There can seem to be a harsh, difficult-to-bridge chasm, sometimes, between the beautiful standard of life in Christ, and the messiness of the lived reality of many (well, if we’re honest, every single one of us). When I used to coordinate RCIA in my old parish, I realised why young adult ministry was SO vitally important: how important it is to evangelise young adults before they get involved in messy marriages that could cause them massive problems if they convert later down the line…
People arrive at RCIA with countless different attitudes. They often approach the Church tentatively, wondering if there is something here for them, some new life, new relationship that could give their life meaning. Their enthusiasm may increase during the precatechumenate. Perhaps they arrive already enthusiastic, happy to be part of a strong community, and wanting to understand what’s at the root of all this.
But, then, BAM! Your heart sinks as you look on their form and see that either they or their partner has ticked the, ‘This is not my first marriage’ box. What an innocent-looking box. Little do most people know what it means when they tick it.
The first thing is – at least there’s a form with this particular box on it. We had an extremely thorough form that people completed after a couple of enquiry (precatechumenate) sessions. I’ve heard of some cases where these questions are not even asked. It’s vital we uncover any problems early on (no – not when they’re being signed up for the Rite of Election).
I think it’s good practice that someone should not leave the precatechumenate if they are in an ‘irregular marriage’ which, as someone commented to me recently, is often a euphemism for no marriage at all. After all, if they are unable to be received into the communion of the Church because of their marital status, we are deceiving them by allowing them to become a catechumen (through the Rite of Acceptance) or a candidate (through the Rite of Welcoming).
As I write this, it all seems unbearably hard, doesn’t it? Someone whose faith is only just beginning to awaken or grow, suddenly has an enormous obstacle in their path, an obstacle that their faith is probably not strong enough yet to take on. It seems much, much easier, doesn’t it, just to let them continue, not mention anything, and hope that something will happen to make it go away. Which of course it won’t.
I had some experiences of this during the time I coordinated RCIA. Wonderful people who had either been married before, or whose partners had been. I can tell you, that when a situation seems impossible and desperate – when it seems a person cannot enter the Church because of their marital situation even though they dearly desire to – this is when the Holy Spirit can amaze us and work miracles, slowly, patiently, in hearts. It can, and often does, take years. But with grace, love, patience, sacrifice, often situations can be turned around. This seems light-years away when we first broach the issue with someone. It can feel like their whole world has just smashed into an ‘other-worldly’ reality. They have just dipped their toes into it, and yet already it is presenting them with granite-tough obstacles.
It is massively difficult, maybe one of the most difficult pastoral problems you can face in a parish. In the face of it, only grace and prayer can break through. Faith that the enquirer will not have yet, so we need to provide that for them, through friendship and persistence in keeping in touch when they drop off for a time.
There is so much to discuss on this topic – and it’s particularly relevant given the Extraordinary Synod later this year. Ultimately, the messiness of the world we live in requires of us immensely strong faith. It seems to me, we need continually to face up to two things – the chaotic messiness of the world, and the incomparable beauty of life offered in Christ – and realise that a lot of faith, prayer, work and sacrifice needs to take place in order to cross from one into the other.