MINISTRY TO SPONSORS
by Margo Doten
(Catechumenate Magazine, March 2002)
“This process has been a great boost to my spiritual life. I understand much more about the Catholic church than I ever did before.”
“I can’t tell you the difference this process has made to my own faith. I have come alive!”
“I want to be at all the meetings so I don’t miss anything.”
“I was just plugging along before, but after going through the RCIA process I’m ready to read the Bible more and get involved in church ministry.”
Comments from neophytes? No. They’re from sponsors for the Christian initiation of adults.
Responses like these have led initiation team leaders to understand that serving the needs of the elect and candidates is only part of their job. The fruits of Christian initiation are found not only in those who celebrate the sacraments at the Easter Vigil, but in their sponsors and godparents as well. In 17 years with the adult initiation process, our parish team has come to understand that our ministry means as much to the sponsors as it does to the inquirers.
ROLES OF THE SPONSOR
In the rites of Christian initiation we discover that the sponsor is expected to be a welcomer, advocate, assistant, friend and “one who accompanies.” Sponsors “must show the candidates how to practice the gospel in personal and social life, to sustain the candidates in moments of hesitation and anxiety, to bear witness, and to guide the candidates’ progress in the baptismal life” (RCIA, 11). These are heavy responsibilities, but ones that most sponsors embrace with increasing confidence and joy as they move through the initiation process.
In Ron Lewinski’s invaluable book, Guide for Sponsors (Liturgy Training Publications), sponsors are characterized as bridges – connectors – for their candidate or elect. Lewinski says that effective sponsors are people who pray, listen, are respectful and share a spirit of hope. As they continue to develop these traits during the journey of faith with their candidates, many sponsors discover gifts they never realized they had.
THE POWER OF THE RITES
Sponsors as well as candidates learn from the rites and are inspired by them. Many describe the signing of the senses during the Rite of Welcoming as one of the most profound experiences of their spiritual lives. As they place the sign of the cross on the head, ears, lips, heart, hands and feet of the candidate, many sponsors have a sudden insight into the deep meaning of this rite. The prayers and actions help sponsors recognize that all creation is beautiful, that everything comes from God and can help lead us back to God. The sponsors recognize that their actions represent the blessings all the people of God can bring to one another. They understand how important it is that we reach out in a spirit of welcome in all areas of our lives.
At the Rite of Sending for Election, sponsors place their hands on the elects’ shoulders when the book of the elect is signed. They are not just reminding the elect that the community is standing behind them. They are teaching the candidates and assembly in a very literal way that to be Catholic is to be connected, and the candidates and elect are now connected in a special way to this Catholic community and the entire church.
Again at the Easter Vigil, candidates for baptism and confirmation have a “hands-on experience” of the power and care of the community into which they are being initiated. The godparent not only introduces the candidate for baptism, but places her right hand on the elect’s shoulder during both baptism and confirmation. Again, there is a clear message to those celebrating the sacraments of initiation: “We support you. We, the church, are close to you on your journey of faith. We are connected in faith, hope and love. We bring you the strength of the body of Christ, and we are confident you will add to that strength.”
MINISTERING TO SPONSORS
When considering the needs of sponsors, nothing can be taken for granted: not familiarity with the scriptures, not appreciation of the sacramental life, not an understanding of “who the church is” and what Catholic Christianity is all about, not even an informed experience of current Catholic practices.
A few sponsors will come into the initiation process with a fully developed understanding of post-Vatican II Catholic Christianity. Many start with a pretty good understanding of certain elements of their faith, including the Mass and the sacraments. Others don’t have a clue.
So how do we minister to the sponsors?
FIRST, CALM THEIR FEARS. Most prospective sponsors enter the adult initiation process expressing a concern about whether they’re worthy to be sponsors. Most will contend that they don’t know enough to be a sponsor. Some will point to marital problems or children who are going through a bad time to prove they’re not “sponsor material.” The team member’s response is always this: “We are all learning, all beginners in faith. We don’t ask you to be a saint or a scholar. We ask you to be a friend, a traveling companion who will walk this journey of faith with someone who wants to learn more about us as Catholic Christians. When you are comfortable, we ask you to share what’s fruitful and strengthening and challenging in your life of faith.”
