Rite of Election of Catechumens

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Rite of Election of Catechumens


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: We celebrated the Rite of Election of Catechumens. I am confused about the rite of purifications during the Sundays of Lent. My understanding is that with the rite of election the catechumen has given his consent to God to be baptized in the Catholic Church. Am I wrong in presuming that it is God who calls the catechumens to conversion? The Church is only the medium for God to act. Please explain why it is compulsory for the catechumens to undergo these rites if they have already consented to become Catholics and the Church has accepted them as the elect to be baptized during the Easter Vigil. — C.A., Muar, Malaysia

A: Our reader refers to adults who will be baptized during the Easter Vigil Mass. The various rites and stages that they are required to undergo before baptism are described in the introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. We shall base our reply on the English language version although there may be some differences between countries.

No. 6 of the introduction describes the principal stages that a person seeking baptism usually goes through:

"6. On this journey, besides periods for making inquiry and for maturing (see no. 7) there are stages or 'steps': the progress of the catechumen is, as it were, a passage through a gateway or the climbing of another 'step.'

"a. First stage [catechumenate]: at the point of initial conversion, they wish to become Christians and are accepted as catechumens by the Church.

"b. Second stage [final preparation]: when their faith has grown and the catechumenate is almost completed, they are admitted to a more intense preparation for the sacraments.

"c. Third stage [sacraments of initiation]: after the spiritual preparation is completed, they receive the sacraments of Christian initiation."

No. 7 fleshes out these periods a bit more:

"7.The stages lead to the periods for making inquiry and maturing; alternatively, the periods may also be considered to prepare for the stages.

"a. The first period consists of inquiry on the part of the candidates and of evangelization and the precatechumenate on the part of the Church. It ends with entrance into the order of catechumens.

"b. The second period, which begins with this entrance into the order of catechumens and which may last for several years, includes catechesis and the rites connected with catechesis. It comes to an end on the day of election.

"c. The third period, shorter in length, ordinarily coincides with the Lenten preparation for the Easter celebration and the sacraments. It is a time of purification and enlightenment.

"d. The final period goes through the whole Easter season and is devoted to the postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy. It is a time for deepening the Christian experience, for gaining spiritual fruit, and for entering more closely into the life and unity of the community of the faithful."

Our correspondent's question refers especially to the rites pertaining to the second stage (or No. 6.b) and the third period (or No. 7.c).

Some time before the immediate Lenten preparation, the candidates would have already been admitted as catechumens. This is done once they have acquired the fundamentals of Christian teachings, the beginnings of the spiritual life, and the first stirrings of repentance. This moment is described in No. 14 of the introduction:

"14. The rite described as the 'entrance into the order of catechumens' is of the utmost importance. Assembling publicly for the first time, the candidates make their intention known to the Church and the Church, carrying out its apostolic mission, admits those who intend to become members. God showers his grace on them, as this celebration manifests their desire publicly and marks their reception and first consecration by the Church."

After this is a period of formation that varies from country to country but usually lasts one or two years. Once the candidate is ready to receive the three sacraments of initiation the immediate preparation, usually coinciding with Lent, begins. This period of "Purification and Enlightenment" is admirably described in the introduction:

"21. The time of purification and enlightenment of the catechumens customarily coincides with Lent. Both in its liturgy and in its liturgical catechesis, Lent is a commemoration of baptism or a preparation for it and a time of penance;  it renews the community of the faithful together with the catechumens and makes them ready to celebrate the paschal mystery, which the sacraments of initiation apply to each individual.

"22. The second stage of initiation begins the period of purification and enlightenment, marked by a more intense preparation of heart and spirit. At this stage the Church makes the 'election,' that is, the choice and admission of the catechumens who because of their dispositions are worthy to take part in the next celebration of the sacraments of initiation. This stage is called election because the admission made by the Church is founded on the election by God, in whose name the Church acts. It is also called the enrollment of names because the candidates, as a pledge of fidelity, write their names in the book of those who have been elected.

"23. Before the election is celebrated, the candidates are expected to have a conversion of mind and conduct, a sufficient acquaintance with Christian teaching, and a sense of faith and charity. A decision on their suitableness is also required. Later, in the actual celebration of the rite, the manifestation of their intention and the decision of the bishop or his delegate should take place in the presence of the community. It is thus clear that the election, which enjoys such great solemnity, is the turning point in the whole catechumenate.

