“Moments of Light and Grace: Small-Group Rituals in the Catechumenal Process”
(Catechumenate Magazine, March 2001)
We are a sacramental people. The rites of the Christian initiation process evoke in us moments of clarity, discovery and grace as they help us touch the life-giving spirit of God.
In our parish, we have built on the sacramental character of the rites by developing additional rituals within some of our catechetical sessions. We find that these rituals are among our most powerful meetings. Year after year, participants mention how these rituals helped them understand more about the beauty and the challenge of the Christian life.
For many catechumens and candidates, in fact, the rituals we celebrate as a group have more immediate impact than the major rites that make up the order of Christian initiation. Why? Because some of those seeking the sacraments of intiation are almost paralyzed with stage fright as they approach and move through the rites of welcoming and election, the scrutinies, the preparation rites and sometimes even the Easter Vigil itself. For most candidates, this fear diminishes as the year wears on, but even at the Easter Vigil we find people saying, “I was so scared because everyone was going to be looking at me!”
The depth and meaning of the rites in the initiation process far outweigh these fears, but each year we must take our inquirers’ attitudes toward the rites seriously and do what we can to alleviate their concerns.
The small-group rituals that are the focus of this article create no such burden of public display, and they have an immediate and lasting effect on everyone who participates: candidates, sponsors and team members alike. They are celebrated among people who have come to know each other well in our adult initiation group. Because the rituals are tied to the liturgical year and to the stage of Christian initiation to which we are traveling, they have deep meanings that transcend the immediate experience and carry the group further into the mystery of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Even during the time of mystagogia, when the neophytes are asked to reflect back on their Christian initiation experience and to mention a few meetings that really stood out, we hear about the Advent Evening of Reflection – “the meeting where we first used candles.”
On the First Sunday of Advent, we meet in the evening as always. (At 6:30 p.m. on a Minnesota winter night, it is dark!) This is during the catechumenate (our rite of acceptance and welcoming is usually in mid-November), so the first part of the meeting is typical for that stage. We gather in a circle and share news of good things or bad things that have happened to anyone in the past week. A team member opens with a spontaneous prayer o thanks and praise for God’s many gifts, and of petition for a meeting that will help us all on our journey of faith. Then we spend an hour or so on the evening’s topic. We begin with a short presentation by a team member, then break into groups of four to six (always keeping the sponsor with her own candidate or catechumen) to discuss how this topic connects to our everyday lives.
We come back to our circle to share our small-group discussions and answer any questions that arose, and then we have a short break. By now, we’re about an hour and 15 minutes into our two-hour meeting. Now is the time for our first Advent Evening of Reflection.
We lead the group into the Eucharistic chapel, which is dimly lit. Chairs – just enough for our group – are placed in a circle, with the Advent wreath in the center. On each seat are a taper and a printed copy of our prayers and songs.
Even those who are not yet “into” the initiation process as a meaningful part of their lives are moved by the beauty of the low lighting, the sense of community and warmth on a winter evening, the meaning of the Advent wreath (which we explain early on) and the sense of mystery, beauty, hope, longing, peace and community that are at the heart of this prayer service.
We say a few words about the Advent wreath, and then ask the oldest catechumen or candidate to light the first candle on the wreath. As we begin singing “O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” a team member lights her candle from the wreath and passes the light to the next person in the circle. The light is then passed around the circle. After all the candles are lit, readers from the group proclaim three of the Messianic prophecies, each followed by an appropriate verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and a few minutes for silent prayer. We finish by standing for the reading of the Christmas story (Luke 2:1-14), then extinguish our candles and close with petitions and the Lord’s Prayer, as we close all our meetings.
It is a simple ritual, but it has a profound effect on everyone. It is a moment of stillness and peace during the Christmas rush, a solid representation of the Advent season’s movement from darkness to light as we come closer to the birth of Jesus and the Epiphany, a glimpse of our individual and group transition toward more light on our journey of faith, and a recognition that we help bring light to each other in the name of Jesus. It is, very simply, a time when the Spirit moves in a deep and beautiful way in the hearts of all the participants. And it’s a glorious foreshadowing of the mystery and beauty of the Easter Vigil itself.
We link our meetings that focus on the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation with the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus in the liturgical calendar, so it’s usually in mid-January that we celebrate our next group ritual, the Baptism Prayer Service. This ritual follows two meetings where presentations, scripture and small-group discussions examine the rituals and meanings of Baptism and Confirmation, and their ongoing challenge to the Christian life.
