By Deacon Frank Agnoli
The scrutinies are part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). At the beginning of Lent, catechumens are elected by the bishop for the Easter sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. These Elect, as they are now called, begin their final period of “purification and enlightenment” before Easter. On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent we celebrate these special rites for them.
Let me repeat: we celebrate this rite for the Elect — those catechumens who have been called to the Easter sacraments. Catechumens who have not been elected do not celebrate the scrutinies, and neither do candidates (those already baptized who are coming into full communion with the Church). In fact, to celebrate the scrutinies with someone already baptized (or even to have them sign the Book of the Elect) is to denigrate their baptism, to say it made no difference; that is quite an insult. Instead, candidates may celebrate a special penitential rite on the second Sunday of Lent.
The scrutinies are meant to help the Elect in two ways.
First, the Elect are reminded that they are sinners (as we all are) — but that is not a cause for despair or discouragement. The reality that we celebrate at the Triduum is that we have salvation in Christ. By knowing the truth about ourselves we come to know our need for God — and thirst more and more for life-giving waters.
Second, the scrutinies are meant to help heal what is sinful and strengthen what is good in the Elect (RCIA #141). As Msgr. Marvin Mottet notes in his article, part of the scrutinies is a prayer for freedom and protection from the effects of sin and from any influence of the devil (RCIA #144) — what we call a “minor exorcism.” That may sound a little scary or conjure up some bad Hollywood images, but no one is saying that the Elect are possessed! Rather, for the Elect, this final season of preparation can be a time of fatigue and temptation. They need our prayers. The scrutinies, then, are a way for us — the Church — to help support the Elect on this final leg of their journey to the font and table.
The readings from Cycle A of the Lectionary are used when the scrutinies are celebrated because the Gospel selections for those days have been traditionally associated with baptism: the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. By recounting these stories, we not only help the Elect understand where they are going — we remind ourselves of where we’ve come from. We are reminded that in baptism we are given to drink of life-giving waters, we are given new eyes of faith, and we are given new life. We are reminded that Christ is the living water, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life. The special Mass prayers used on these days reinforce those powerful images.
As we observe these Sundays of Lent, let us keep our Elect — and our candidates — in prayer. Let us remember, too, the truth of the scrutinies: We are all sinners in need of healing and forgiveness; we all need the salvation offered by Christ Jesus.
(Deacon Agnoli is director of liturgy for the Diocese of Davenport.)