|After entering the Church at the Easter Vigil, catechesis called mystagogy begins for new Catholics. Photo by W.P. Wittman
The Easter Vigil has come and gone, and the Church is in its glory: The priests are in white vestments, the Gloria and Alleluia are sung with rejoicing and the Easter candle shines brightly from the sanctuary. Even the growing warmth and blooming flowers outside echo the themes of new life being proclaimed from the pulpit.
The neophytes — Catholics welcomed into communion with the Church at the Easter Vigil — are supposed to be drinking it all in, with the weeks between Easter and Pentecost a time of “mystagogy,” when post-baptismal catechesis derives a “distinctive spirit and power” from the “new, personal experience of the sacraments and of the community” (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, No. 247).
But as Pentecost marks the official end of mystagogy, and time moves on, many parishes wonder about the neophytes: Where did they all go?
The answer should be, “into the pews with the rest of the parishioners,” according to people with long experience with RCIA and the new Catholics who come through the program. And they should be going to functions as well, and to social justice projects and fundraisers for charity and anything else the parish is doing.
Getting an early start
That’s something that Cathy Crino, pastoral associate and director of religious education at St. Alphonsus Parish in Chicago, always does.
“Since the distinctive spirit and power of the period of post-baptismal catechesis or mystagogy derive from the new, personal experience of the sacraments and of the community, its main setting is the so-called Masses for neophytes, that is, the Sunday Masses of the Easter season. Besides being the occasions for the newly baptized to gather with the community and share in the msyteries, these celebrations include particularly suitable readings from the Lectionary, especially the readings for Year A. Even when Christian initiation has been celebrated outside the usual times, the texts for these Sunday Masses of the Easter season may be used.
“All the neophytes and their godparents should make an effort to take part in the Masses for neophytes and the entire local community should be invited to participate with them. Special places in the congregation are to be reserved for the neophytes and their godparents. The homily and, as circumstances suggest, the general intercessions should take into account the presence and needs of the neophytes.
“To close the period of post-baptismal catechesis, some sort of celebration should be held at the end of the Easter season near Pentecost Sunday; festivities in keeping with local custom may accompany the occasion.”
— Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (Nos. 247-249)
“We have the Oktoberfest right after we start (RCIA) in the fall,” she said. “We encourage everyone to volunteer, and we have everyone sign up for the same shifts so they get to know each other.”
They do the same thing with Lenten fish fries, Crino said.
“Those are a lot of work, but they’re also social,” she said. “And a lot of people who come to us are new in the area, and they’re looking to meet people and make friends.”
That’s the time to help new Catholics develop a relationship with the parish and the Church — before they officially become Catholics, said Nick Wagner of TeamRCIA, a website that provides RCIA resources to parishes around the country.
“The most important thing is to start well before mystagogia,” said Wagner, who has been involved in RCIA for more than 30 years. “Don’t keep the candidates and the catechumens in a separate little group. A lot of times that’s what happens — the catechumens are kept in a small group, the RCIA group, and they don’t get to know anyone else in the parish.”
Then, when RCIA ends, they don’t have a natural connection to anyone else, and they feel abandoned.
Holy Name of Jesus Sister Miriam Malone, who has years of experience in both parish ministry and teaching parish ministry, agreed that asking how to connect neophytes to the parish community during mystagogia is the wrong question.
“The right question is: How are we inviting them into parish life from the very beginning, from the first time they knock on the door?” she said. “It has to be an expectation on the part of the catechumen and on the part of the parish that they will be involved in parish life.”
Indeed, said Margie Guadagno, pastoral associate at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Orland Hills, Ill., “You can’t do mystagogy as a separate thing. It’s going on from the moment you walk in the front door, and it never ends.”
That makes it clear that catechesis doesn’t end with the sacraments of initiation. But it does mean that the prime vehicle isn’t weekly meetings; it’s weekly Mass, according to the rite itself. The Sunday lectionary readings for Year A are especially appropriate, and can be used in any year when there are neophytes in the congregation.
“The comment that we hear is that they don’t come back for meetings after the Easter Vigil,” Wagner said. “But if the neophytes are at Mass, they’re kind of doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
In a video about how to keep neophytes involved, Wagner suggested that parishes make sure the Masses of the Easter season are the best of the year.
Based on the text of the RCIA, Wagner also suggested that parishes work with godparents or sponsors to make them aware that it is their responsibility to foster the neophytes’ practice of the faith, whether that means going together to Mass and breakfast afterward or just calling to encourage them to go to Mass.
If the godparents are from out of town, it might be worth the parish’s while to find local stand-ins, Wagner said.
Other suggestions included scheduling a party for the neophytes after Pentecost. The whole parish could be invited, creating another way to develop connections between the neophytes and other parishioners.
At St. Alphonsus, Crino said, the neophytes have one Easter-season session to talk about what happened at the Easter Vigil, and then a potluck party. They also are invited to participate in a Mass with neophytes from other area parishes.
Other events could be scheduled periodically throughout the “neophyte year” to help develop an ongoing relationship to the parish. Then the outgoing neophytes can help welcome the new ones the following year.
That doesn’t mean that catechumens or neophytes should be seen as the “next, best group of volunteers,” Sister Miriam said. Rather, they should be invited to parish activities to make sure they are included.
In Crino’s case, it’s not always easy to know whether people are going to Mass or not, because St. Alphonsus is located in a neighborhood full of young 20- and 30-somethings who are getting new jobs, getting married and, therefore, tend to move a lot. One year she had four candidates come back from other states for the Easter Vigil; another year, one of the candidates had a rental truck packed and ready to leave for a new job in Indianapolis as soon as the liturgy was over.
More time in RCIA
To make that work, Wagner said, it’s important to make sure people spend enough time in the RCIA program. Starting in late fall — some parishes don’t start until November — and finishing in mid-March when Easter falls early on the calendar does not allow enough time, especially for people who are new to the Christian faith.
“That’s not enough time to develop a Christian lifestyle and get it ingrained in their bones,” Wagner said.
Catechumens — those seeking entry to the Church who have not yet been baptized — and candidates — those who have been validly baptized and are seeking full communion with the Church — might find a longer RCIA program more fulfilling if it included integration into the wider parish community.
In Wagner’s home parish, St. