossing over into predominantly Anglo assemblies.  Music’s universal appeal can bind a diverse community.

The world of multicultural symbols could be further developed.  As one example in the United States, the Rite of Acceptance envisions that the catechumens receive a cross.  But dioceses may decide on some other symbol.  Creative discussion at the local level may generate ideas for one.

Dress also deserves some discussion.  The traditional Catholic baptism calls for clothing the newly baptized in a white garment.  Today the color may conform to local custom, or the rite may be omitted altogether (227).  A white garment has special significance in many scripture texts as the uniform of those who inhabit the reign of God.  But in some cultures another color might better signify new life and community.  The rite permits options, to the benefit of multiculturalism, but to the loss of scriptural allusions.

Other adaptations

Other adaptations need consideration for the future development of the initiation rites.  Not all of these appear in Journey to the Fullness of Life, but they merit concern.

The catechetical group.  The group parishes call the “catechumenate” may have few or no true catechumens at all.  Many groups welcome people baptized in other Christian faiths and baptized Catholics seeking more formation.  A simpler process might accompany more of the baptized.

The length of time for preparation.  Many parishes run catechumens and candidates through the same nine-month program.  They start in fall and conclude with Easter.  But the time may vary for each person, and candidates may be received at any time of year.

Catechetical method.  In the United States, a skilled catechist is part teacher and part facilitator.  In some other cultures, participants come expecting only to listen.  Even Jesus did not begin the Sermon on the Mount by dividing the crowd into small groups to reflect on their experience of poverty.  But we do this now.  People do not all learn the same way.  The catechist needs a bagful of tools to help everyone.

Participation of the assembly.  Parish leaders wish there was more for the assembly to do in the catechumenate rites.  Local innovations include acclamations and gestures.

Combined rites.  The framers of the catechumenate in the United States included a series of rituals for baptized candidates parallel to those for catechumens.  The combined rites adapt the adaptations, and they blur the distinction between the baptized and the unbaptized.  Reforming the adaptations might make these distinctions more clear.

Music.  Composers are still publishing new music to accompany the rites.  We have the interesting but time-consuming task of sorting through the available music, deciding what to sing and waiting to see what works.

Vocabulary.  Those who restored the catechumenate retained the ancient titles for the rituals.  But everyone keeps wondering, haven’t we got better words?  “Scrutiny” is so offensive that some ministers skip the ritual altogether.  Calling it an exorcism won’t help.  The word “candidate” has multiples meanings.  Published texts cannot agree on the proper spelling of mystagogy (-ia?).  How can parishes implement the catechumenate when the vocabulary is so obscure?  The flat acronym “RCIA” has more sticking power than tar, but is a consummately inexpressive title for the mysteries of initiation.  The Methodist Church down the street from my last parish used to advertise something they called “New Members.”  I’m not a Methodist, but I know what that means.

The work of adaptation must go on.  The revised rites of initiation are still so new that we are figuring out what works, what doesn’t and what will benefit from adaptation.  Parishes have a good ritual.  If they have serious spiritual searchers, an assembly that cares about newcomers and a creative imagination rooted in the church’s tradition yet open to society’s symbols, good adaptations will happen.

[This article first appeared in Pastoral Music 26:4 (April-May 2002):42-44]

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