One of the most frequent criticisms you hear about Catholicism is its “institutionalism” – how many times do we hear people say they’ll take Jesus but not the Church? Personal relationship with God – yes; religion – definitely no.
To some extent, I can understand a certain trepidation. We don’t want to feel confined, we want to be able to choose, we don’t want to feel we have to do things we don’t particularly want to. I remember these feelings very much as a Catholic teenager. I didn’t want to do any ‘weird’ Catholic stuff, like go to Confession, or venerate the Cross on Good Friday, or pray the Rosary…just because that’s what Catholics did. I didn’t have an inner desire to do any of those things.
Now I see that what it comes down to is freedom: people don’t like these external practices because they find in them no interior correllation. Partly, we need to grow in understanding of these practices so we can understand their source in God’s love for us and nothing else. But also, we need spiritual growth to feel free in these practices. When we grow in interior life, we discover we have a space of freedom within us that can never be taken away. It means that we can fulfill the external practices of our Faith without loss to our individuality, our personality, our freedom. We learn that, “I can be fully myself and fully Catholic” and even, eventually, “I can be fully myself because I’m fully Catholic.”
There is a very real need for growth in this, for everyone in the process of preparing for the sacraments of initiation. As we draw closer to Easter, it becomes more and more real, which can either be a source of increasing joy or of increasing tension.
The catechesis of the Catechumenate needs to recognise this. When we begin somewhere new – a new job, neighbourhood, parish, a new family if we get married – there are a whole host of new people, places, procedures, etiquette, norms or rules we need to get used to. This is part of the purpose of the Catechumenate – catechumens get introduced, not only to parish life, but to the life of the whole Church. The new people they grow accustomed to are not only their sponsor, their parish priest, their parish community – but the entire communion of the Church through their primary relationship with Jesus Christ: their Blessed Mother, their elder brothers and sisters the Saints, the Holy Father, bishops, religious, priests…how everyone fits into the ‘Family’. Like becoming a member of any family, over time we gradually feel more at home as we understand the place and the roles that different people occupy, as we get to know people more deeply. I remember once meeting a woman who had recently been received into the Church who referred to “our Blessed Mother” in such a way I realised that she really knew her. This should be our ideal – that ‘neophytes’ leaving the Catechumenate speak with easy familiarity of their new family.
The same applies to other aspects of initiation – growing comfortable with going regularly to Confession, lighting candles for prayers, how and when to genuflect, blessing oneself with holy water, requesting Masses for certain intentions, making visits to the Blessed Sacrament, not eating meat on Fridays, praying novenas, becoming familiar with the liturgical year.
All of this is part of growing in freedom, as a son or daughter of God the Father, in the Church.
At this time of year, many Catechumenates begin to teach the Church’s moral teaching. For us, it comes after the grace of a retreat has prepared the way… Of course, this is perhaps the biggest and most challenging area of growing in freedom – accepting the moral teaching of the Church, particularly those elements that apply directly to your life. Every year, we find that this is the area needing the most prayer, the most careful planning, the most thoughtful yet no-nonsense catechesis. You can probably guess the two areas which present us with the most challenges each year: contraception and cohabitation.
To be honest, I wonder to what extent many Catechumenates even tackle these problems. People seem surprised when I tell them that, in our parish, catechumens do not receive the sacraments of initiation until they are ready to change their lives in these areas. These are admittedly very difficult obstacles to overcome, since they are often extremely emotionally-charged. In the next post, I want to share some practical examples of how overcoming these problems is indeed possible, and the best beginning for the new life of the catechumen.