Tag Archives: Sponsors

Sacrificial Effort

20120321-155448.jpgSome days, I get a teeny-weeny glimpse of the efforts God makes in seeking us out and drawing us to himself. Some days, you feel like you’re chasing after people all day long. “Sorry you couldn’t make it!” “We missed you last week – such a shame you couldn’t be there!” when inside you’re thinking, “Where were you?!” Now amidst everything, I need to squeeze in an extra hour somewhere to catch up. To be honest, this often works out for the best: it usually means a good chance for a one-on-one which is often very fruitful.

One of the tricky things about initiation catechesis is people’s lives. We can prepare everything beautifully, but the most important thing that needs preparation is people’s hearts – to receive the catechesis. And it helps if they’re actually there in the first place.

This means that, almost as important as our catechetical work with people, is our pastoral support. The one-on-one time. Ensuring that people are neither overburdened, or need more input to spur them on. I try to keep good contact with each adult in our initiation process (believe me, we’re talking a wide range of stages… from very early enquirer to very-nearly-almost-there). Some of them long to become Catholic like they have never longed for anything before, while others are resistant, slightly cynical, unsure. Some need more help than you can give them, and that’s why it’s helpful to know some good Catholic counsellors.

The sponsors, too, are engaged in this mission of “sacrificial effort”. The best effort that we make for others are the prayers and sacrifice we offer for them without them knowing. I know some incredible sponsors and others in our parish who I am certain – simply by seeing the fruitfulness of their lives – pray and offer sacrifice for those they sponsor or befriend, for their conversion. And who knows who has done this for us?

I wanted to write this post following the previous one on “Fruitfulness”, simply because God wants to see our desire for others’ conversions, he wants to see our passion and zeal for souls, and we show him our desire through our prayer and sacrifice. This is essential to being a lay apostle, a co-redeemer with Christ. How much do we want it?


Contraception, Cohabitation, and the Catechumenate

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).

Friendship needs to permeate the Catechumenate to help effect conversion

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.


Suspicious motives…?


This is a question often raised regarding people who come to RCIA: they just want to jump through the hoops, get their child into a school, and so on.

The first thing I would say about ulterior motives is this: if that is the ‘hook’ that God has used to get them there – so be it. We can work with that! In our parish, we have sponsors who have the “hands-on” role of building a friendship with the person they are matched with, gradually building up confidence and trust. Only when that is there can the sponsor, who is a friend, bring up the nitty gritty issues that have to be confronted. I know a lady who began this conversation with her candidate by being completely upfront: “You are not going to like what I’m going to say but…” The woman was a bit indignant and upset at the time, but later she reflected more deeply and admitted that her sponsor (and the Church!) was right. It may take months and months to win people and yes, we may lose some along the way. But hopefully they will remember the people they had contact with in the Church were people who really cared about them, were real friends, and cared enough to tell them the truth. Deep down, (most) people know that the Church is right.

If our Precatechumenate and Catechumenate are the places they should be (inviting, prayerful, full of friendships and community, not afraid to challenge or deal with tough issues) they will be places where people have to be real. Even if someone comes along to the Precatechumenate determined to get her child into the Catholic school (and there are lots of stubbornly determined mothers out there who have gone to even more drastic measures), she is still a human being, and who can resist for very long people with winning personalities who are kind, friendly, knowledgeable about the faith?! It is true – some people do resist. I was sad last year when a young woman who started attending the Precatechumenate to satisfy her grandmother who wanted her to be confirmed, stopped coming when she realised this was not going to be particularly quick. Several months later I met her in the street and we chatted, and she said she was planning to come back, but I haven’t seen her since. This is sad, but it is a fact of life. This woman wasn’t ready or willing to face the deeper questions about life for herself. I just hope she remembers her experience of the Church as a place where people cared about her and wanted her to keep coming, even though she decided not to.

If you don’t have sponsors – and even if you do! – the catechists really need to build these personal relationships. People are so much more likely to listen to what we are teaching if we know them as friends, if we enjoy spending an evening every week together. This is why socialising is helpful – meeting people for coffee or even giving them a call in between times. Our Catechumenate involves a weekend retreat which builds community. Last year, a comment from one of the men in the Catechumenate after the retreat struck me: he thanked us for all the care we had put into it; it made him feel like he belonged. One of the advantages of having a long Catechumenate is that by the end, the ‘neophytes’, catechists and sponsors are a big community and people often are sad that the classes are over.


God’s Plan for Holiness through Marriage

Wow – today I am in amazement of Catholic families, and parents who authentically live marriage and family life as a path to holiness.

I talked with a wonderful young Catholic mother a few days ago. She is a sponsor for one of the women who is in the RCIA process. I think that today, one of the hardest things about becoming Catholic, must be changing your mentality and lifestyle in the area of family planning. This is particularly hard given that there are plenty of Catholics out there who do not live this faithfully, which is a damaging counter-sign to those who are being initiated into the full life of the Church.