GIVE SPONSORS AND INQUIRERS THE SAME INTRODUCTORY MATERIALS. In our initial meeting with each prospective inquirer, we chat about families and jobs, what is special about our parish and parishioners, and what the initiation process is all about. Most importantly, we ask what brought them to the point of wanting to find out more about Catholic Christianity at this time. We give each inquirer a copy of The Catholic Church: Who are We? and RCIA: Journey in Faith, both from St. Anthony Messenger Press.
These topics and handouts are equally valid at our individual interviews with prospective sponsors. In addition, we give sponsors a copy of Ron Lewinski’s Guide for Sponsors and ask them to read it, especially the chapters on “What Does It Mean To Be A Sponsor?” and “Traits of an Effective Sponsor.” We talk with the sponsors about our experience with past groups, and about what they might expect if this is a new ministry for them.
HOLD AN ORIENTATION SESSION. During the 1990s and into this decade we have found that sponsors have increasing demands on their time. The sponsor meetings we held three or four times a year in 1989 are no longer feasible; sponsors have too many family commitments to participate willingly in extensive training.
Yet they come to us wondering what it means to be a sponsor, so we host an introductory training meeting a month or so before the sponsor will join the process. At that orientation meeting, we ask the sponsors to introduce themselves and reflect on their own gifts. We show a short video that relates to the initiation process and we walk through the sponsor’s handbook. We describe the process and what we know about the inquirers, and answer any questions. Like the booklets they were given earlier, this group meeting gives early notice to the new sponsor: this process is different! Even this church may be different from what you’ve thought!
LET THE SPONSORS KNOW WHAT THEY SHOULD BE DOING AT EACH STEP OF THE PROCESS. In our introductory meeting with the sponsors, we ask them to be open and warm with everyone in the group, especially in the first pre-catechumenate meetings when the inquirers (and sponsors!) are still a bit on edge. We ask them to speak up during discussion periods and “breaking open the word” sessions. Later, as sponsors and candidates are paired up, we suggest to the sponsors that they try to initiate occasional mid-week meetings with the person they’re sponsoring, and to invite their candidate to parish activities. As Easter approaches, we remind sponsors that’s its usual to give a gift to the candidate/elect. We also le them know that many of those to be baptized or confirmed get nervous as they approach the Easter Vigil, and ask the sponsors to keep in especially close contact with them during the last few weeks before the Vigil. We also ask the sponsors to let team members know about any special problems or reservations the elect have, since these may be situations we can help address.
USE “WE,” NOT “YOU.” From the first meeting on, facilitators emphasize that we are all on this journey of faith together. While sponsors and team members may have more experience in the Catholic church, we stress the underlying truth that we are all learning and growing – sponsors and team as well as inquirers. This not only helps the inquirers relax, but it also gives sponsors and team members permission to ask questions and talk about gaps in their understanding. Many times a sponsor will ask a question that the inquirers are afraid will seem “dumb.” Or a sponsor or team member will raise a stumbling block to Catholic practices as something they “always wondered about.” An example is the triple sign of the cross before the reading of the gospel. A team member who is a former neophyte, originally from the Lutheran church, talks about how as a candidate he “always wondered why Catholics kiss their thumbs” after the Alleluia.
BE AWARE OF SPONSOR RESPONSES. A good facilitator will pick up cues from everyone in the group when making a presentation, and in our meetings sponsors are often the best barometers. If the sponsors are frowning or looking puzzled or bored, then the topic may be way over the heads of the inquirers. It’s time to stop, recap, check to see if the group is following and, if necessary, change directions and simplify.
LISTEN TO THE SPONSORS AFTER MEETINGS. Sponsors will give excellent feedback on whether we’re going too fast, skipping needed topics or overdoing something that’s already clear to the inquirers. Occasionally, they’ve alerted us to fallacies or misperceptions that have come up in smaller brea-out groups during the meeting. We then address these topics in the large group, trying to be clear about what scripture says and the church teaches.
