The New Evangelization and the Baptismal Catechumenate

The Baptismal Catechumenate, restored as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), is not only an important method; it helps to understand evangelization more deeply.  It shows that evangelization is an ongoing process that begins with the task of bringing unbelievers to an initial faith before entering into the catechumenate.  This initial phase entails helping to remove barriers to faith (pre-evangelization) and the initial proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma), followed by initiation into the order of catechumens.  The period of the catechumenate leads to the Sacraments of Initiation followed by a period called Mystagogy, which continues to deepen the catechetical formation of the, now, neophytes.

The baptismal catechumenate begins with the kerygmatic proclamation of the Gospel to non-believers, to those who are religiously indifferent and to others who do not know the Gospel.  It should seamlessly integrate with pre-evangelization (see The New Evangelization and Pre-evangelization) before it and with catechesis after it.  This first proclamation introduces the listener to the person and work of Jesus Christ, having the aim of helping him to fall in love with Jesus and to willingly conform himself to Him.  Therefore, the content necessary is that which permits the listener to knowledgeably make a choice for (or against) the Gospel.  We will discuss the minimum content of the kerygma shortly.

Catechesis continues the instruction of the newly committed disciple through a systematic and complete presentation of the fullness of the faith.  Saint John Paul II indicates that its twofold aim is the maturing of initial faith and the educating of a true disciple of Christ (Catechesi tradendae [CT] 19).  Let us look for a moment at the first objective, the maturation and strengthening of the initial faith of the catechumen (or candidate) in order to assist his flourishing as a disciple of Christ.  Catechesis is the stage in the process of evangelization aimed at spiritual maturation after the person has already “accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart.” Notice that the aim of catechesis is not bringing someone to an initial faith; it is not about the making of a disciple but of systematically educating and maturing one who is already an authentic disciple.  One cannot overstate this point! The prerequisite of initial conversion, the initial inner adherence of conforming oneself to Christ, prior to accepting someone into the order of catechumens, is not a juridical measure; it is an ontological necessity. Failure to understand and to abide by this requirement goes a long way toward explaining the widespread ineffectiveness of RCIA (as well as other forms of adult catechesis). 

Catechesis given before the person has freely committed himself as a disciple of Christ is usually ineffective because the person lacks the light of faith, even a pre-baptismal faith.  St. Augustine’s frequent reference to Isaiah 7:9, “unless you believe you will not understand” helps us to understand this phenomenon.  Pope Francis explains it this way: “Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes” (LF 26).  Honest attention to this criterion would greatly improve the effectiveness of authentic catechesis, especially in RCIA.  Baptismal catechesis is a critically important process with which every catechist should be intimately familiar because it has broad implications.  Indeed, the Magisterium says that the baptismal catechumenate is the model for all catechesis.

New methods in catechesis should follow the guidance of recent papal magisteriums, which advocate that all catechesis should model itself on the Baptismal Catechumenate (see The General Directory for Catechesis, 59; see also Evangelii nuntiandi, 44; Lumen fidei, 42).  That is, it should follow the phases of spiritual maturity of the one being catechized, it should integrate catechesis into the liturgical life of the Church, and it needs to evaluate continuously the measure to which the catechized are maturing in discipleship.  The recent papal magisteriums provide us insights into what is required for these new methods and means of expression in catechesis.

Predictably, while the previous popes have shared common concerns, their emphases for addressing the challenges differ.  In fact, the differences seem to align with a reverse progression through the three initial stages of evangelization: pre-evangelization, kerygma and catechesis.  This is not to suggest any one of them has an exclusive concern for one of the phases, but each simply manifests a greater emphasis on one of them.  John Paul II we might justly call the catechizing pope.  His pontificate was responsible for the urgently needed renewal of catechesis with such accomplishments as setting the direction for catechetical renewal with the Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi trandendae, the General Directory for Catechesis and the rite for the restored catechumenate (RCIA).  He also provided the comprehensive source document for defining the content for catechesis with the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and he demonstrated how to carry it out by making the institution of the Wednesday Audience catecheses an important point of reference for catechists.  This renewed focus on catechesis was the necessary first step in renewing the faith of Catholics of good will after the great desert of catechesis experienced in the wake of widespread doctrinal confusion coming after the Second Vatican Council. 

Without neglecting this area, Benedict the XVI cast the net further, making use of his Augustinian sensibilities for a kerygmatic expression of the Gospel.  His emphasis on presenting the Gospel as an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ was the hallmark of his interventions.  Here one thinks especially of Verbum Domini and his extra-magisterial trilogy Jesus of Nazareth.  I would like to suggest that with Pope Francis we see the movement backward now to the so-called stage zero—pre-evangelization.  It appears that Francis is focused upon this challenge of engaging modern man in such a way as to get him to consider for the first time the good news of Christ.  However, he recognizes the challenges we have already discussed.  Thus, the papal magisteriums of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI provide us ample suggestions for new methods and means of expression for the phases of the kerygma and catechesis.  Let us consider these in terms of the content for each of the phases.