"24. From the day of their election and admission, catechumens are called the 'elect.' They also are called competentes ('competitors'), because they vie with each other or compete to receive Christ's sacraments and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are also called illuminandi ('those to be enlightened'), because baptism itself has the name 'illumination' and sheds the light of faith on the newly baptized. In our times other terms may be used that, depending on regions and cultures, are better suited to popular understanding and the idiom of the language.

"25. During this period, a more intense spiritual preparation, which involves interior recollection more than catechesis, is intended to purify hearts and minds by the examination of conscience and by penance and also to enlighten those hearts and minds with a deeper knowledge of Christ the Savior. This is accomplished in various rites, especially in the scrutinies and presentations.

"—1. The 'scrutinies,' which are celebrated solemnly on Sundays, have the twofold purpose mentioned above: to reveal anything that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect, so that it may be healed, and to reveal what is upright, strong, and holy, so that it may be strengthened. For the scrutinies are intended to free from sin and the devil and to give strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life of the elect.

"—2. The 'presentations,' by which the Church hands on to the elect its ancient texts of faith and prayer, namely, the creed and the Lord's Prayer, are intended to enlighten the elect. The creed, recalling the wonderful works of God for the salvation of the human race, suffuses the vision of the elect with the light of faith and joy. In the Lord's Prayer, they recognize more fully the new spirit of adoption by which they will call God their Father, especially in the midst of the eucharistic assembly."

As can be seen from the text, the preparatory rites are not intended to cast doubt upon the elect or their response to God's call but to accompany and spiritually strengthen them so that they may receive the holy sacraments with the greatest degree of knowledge and commitment.

* * *

Follow-up: Rite of Election of Catechumens [3-23-2010]

Our comments regarding preparation for adult baptism at Easter (see March 9) brought to mind another e-mail. A reader described this case:

"During the second week of Lent, our DRE [director of religious education] approached our RCIA coordinator to let her know that this year confirmation was not going to take place during the Easter Vigil for our newly baptized. While I was attending a class on canon law, Fr. X stated that all three sacraments — baptism, confirmation and first Communion — should all be conferred upon the newly baptized. When I mentioned this to the DRE, I was told that Fr. Z said that it was going to be done that way [that is, no confirmation] and that he has the authority to make those changes. I had asked Fr. X in regards to 'pastor privilege,' and he said that there was no 'pastor privilege' — this was 'full initiation' and all three sacraments should be done together. My only thought is that all of the newly baptized will be missing out on a very important sacrament and there is nothing that I can do to help."

In this case, Fr. X is correct that a pastor does not have blanket authority to omit confirmation to adults baptized during the Easter Vigil. The fact that canon and liturgical law grants the baptizing priest the faculty to confirm on this occasion is a clear sign that this should be the normal process.

In some dioceses the bishop prefers to do most adult baptisms, but this does not change the fact that all three sacraments are given.

That said, however, it is necessary to point out what the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) says in No. 24: "In certain cases when there is a serious reason, confirmation may be postponed until near the end of the period of post-baptismal catechesis, for example, Pentecost Sunday."

The RCIA, unfortunately, does not give examples of what a "serious reason" might be. The reason is certainly not a large number of catechumens; No. 23 already foresees this possibility and suggests that the solution is celebrating several full initiations during the Easter octave.

Nor would it usually be the case of lack of preparation, because if an adult is unprepared for confirmation, he or she would be equally unprepared for baptism.

It can only be supposed that No. 24 refers above all to special one-off cases and not to an entire catechumen class. It is certainly not a simple option or alternative that can be adopted for supposed pastoral reason.

Since serious reasons are required for postponing confirmation, the candidates have a right to know those reasons from the pastor himself. "Because I said so" is not an adequate response.

The faithful have a canonical right to receive the sacraments from the sacred ministers unless they are subject to some legitimate impediment. The pastors have a corresponding duty and responsibility to provide the spiritual blessing to the faithful who request them and are adequately prepared.

In our column of Aug. 29, 2006, we presented the case of the Holy See's telling a bishop to confirm a young girl who was adequately catechized, had spontaneously requested the sacrament, but was refused because she was below the diocesan age of confirmation.

If this is the attitude shown by the Holy See toward a child, then it can only be supposed that it would hold the same stance in favor of adults, unless there were authentic serious reasons for acting otherwise.

If the pastor cannot justify his decision, then it might be necessary to bring up the issue with the bishop.


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