GIVE SPONSORS A CHANCE TO HELP YOU. We ask sponsors early on, and again shortly before the Rite of Welcoming, to let us know if there is any special person they would like to sponsor. Occasionally there is some affinity between a sponsor and inquirer that we did not realize. Now we ask. Very often sponsors will mention one or two inquirers they particularly like – and occasionally one they absolutely, positively do not want to sponsor. We try to honor both kinds of requests.
ASK SPONSORS TO EXPRESS DOUBTS PRIVATELY. In our introductory meeting with prospective sponsors, we ask that they talk to us privately between meetings if they have real concerns about church teachings or the process itself. We are a large church, and we come to the initiation process with many points of view. All of us can feel free to express the fact that we have questions about our faith. But we do not want to spend time during our meetings hearing (at length) an individual’s anger toward some church teaching or practice. It confuses the inquirers and disrupts the flow of the meeting.
What about sponsors who just don’t get it? At one meeting several years ago, a prospective sponsor said he simply didn’t believe the accurate and well-presented presentation one of our team members was making on the Nicene Creed. In remarks to the whole group, he questioned both the content and the credibility of the presenter. We took a break, took the prospective sponsor aside and told him to stop being so argumentative. When he persisted and said the church had become a disgrace because of the work of Vatican II, we asked him to leave the group (which, thankfully, he did). A sponsor who has issues with church teachings and beliefs can only cause harm to often-fragile inquirers.
WATCH FOR TROUBLE. A few years later, another sponsor started leaving strident materials on the table after each meeting, tracts that were not only far from the spirit of Vatican II and the current church (e.g., “Why the Catholic Church Was Right in the Galileo Case”), but sometimes were outright misrepresentations of what we as Catholics believe. We asked her to stop, and she did stop leaving the material in the group’s common areas, but she kept handing it to her candidate. It seemed to us too late in the process to remove her as a sponsor, but we should have. She ended the season by writing to the pastor, parish council, archbishop and archdiocesan liturgy and faith formation offices about the horrors of the initiation process as she saw it. Worse yet, her candidate missed some sessions during the Period of Purification and Enlightenment, and our all-day retreat the week before the Easter Vigil, simply because the sponsor didn’t think these activities would be worthwhile. The candidate was torn between her desire for confirmation and her loyalty to a sponsor who showed increasing contempt for the initiation process.
The experience taught us a lesson: Try to discern as early as possible whether a prospective sponsor is in tune with this process and will help the candidate grow. If you’re not sure about someone, keep her in the group for a while, but don’t match her with an inquirer until you know that she will be open to the richness of this process, and will make a positive contribution to her candidate and the group.
BE SURPRISED! At the same time, team members must stay open to all people who volunteer as sponsors. There have been a few other prospective sponsors who’ve raised the same concerns at the beginning of the process as did the woman described in the preceding section, and they turned out to be great sponsors, group participants and friends.
We have been fortunate. Of 130 sponsors in our parish during the past 11 years, the two cited above were the only ones who created problems, and one left the group before he was assigned a candidate. That makes 128 volunteer sponsors who’ve been great!
BE GRATEFUL. Few parish volunteer ministers spend more time on their ministry than sponsors in our initiation process. They participate in weekly two-hour meetings; from November through Palm Sunday they also help break open the word at a Sunday morning Mass. Sponsors add immeasurably to the growth and cohesiveness of the group as we approach the Easter Vigil. Without them, the process would not exist in its present form. Let the sponsors know early and often how much their contributions are appreciated. Maybe they’ll even come back!
The results of the ministry to sponsors are amazing. Often, recent sponsors will explore new ways to serve the parish or community so they can live out the renewed faith they found through the initiation process. And maybe they will finish the experience with an overall evaluation like this one, written by a leader of our parish who had been active in many ministries through the years: “Being an RCIA sponsor is the most important and spiritually enriching ministry anyone can choose.”
In the richness of the initiation process, everyone in the group learns from everyone else. Team members may facilitate and sponsors may be friends and connectors, but both groups inspire and learn from each other, and from the fresh eyes, deepening faith and growing excitement of the candidates and elect.
Good sponsors give a final and enduring gift to their candidates. They teach them about continuing conversion: that disciples of Christ are people who will always listen, share and grow in the power of the Spirit and with the strength and generous friendship fo the Christian community.
(Catechumenate magazine, March 2002, pages 2-9)