One of the most important considerations with respect to content is the question of what is both necessary and appropriate for each phase of evangelization.  The majority of attention is often paid to catechesis, but pre-evangelization and kerygma are similarly important.  Because it is aimed at preparing unbelievers to hear the Gospel, the content of pre-evangelization is dictated primarily by the circumstances, such as the situation of the person(s) being addressed, the venue in which the pre-evangelization takes place, and the cultural and social considerations which may make it more difficult for them to consider fairly the Gospel message.  The content can range from traditional apologetics to helping someone to consider for the first time the profound, existential questions about which our frenetic workaday lives incline the vast majority of us towards indifference (for more on this, see The New Evangelization and Pre-evangelization).

The necessary content for kerygma must provide the listener with the essentials of the faith such that he can fall in love with Jesus Christ, he can willingly and earnestly turn away from those aspects of his life in contradiction with the Gospel and begin upon the path of conforming himself to Christ.  Kerygma must be able to help move the person to commit his life to discipleship, that is, submitting himself to Jesus as his Lord and Master, to follow Him wherever Providence takes him.  Authentic kerygmatic evangelization requires at a minimum, “the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God” (EN, 22; see also 27).  In practice, while this touches on the entirety of the faith, it is not at the same level of detail as catechesis, and it is presented in a way that introduces the unbeliever to Jesus in an intimate way.  To be fruitful, it should possess the quality of someone introducing his two best friends to one another.  Kerygma makes it clear that the Gospel demands a personal engagement; it is a personal invitation requiring a response.  An effective initial proclamation will be made within the context of the personal and social life of the person who receives it (Redemptoris Missio, 44).  However, even at the level of kerygma, this personal aspect must not confuse the unbeliever into thinking that faith in Christ is a private or individualistic affair.  The public and communal aspect of Christian faith must be clear or one “mis-evangelizes.” 

The necessary qualities which characterize the content of authentic catechesis include that it is Christocentric, systematic, faithful to the Magisterium, integral and complete (CT 5-27).  Christocentricity means, like the kerygma, it is centered on the Person and work of Jesus Christ as He is at the center of all authentic catechesis.  It also means that what is being transmitted is from Christ; it is not one’s personal opinion (CT 5-6).  However, Christocentricity does not mean “Christo-monism.”  That is, Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the Trinity, and so a Christocentric catechesis is also an integrally Trinitarian catechesis (CT 5, GDC 123).  Catechesis must also be systematic, meaning that it is not improvised.  It must be well thought out so as to include all essentials, how they relate to one another, and what their meaning is for living a Christian life in order to reach the objectives of understanding the faith.  It does not need to pretend to cover all disputed questions, but it must be sufficiently complete (CT 21).  It is not authentic catechesis if personal opinions or doubt are sewed into or replace authentic doctrine.  Lack of fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium undermines the very meaning of evangelization, reducing the teaching to self-referential opinion rather than Christocentric truth (see The New Evangelization, Apostolic Action and Truth).  It must be integral and organic.  Integral and complete catechesis means that it encompasses the entirety of the Gospel message, leaving nothing essential out.  It does not pick and choose what elements it will present.  Moreover, it presents it in such a way that it shows the openness of each element to the other (CT 21).  This is a point of fundamental import.  The faith too often is presented as a flurry of disconnected elements, a set of information rather than as a saving truth to which the listener must respond.  The GDC and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), taken as a complementary unity, are sure guides for ensuring that the catechesis is integral and complete.

If we are to achieve copious fruit from the new evangelization, we are going to need to improve significantly the conduct of RCIA in the United States.  As mentioned earlier, the major failure of the RCIA to achieve the fruits of which it is capable is that there is an inadequate effort to ensure an initial conversion to discipleship, or inadequate criteria are applied.  Other reasons for this failure, which impact even those who would like to follow the process more faithfully, are a lack of resources to keep the several phases of the RCIA going simultaneously, pressure from inquirers for quickly being given the Sacraments of Initiation, and the fact that most parish programs are necessarily tied to the academic year.  MAI is developing strategies to overcome these problems.  For example, adopting the model of partnering several adjacent parishes under one pastor can be applied to the problem of limited resources for conducting the periods simultaneously.  Parishes in partnership can take one of the phases on a year round basis.  Each person may then move to the next phase when he is ready, rather than having to move based upon the calendar.

Programs developed to serve the new evangelization need to integrate seamlessly with the baptismal catechumenate and, as appropriate, to incorporate the latter’s essential aspects into those programs.  One essential aspect of the catechumenate is addressing the particular needs of each person through the different periods of formation.  Other crucial aspects are the integration of the liturgy into the kerygma, catechesis and Mystagogy; the ongoing experience of the liturgical nature of the faith; and the early and ongoing involvement of the community in the process of formation, especially involvement by the most spiritually mature members of the community.  By way of example, catechetical and faith formation programs for all ages must recognize the need to assess the level of spiritual maturity of the attendees.  In order for these programs to bear fruit, a kerygmatic approach aimed at helping all to fall in love with Jesus Christ and making an explicit decision to follow Him as a disciple must be incorporated for those who have a latent or undeveloped faith.  In other words, for those who need it, pre-evangelization and the kerygma must be incorporated in some way as part of any catechetical or faith formation program.

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