Bishop's Interview: Learning from those who are converting to Catholicism
Editor: Bishop, at the end of March in all of our parish communities we will initiate and welcome hundreds of new Catholics. They began a faith journey long before they ever approached an individual parish. However, they were welcomed and have been nurtured within a faith community to this point in their journey. Tell us a little about this process and how Catholics (new and old) can nurture their faith.
Bishop Vásquez: One of the great blessings of Vatican II was the restoration of the the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA as it is known in the U.S. Though many people may think of RCIA as a new rite or something that was adopted within the last few decades, these rites have been part of our tradition for a long time.
For years, these rites were forgotten and not used. Even my own mother who was a convert to Catholicism didn’t go through the RCIA process. Rather, she met one on one with the priest on a weekly basis, they discussed certain elements of the faith, and, eventually she was brought into the Catholic Church. Some people may remember these as convert classes or inquiries. However, through the RCIA process, the church has given us this wonderful way of walking with people who are non-baptized on their journey to becoming Catholic. They are discerning the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives, as they learn about the faith and about this commitment of faith.
It is worth noting that the catechumenate, at least in the ancient church, might have lasted a long period of time from two to four years usually; St. Augustine went through his catechumenate for more than 30 years before he was finally able to say yes. The formation process is a serious time in which people experience the loving grace of God, which brings about enormous change in their lives.
This incredible journey begins with the grace of God. It is God who is working in these people’s lives and calling them. He is speaking to their hearts. The same holds true for those of us who have been Catholic since birth. When we were baptized as children we became part of the Catholic faith at that moment. As we grow older, we must continue to nurture that faith, with the help of our parents and our godparents, through the church community, through Catholic schools, parish religion programs, and adult formation opportunities. As we grow, God continues to call us and when we are attentive to his call, our faith is nourished and grows stronger and matures.
As mature Christians we are open to God’s grace; our faith continues to develop as we continuously say yes to God’s calling. God’s call never goes away, it lasts all of our lifetime. God wants to touch our hearts and move us to continue to love Christ and become truly who he has called us to be. It is important to remember that this journey of faith takes place in the context of community, the church. We are never alone, rather we are accompanied by believers at all times. The fullest expression of this community is found during the celebration of the Eucharist; there our faith is strengthened by Jesus Christ and we are transformed into the Body of Christ.
Editor: Catechumens in the formation process participate in the scrutinies. In what way do we need to examine our lives to see where we, ourselves, celebrate God’s blessings and what needs healing and reconciliation?
Bishop Vásquez: The scrutinies are celebrated during a time of intense preparation before the reception of the sacraments of initiation. Let me explain a few parts of the RCIA process before I go further into detail about the scrutinies.
The first part of the RCIA process is known as pre-evangelization where God is tugging at people’s hearts. Then comes evangelization itself – that is hearing the initial message of Jesus Christ. Then eventually they begin a more focused journey called the catechumenate, which is that period of time in which a person is truly discerning is God’s call to become Catholic. They discern as the whole community prays with them and supports them. With the help of priests, deacons, religious men and women, catechists and their sponsors, the catechumens learn about all aspects of our faith. At a certain point, these individuals discern they are being called by God to be baptized. The church affirms this call through the Rite of Election, which is celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent. After the Rite of Election, the catechumens are called "the elect," and they begin the final period of intense preparation to receive the sacraments.
Through the scrutinies, they go through a process of purification, during which they come closer to God. As the rites of initiation state, "The scrutinies are rites for self-searching and repentance and have above all a spiritual purpose. The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good." During this time, the elect examine areas of their lives where they have not availed themselves of God’s grace.
We, as long-time Catholics should do this, as well. We should look at our lives and where God has been speaking to us, but maybe we haven’t been responding or been willing to listen to him. We all have bad habits, practices or attitudes that creep into our lives and lead us to sin. These sins hinder us from truly living out the Christian life. Therefore, for us who are already Catholic, Lent is a special time for us to experience God’s mercy and love through the sacrament of penance or confession.
Editor: Those becoming Catholic will also receive the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, both of which contain the core beliefs and teachings of our Catholic faith. How do we live what we profess and pray at every liturgy?
Bishop Vásquez: The Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are very important because they are handed down to us from the history of our church. As the rites say, "Thus with the catechumenal formation of the elect completed, the Church lovingly entrusts to them the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the ancient texts that have always been regarded as expressing the heart of the Church’s faith and prayer."
To receive the Creed, which sums up all that we believe as Catholics, is a big step in the RCIA process. I remember as a pastor, watching and hearing the men, women and children in the RCIA process profess that they believe the very same way that we profess our faith Sunday after Sunday.
To receive the Lord’s Prayer is to understand that we as Christians are sons and daughters of a loving Father. Through the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, we were made God’s children.
During this Year of Faith, I hope that all Catholics, new and old, will take time to examine the words we profess in the Creed and those we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Examine those words. Ask yourself, "How can I live my faith more fully with the help and guidance of these words?"
Editor: What is your prayer for those entering the church as well as those of us who have been Catholic for many years?
Bishop Vásquez: My prayer is the same for all of us: that we would open our hearts to the grace of God during this holy season of Lent. God offers his grace abundantly, generously. He is speaking to our hearts. He might be speaking through children. He might be speaking through a spouse or through a family member or through a parishioner. If I am alert and aware, then I am going to hear his voice. God is persistent, he is always tugging at our hearts, at our minds, at our souls. I pray that all of us will be conscious and aware of God’s love for each one of us as he calls us to become his sons and daughters.