May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Becoming Catholic: No Time Like the Present

By Maioremlaetitiam2 via Wikimedia Commons
This is the time of year, when most Catholic parishes--at least in the United State--begin to form an RCIA group. As I've written before, the Catholic Church encourages non-Catholics to convert, but they don't always make it terribly easy to find out how to do this. The very term "RCIA" meant absolutely nothing to me the first few dozen times I heard it or saw it. The initials stand for "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults," a phrase that didn't seem any clearer. So, when of the first things I did after I completed my own initiation was to join my parish's communications ministry and successfully advocate for the "RCIA" link on our home page to be changed to "Become a Catholic." Much better.

The RCIA process is intended to enable the individual to explore and truly understand the teachings, beliefs, mission, and function of the Catholic Church as well as the individual's responsibilities to God and to others and his or her own role within the parish and community. Unlike other denominations in which I have participated, the Catholic Church takes conversion very seriously. No other church I ever joined, ever asked me to participate in a single discussion about doctrine, liturgy or anything. They simply asked whether I wanted to join the church, I said "yes," and that was that.

Joining the Catholic Church is more complex, and I think that is a very good thing. The process of this "rite of initiation" takes prayer and discernment. It asks you to consider if this truly is the path you wish to follow. This is true with every rite of the Church. For instance, one meeting with the officiating clergyman will ever be sufficient before a Catholic wedding. This is serious. The Church takes it seriously and it expects you to take it seriously, too.

Having said that, the process is not difficult. I found it to be very rewarding. In my own parish, RCIA is led by a dedicated, loving and amusing Franciscan Sister assisted by an older married couple whose attention and care is warm and friendly. Each RCIA participant selects an established (and observant) Catholic as his or her sponsor, and the sponsors also attend the meetings, events and ceremonies whenever they are able. It enables the "newbies" to build connections with each other and with the "old" Catholics in a truly supportive environment. You can ask questions and express your ideas without feeling anxious that you might sound dumb or that you might be judged in some way.

Most of the time, the RCIA group meets weekly beginning in late summer or early fall through Easter. Individuals are also encouraged to attend Mass weekly and to find other ways to participate in parish life. As time and your understanding progress, you will be invited to participate in various rites like being presented to your Bishop and to your own Parish. In my Parish, we have three English-language Masses each weekend, so our RCIA participants are invited to come to each Mass to be formally presented to and prayer over by the congregation.

Along the way, if you decide that you don't want to continue, you may stop at any point. Likewise, you are welcome to return. Most of the participants complete RCIA and receive their first Eucharist during Holy Week around Easter, but others take longer to make their final commitment. I have found the U.S. Church to be fairly flexible in helping devoted RCIA candidates (or "catechumens") reach their goals even in extenuating circumstances. For instance, one college-age woman from our parish, took her RCIA instruction in another part of the country where she was attending university, but she was permitted to return to her home parish to celebrate her confirmation there.

If you think you might be interested in exploring Catholicism, even if you don't know whether you wish to convert or not, now is a great time to seek out the person in your local parish who is responsible for RCIA. Find out what is involved and start down that path. It is never too early or too late.

For instance, several years ago, an older lady in my parish asked our priest when RCIA would be starting. She had attended mass at our church for decades. Her children and grandchildren had attended the local Catholic schools. The priest knew her and her family fairly well. "Oh," he asked, "Do you know someone who would like to join the Church?"

"Yes," she said, "I would." In all those years of active participation, she was the only member of her family who was not Catholic. But, at Easter 2013, she stood beside me as we made our profession of faith together.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Catechism: Prologue I 2-3: Sharing the Good News

Via Wikimedia Commons
From my earliest youth, I can remember songs with lyrics like, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel and, lo, I am with you always," and Jesus' recruitment of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to lay down their fishing nets to that he could make them "fishers of men." We also frequently sang the children's ditty, "This Little Light of Mine," in which we kids promised not to "hide it under a bushel" (although we didn't know what a bushel was) and not to "let Satan blow it out" with accompanying hand gestures. Perhaps these songs and ideas have stuck with me so well because I also spent many years of my childhood in a fundamentalist domination that was strongly dedicated to sending Christian missionaries overseas. The lives of MKs (missionaries' kids) were often depicted for us, and missionaries visiting home frequently spoke at our church, sharing photos of the schools they had built and the kids they had fed and stories of facing down great dangers to bring the light of Christ to these remote, exotic and usually unfortunate peoples.

