Conference examines roles of faith, RCIA, the Word
While schooling Catholics in the tenets and rituals of their faith gives them an important “road map” to use in their lifelong probing into the mystery of God, the most powerful faith formation usually occurs when a fledgling or longtime Catholic witnesses the unassuming, Christ-like work of the clergy and laity at the parish level, said speakers to an assembly of priests, seminarians and deacons at the 31st annual Johannes Hofinger Conference, held Jan. 3-5 at the Pontchartain Center in Kenner.
“What allures people most to want to yield their hearts and make the leap of faith is not the content of faith. My experience is what draws them is the work of faith, the works of love,” said Father Richard Fragomeni, one of three speakers who presented the conference’s special clergy track examining strides in catechesis in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council and the two decades since the promulgation of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
All three speakers had ties to the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, the largest Catholic graduate school of ministry in the United States.
Faith: An internal change
“The works of love are the beauty of the church,” Father Fragomeni said. “The works of our parishes – the charitable works of love, the outreach that was poured out in that parish in (Newtown) Connecticut. That’s what allures the communion and the re-evangelization of peoples. I believe what will allure fallen-away Catholics is not talk about the content, but the beauty of our lives, given in love, transformed by God, and living out the mystery so that we, the leaders of the church, become the very door of faith.”
Father Fragomeni, a priest of the Diocese of Albany (N.Y.) and a CTU associate professor of homiletics, noted that “faith” and “content of faith” are interrelated, but distinct. Faith, he said, is “a yielding over completely to God,” while content – the church’s teachings and rituals – is a series of “pointers” that help direct the faithful to the beauty, truth and goodness of God.
“You can memorize the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ but not have faith,” he said. “We can have a lot of catechetical answers; we can memorize the definitions of (place names such as) Chalcedon and Ephesus; we can even change translations of the Nicene Creed and now say ‘consubstantial.’ Those are the contents of our faith, but content does not guarantee that the radical transformation is occurring within the souls and in the hearts of believers.”
Father Fragomeni reminded priests that before they could help usher their flocks through the door of faith (or porta fidei, the title of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 apostolic letter anticipating the Year of Faith), they first had to understand for themselves that faith is not something to be meditated over during a single year of observance, but a gift from God that is nurtured through repeated encounters with the divine and ongoing conversions of the heart.
“The door of faith leads us into mystery – the mystery of God,” Father Fragomeni said. “And because it leads us into mystery, it’s a mystery that we as Catholics believe is not just incomprehensible, but infinitely incomprehensible; the more you understand, you realize there’s a lot more to understand after you think you understand it all.”
This “ongoing conversion” ideally should keep unfolding from one’s baptism through death, Father Fragomeni said. Noting that the Greek word for conversion is metanoia, or “going beyond the mind,” he said conversion means repeatedly letting go of our “puny minds” and taking on the mind of Christ.
Father Fragomeni left the clergy with two suggestions for the Year of Faith: to more actively promote catechetical opportunities in their parishes; and to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation to “flush out the old leaven” and “allow God to enrapture us and transform us in the beauty of Christ.”
RCIA: more than a syllabus
Jerry Galipeau, a CTU adjunct professor and vice president and chief publishing officer for World Library Publications (the music and liturgy division of Illinois-based J.S. Paluch Co.), described the past 50 years as a “waking up” period of the catechumenate process as the “way in” to Catholicism.
Galipeau said most parishes in the U.S. are falling short of the Council’s original vision for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) put forth in “Ad Gentes,” the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the missionary activity of the church. That document declared that Catholic formation should be more than “a mere exposition of dogmatic truths and norms of morality,” but a dynamic period of “apprenticeship” in which the catechumen gets to know Christ through participation in the works of the church.
Noting that a recent USCCB study found that 87 percent of catechumenal programs in the U.S. primarily focused on a strict syllabus “peppered with rites,” Galipeau asked clergy to re-examine if their religious education programs had also merely become “Catholic classes” whose content was stored in a manila folder.
“The vision from the Council is that it should be so much more,” he said, comparing the process of becoming Catholic to how a student electrician becomes an electrician – while he is “in the hole” doing the hands-on work related to his field, and not in the classes he takes to receive his certificate.
“As far as the RCIA goes, your parish is the hole,” Galipeau said. “It’s a hole in which people don’t become electricians, they become disciples of Jesus Christ; those who are coming to baptism are becoming Christ. It’s in the hole that they become Roman Catholic, not in Room C on Tuesday nights during RCIA classes.”
He said the Council’s vision makes the evangelization of the catechumenate the responsibility of all parishioners – not just religious educators – and suggests it should begin well before a candidate receives the sacraments.
“Too often what has happened in parishes is that the RCIA becomes the catechetical cocoon; it’s its own little group,” Galipeau said. “You almost get this sense that you’re protecting people from the community that they’re actually going to be initiated into. The recidivism rate is fairly high, because in many places we’re initiating people into a strange community.”
To illustrate his point, Galipeau shared a story from his own parish in Chicago in which an adult catechumen was invited to accompany a eucharistic minister named Helen on her morning rounds to distribute Communion to the homebound. In addition to learning a new vocabulary word for the container of consecrated hosts – pyx – the catechumen noticed that one of the elderly Communion recipients greeted her visitors at the door with a lighted candle, which the catechumen was then able to connect to the perpetually lit lamp near her church’s tabernacle.
“(The catechumen said), ‘That old woman knew that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, was coming to her home, so she greeted us with a lighted candle! I can’t wait to be baptized because I want to do what Helen does!’” Galipeau said, telling clergy that “no amount of lecture” on the tenet of Real Presence would have had the same impact on the catechumen.
“She was put into the hole with Helen, and that’s where it happened,” Galipeau said.
Recommended pair of texts
The track’s final speaker, Passionist Father Donald Senior, CTU’s president, urged priests to reacquaint themselves with two short documents he believes were the two most “revolutionary” to come out of the Second Vatican Council: “Dei Verbum,” a 1965 text that exhorts Catholics to re-engage themselves in Scripture – or, as Father Senior put it, the way God’s love for his children “spills over in the Word”; and “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.
“There is a fundamental harmony between Revelation – the Word spoken to us, through Israel, through Jesus, through the Church – and the created universe,” Father Senior said. “This is why there should be no fear within the Catholic tradition of science; no fear of the quest for truth; no fear at all of the inquiring mind, because (creation and Scripture) are both the Word of God to us. “