Thank God for the wonderful, faithful Catholic couples in our parish. We have one lady who gives a session each year to the catechumenate on how natural family planning is a way of holiness within marriage. Sometimes it is a Cross to bear, it undoubtedly involves much sacrifice, that, as an unmarried person I cannot fully comprehend. But it is powerful when a woman speaks about the truth of this Church teaching – not simply because it says it in the Catechism – but from her and her husband’s experience of living it, year after year. From the standpoint of experience, and perhaps also of struggle and suffering as well as joy, there is more chance that the candidates will hear this as something authentic and true.

It’s one thing to know this teaching as true, and another thing to put it into practice in your life, especially if your spouse is not hot on it. This is why the encouragement, honesty and witness of the sponsor is paramount. Hence the gratitude I felt when I chatted to one of our sponsors who is giving just this: prayer, encouragement, support, advice. I hope that a year of prayer, grace received in the liturgy, teaching, witness from others, and love from within the community will be enough for the people in initiation to put out into the deep and learn to trust God in this area of their life – that his plans for them are not plans of disaster, but for hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).


The Importance of Sponsors

I’ve just finished matching all our precatechumenate “enquirers” with parish sponsors. None of them came to their enquiry sessions with a strong Catholic friend, and so each time this happens, we sit down and think about a good person in the parish to match them with. This arrangement has huge advantages: it means that the enquirer is gradually introduced into parish life through their sponsor – introducing them to people and inviting them to events; it means that the enquirer has someone they can chat with regularly one-on-one (which is less likely to happen during catechetical sessions); and the sponsor grows to know the enquirer/candidate very well and can help discern how ready they are for each liturgical step of the process.

Last night in our precatechumenate session, the enquirers started joking that I must have done some background research on them… OK, so for one of the men, I happened to notice he worked in the same company as a daily-Mass-going Catholic dad of six in our parish, so we paired them up. They work in a highly demanding profession with long hours which make catechesis sessions a struggle, so I am praying this will work well for them. Another lady discovered that her sponsor’s husband is someone she went to university with. And another pair discovered they used to share the same nanny! These last two are completely coincidental, but it is funny the connections that arise when a person arrives in a parish thinking they know no one and are an outsider.

Over the last year, I’ve noticed how the candidates with the most dedicated sponsors made the most progress. Some came along to catechetical sessions, went with them to daily Mass one day a week, met them regularly for coffee, and got to know them really well as friends. It was great having them in catechesis as well, sharing their own experience and inputting helpful advice.

There’s a great article here  – a wonderful RCIA blog that has some great advice on all things RCIA.


Mystagogia

I said I would write a bit more about our period of Mystagogy in the parish. I recently heard a statistic that, on average, 70% of the people who are received into the Church at Easter in a particular diocese (I won’t say which one, but I imagine they are all more or less the same) LAPSE!! Working all the time with people are preparing for the sacraments of initiation, this struck me as so SAD… These people must have been committed enough to go through a period of preparation (I’m aware that in some parishes it is shorter and less thorough than in others), there must have been some original conviction or experience that spurred them to make contact with their parish in the first place. So what happens?!?

This is clearly a complex area, and it would be fascinating if there were some research done, so that parishes can increase their chances of RCIA “Success”!

However, I would suggest that one small contributing factor to people persevering in their new Faith could be, firstly, the period of Mystagogy, and secondly, ongoing formation following on from this.

The period of Mystagogy runs from Easter to Pentecost (hence the image above of the powerful moment of Pentecost). In the early Church, it was a time when the bishop would explain to the neophytes (new Catholics) the meaning of the mysteries or sacraments into which they had just been initiated. These mysteries were considered so sacred that they were not revealed to the recipients until they had been initiated.

On Monday we had our first session of Mystagogia in the parish with the new Catholics. There was a real sense of joy – this group has been meeting together weekly for almost a year and a half so there’s now a great sense of community among the neophytes, sponsors and catechists. One of the purposes of the Mystagogia is to lead the new Catholics to reflect deeply on their experiences of the Easter Vigil, their reception of the sacraments, and their ‘new life’ as a Catholic. Another element we are focussing on in these few weeks are the essential elements which will sustain their new Catholic life from now on. Each week, they are discussing a different element with their Sponsor: e.g. formation – how will I continue my formation and learning of the Faith? prayer – what ‘plan of life’ will I commit to including daily prayer, confession, spiritual direction? and service and apostolate – how can I offer my talents in service to the Church and how can I engage in the apostolate?

It sounds like a lot… But I think this is another example of how the RCIA is a microcosm of our Catholic life. We have to make concrete, practical and realistic goals and decisions for ourselves in these areas to help us stay faithful and ensure that we continue to grow and move forward in our spiritual life.

Maybe – just maybe – if we help new Catholics make practical decisions in these areas, and if they have faithful and loving Sponsors to encourage them and help keep them on track, there would be fewer new Catholics so tragically lapsing after receiving the sacraments of their salvation?