So, I have known for a long time, that one of the major responsibilities of a Christian is to share God with others. At times, I thought that meant I should be a missionary, too. Then, as a young teen, I participated in the musical, Surrender, about teens learning how to serve God. One of the characters sings, "I'd rather go to Africa, than Lakewood High, because being a believer isn't cool." It was eye-opening, the challenge of sharing my belief with others doesn't have to be full of life-threatening confrontations with head hunters or warring tribes; sometimes (often, usually) being a testimony to the people who are already part of my own world is scary enough.

The fact that the Catholic Catechism addresses this mission to share God's love with others so early in its pages has great significance, I believe. The only instruction that comes before it is to know and love God yourself. Once you've started that process, your next responsibility is to spread the "Good News" as so many faiths state it. But, here's the thing: these steps are not sequential. You cannot wait until you fully understand everything about God before you begin to let your light shine. Indeed, if you did, you would be under that proverbial bushel for your entire life. Most Christian faiths (indeed most religions of any kind) have a call for believers to proselytize. You are not permitted to perceive the truth and keep others in the darkness of ignorance.

How to do you do that? I suspect this exploration of the Catechism will help to explain how to share the Good News, and we shall seek to understand this process as we go. This year, Pope Francis has called all Catholics to observe a Jubilee of Mercy. The Jubilee prayer offers a succinct answer: "Let the Church [i.e. all Catholics] be your visible face in the world." When people see us, they should see God. We must strive always to live what we believe in order to demonstrate God's love and mercy. Not only do we represent God in this way, but we also serve God, as Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 25, "in so far as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me." (In that particular verse, he is talking about helping others, but he also elaborates later that the reverse is true. To neglect others or to actively harm them, is also a sin against God.)

But here is the biggest secret: you don't necessarily have to "go out of your way" to do this. Sure, many are called to serve God in the remotest corners of the globe, or in prisons, or in war zones, or in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities. The rest of us are called to use the talents that God has given us to serve him where we are. There are already people in your world today and people you will encounter tomorrow and next week and next year, who will benefit from your "testimony." While you may have the opportunity to actually speak about Christ to them or give them a Bible or a Crucifix, most of the time, the simplest act of kindness, mercy and love can be a trigger to encourage someone else to seek the peace and joy that you have. Conversely, there are few things more harmful to our mission, than Christians behaving poorly. (Ever been cutoff in traffic by a car with a "Jesus loves you" bumper sticker.)

It may not always feel comfortable to pray before a meal in public. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It may not always be convenient to help someone who is clearly lost or clearly struggling to carry something. That doesn't mean you should just pass them by. It may not always be easy to offer praise or comfort instead of criticism. That doesn't mean you are free to speak those sharp words that may come to mind.

Beyond that, you should seek ways to use your talents for God. He endowed each of us with individual personalities and abilities because He has need of these different skill sets. I hope I am never called upon to clear debris and weeds from the church yard or a neighborhood park. The kind of chore is not in any way part of my inclination or skill set and it sets me up for allergic reactions. (That doesn't mean I should always avoid this kind of service...) Since I was three years old, however, I have had a passion for reading and writing and for seeking to know and understand things. I have no doubt that these natural inclinations are part of God's plan for my service. When I completed the rite of initiation, I prayed for God to show me how to serve Him. His answer came very quickly, and I launched this blog that day.

This is one way in which I can let the light shine through me, and I pray for His inspiration as I draft each post. As the song from the popular rock opera Godspell says:
"You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. But the tallest candlestick ain't much good without a wick. You've got to live right to be the light of world."