OK, as promised, here’s a post on tackling these issues in the Catechumenate. January to Easter is the time when we turn towards the deepest changes catechumens need to make in their lives, after they have received much grace, teaching, and experience of community.
I said that these two issues were the ones we are challenged with the most in our Catechumenate, and I must say, it is far easier to write about them then actually deal with them. So, here goes…
Firstly, these are emotionally-charged issues. People feel threatened at a very deep level because the Church’s teaching in this area touches the most intimate spheres of their life. We have to recognise this and not blunder in, all gung ho, like a bull in a china shop. You can argue with them about Humanae Vitae till the cows come home, but this is not going to help them change their life. Rather, this is why I believe the Catechumenate (excluding the earlier Precatechumenate) should last at least a year. Because over that time, the catechists and sponsors have had time to build relationships with the catechumens – you know them as friends, they have shared some joyful times with you, they trust you because they know you care about them and want the best for them. They have experienced the lengths you have gone to to answer their questions, introduce them to the parish, help them in other areas of their life.
The second point I would make is that, while we mustn’t charge in, we can’t skirt around the issues either, avoiding them until the ‘allotted session’. Right from the outset, catechumens will be aware that contraception is a particular area where their lives are currently at variance with the Church. So, if it is a question that comes up in the Precatechumenate, answer it fully and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush. At the same time, acknowledge that the Catechumenate is long, and it has built into it the opportunities to understand and learn in more depth how they can realistically put this into practice in their lives. Emphasise the initiative of God throughout – he is leading them on this journey, he gives everything that is needed at the right times. Assure them that everything the Church asks of us leads us to a freer, more fulfilled life, and that God never demands anything of us for which we are not ready.
Sponsors are 100% key in this area. One woman was aware throughout her Precatechumenate and Catechumenate that birth control was an area she was terrified of changing in her life; her sponsor cottoned onto this early on and provided her with wonderful emotional and practical support throughout. It is also vital that the catechesis given is top quality. Every year, I invite an excellent catechist to teach this session because of the angle from which she teaches it. Her teaching is utterly rooted in her own lived experience of the vocation to marriage, and the joy as well as sacrifice of being open to children. She speaks of the benefits of using natural methods for your marriage (it keeps open conversation, and it means the burden isn’t all on one person – e.g. “you forgot to take your pill!”) Then she speaks about the “grave reasons” a couple may have for not having sex in the fertile period. Throughout, she speaks completely candidly about her own marriage, extremely realistically about the difficulties of marriage, and with homespun, practical wisdom about how this fits into your family’s lifestyle.
It is a perfect example of how conforming our lives to Christ’s teaching does not limit our freedom or obscure our individuality (see previous post).
So, in summary, it’s good to present the Church’s teaching on openness to life within the context of the beauty of Catholic marriage and family life (not by banging people over the head with Humanae Vitae), and it is vital that the person teaching is a living, joyful witness to this life. (An exhausted, bedraggled Catholic mother who has given up on her hair and make-up is probably a living saint, but is unlikely to fill catechumens with joy at the prospect of their new life…)
I am happy to say that, all the candidates and catechumens this year have decided to begin learning natural family planning methods. It is therefore vital that we also provide them with the opportunities to receive NFP classes, that we support them individually in the conversations they have with their spouse, that we pray with them and for them as they take the courageous step of making this lifestyle change.
The other challenging moral question is cohabitation. People are less aware about this than contraception because it is 100% the norm for young couples to move in with each other as soon as it starts getting serious. I mean, why not? It makes perfect economic sense. They can ‘try each other out’ before committing to anything more definite. If you have young, unmarried people in your Catechumenate, it is likely that this is a subject you will have to broach before long. Once again, the sponsor is paramount: a young woman in our Catechumenate who was living with her boyfriend was matched with a young, twentysomething sponsor who was newly married. It is important that we give catechumens and candidates living witnesses, showing them what is possible, and what will bring them fullness of life.
There’s one story I will share with you from this particular genre of Catechumenate obstacles… There was a wonderful catechumen who had had a big conversion and was beginning to discover the joy of life in Christ: she was getting up early to pray before work, she was devouring every Catholic book she could find, she was eagerly evangelising her friends. When we went on retreat, she experienced another beautiful experience of God’s love. But she lived with her boyfriend, was completely oblivious to the fact this may not be a wise idea, and eventually, I had her over to my house for lunch to broach this subject once and for all. We had a lovely lunch, very long conversation, we prayed together, we discussed ways forward, we decided to pray a novena for the next nine days. What a grace that this young woman was open to what God was asking of her. How amazing that the grace of our joint novena began to bear fruit in her life, and she is due to be baptised at Easter.
I admit it, being British we’d run a mile before ‘intruding’ into other people’s lives. But this is the importance of friendship. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have had that conversation with someone I barely knew, or who I didn’t consider a friend. And what’s more, as catechists and sponsors, this is truly a part of our call, what God is asking of us – to care so much for the people he has entrusted to us, that we do all we can to ensure they receive the fullness of life. It does cost us. It is a difficult apostolate. But it is one way we can lay down our lives for our friends.