The Baptism Prayer Service begins as catechumens, candidates, sponsors and team members gather around the baptismal font, set in the center of the gathering space, and sing the first verse of “Come to the Water.” One of the facilitators speaks briefly about what we’ve learned during the past few meetings about the multi-layered symbolism of water. As he speaks, he continually moves his hands in the water of the font. He reaches deep into the font. He holds the water up high, letting it run down his arm. He immerses his hand in the water again. He blesses himself with the sign of the cross, then takes some water and blesses the next person in line by making a sign of the cross on her forehead. That person in turn goes to the font, spends as much time as she wants letting the water run through her hands, blesses herself, then walks back to the circle and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the next person. The process repeats until we get around the circle. We sing “Come To the Water” until the last person blesses the facilitator who started.
Some members of the group will dip the tip of a finger into the water, make a quick sign of the cross and hurriedly bless the next person in line. Some spend several minutes with their hands moving through the water, bless themselves slowly, then share a blessing and a tender or exuberant hug with the next person. Some cry. Their tears are another reflection of the power of the living water in our lives.
When everyone has experienced the blessings around the baptismal font, we sing “Peace Is Flowing Like a River” as we walk in procession into the Eucharistic chapel. Again, our chairs have been placed in a circle. A table topped by a white cloth and very large bowl of water (about 30 inches in diameter) stands in the middle of the circle. We read passages from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that relate to Baptism and Confirmation, interspersed with quotes from Blessed Mother Teresa, the Baptism Sourcebook (LTP), Thomas Merton and others on the meaning of Baptism. After each reading there is time for silent reflection. We conclude with “Amazing Grace,” petitions and the Lord’s Prayer.
Set as it is in the center of the catechumenate period, this ritual has a powerful effect on the catechumens, candidates and their sponsors. It adds immediacy to the discussions of the sacraments as a whole, and Baptism and Confirmation in particular. It is not esoteric but real-life: We feel the sensation of the water, see it flow, hear it ripple and fall, experience its cooling effect on our heads and hands and share its life-giving power with those who are closest to us right now on our journey of faith.
Our ritual around the baptismal font not only lets us touch the life-death-cleansing-healing waters of Baptism, but also allows us to share our baptismal life with those around us. Our earlier discussions of Baptism and Confirmation, and our readings in the Eucharistic chapel add depth and dimension to our sensory experience and community spirit around the font. Ritual, ministry, mystery, scripture, meditation, song and shared community prayer all come into play in this prayer service.
A few weeks later, after we begin to explore the mystery of the Eucharist, we gather again in the Eucharistic chapel. This time the center of our circle is a table covered with a white cloth on which we’ve placed a candle, a bunch of grapes and a few stalks of wheat, a plate carrying a round loaf of unleavened bread and a cup of unconsecrated wine.
Our meditations reflect on the formation of bread and wine and the existence of grapes and grain in all cultures and parts of the world. We use scripture passages related to the Eucharist and sing “I Am the Bread of Life.”
A team member begins the process of the ritual so everyone can see what to do. One by one we walk to the table, break off a small piece of the unleavened bread and give it to the person next to us, saying, “Peace be with you.” That person responds, “And also with you,” and takes and eats the piece of bread, then repeats the process for the next person in the circle. When everyone has eaten the bread, we pass the cup of wine (and a purificator) around the circle. Again, each member of the group says “Peace be with you” to the next person and then offers her the cup.
It is not only the bread and wine that are passed from one person to the next. Giving and receiving the bread and wine are tangible expressions of our love and of our willingness to nurture and be nurtured on our journey of faith. We have a powerful sense of being a community formed over time by shared experiences, bound by love and caring, moving forward together with a common vision and hope, and celebrating at a shared meal. At the end of this intensely Eucharistic experience, the spontaneous prayers from our group members always seem to express both our gratitude and our sense of mission. We are on our way to becoming a Eucharistic people who want to share with others the overwhelming generosity of our God.
A FINAL NOTE
These rituals were developed by initiation team members who recognized a need for ritual expression of whatever area of the Christian life we were trying to unfold for our catechumens and candidates. The rituals described above grew and changed over the past ten years to intensify the experience and deepen the understanding of the participants.
These rituals alone would not be enough. Nor was it enough to immerse our catechumens and candidates into the sacraments and liturgical seasons simply through presentations, breaking open of scripture, and discussion of the connection between the faith topic and what’s going on in the life of a 20st-century follower of Jesus. We need both education and experience to welcome people into the living reality of faith. We need, as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says, “catechesis (that) leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate sense of acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate” (#75.1).
We are a sacramental people. The special rituals we celebrate within our group carry that message in a memorable and illuminating way.
(Published in Catechumenate magazine, March 2001)