By Frank Wessling
Every Catholic is a model.
People come and go into and out of the Catholic community all the time, largely inspired or repelled by the models they see in the community. In that, we are like any club or organization. People join when the life looks good and they quit or go inactive when it doesn’t.
But our club is also unlike others. We claim to offer the life of God, abundant life, eternal life. When someone comes to join us they expect an extraordinary experience, or at least they should. And when someone leaves because it appears to them that we aren’t what we claim, the failure is tragic.
It is often said that the second-largest religious grouping in the United States is Catholic dropouts. If true, this means we have a very long way to go in communicating our faith. It’s a world of freedom out there now, and our appeal must stand on its own in every heart. The leap of faith gets no boost from princes or kings who once laid down the rules of belief for their subjects.
The community of believers must show evidence that it is what it claims to be. Each parish as well as the church as a whole has this responsibility, which we all acknowledge with thanks at the conclusion of every Mass when the celebrant spreads his arms with the message, go, and share the life of loving service that has just been renewed in you.
Each one of us, every Catholic, has this role. Most of us may be dimly aware that evangelizing, or sharing the faith, is something we should do, but the how and where of it is fuzzy. It may help to think of ourselves as the people who model a profession or demonstrate a craft for the benefit of apprentices.
The people who come to us with interest in joining the Catholic community need more than words in order to grasp what it means to be a Catholic. They need living example much like a master mechanic leading an apprentice. Such example should be all around them in any parish — and it usually is in great variety, although mixed in with the distractions of people forgetting that Christ is their model.
What should our example show? St. Paul, the master teacher, put it simply: We are the people who have “put on Christ.” We are new persons following the Gospel as our guide.
Late last month a two-day workshop at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport looked at how we initiate newcomers into such a life. It focused on the period called mystagogy, the final stage of becoming Christian. This is when we have learned about Christ and begun to set our life on a new course in which the dying and rising of Christ is the filter that gives meaning to everything.
God is working in us as we offer ourselves in the pattern of Jesus at home, at work, at school, on the street, at play, everywhere. The mystery and the wonder of this is what newcomers in our communities should catch. This is the mystagogy being lived out among us, and it is the responsibility of all of us to reflect it as the school of love for any apprentices or would-be apprentices who may be watching.
Mystagogia is the final stage in the church’s process for initiating adults through the RCIA — Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The process is not really a single rite; rather, it consists of several ritual moments beginning with a formal welcome to the newcomers and moving through examinations of conscience, a formal step of joining “the elect” of God, and finally reception of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Adults already baptized in a Protestant or Orthodox church are received with a profession of faith in the Catholic Church.
This months-long, sometimes years-long, process provides teaching in Scripture and Catholic tradition, introduction to various ways of praying, much sharing and reflection on life experience, and opportunities to carry out works of mercy and charity. It is guided by a small parish team with further participation by sponsors for each person in the process and other people in the community with particular knowledge or experience.
A parish RCIA offering may appear to be something done by a small group; one “program” among many. Not so. The community as a whole, and each member personally, is always expressing — or failing to express – the mystery of new life in Christ. All of us are witnesses to what newcomers hope for — or not.
Let’s be alert that we not disappoint. You never know when an apprentice may be around.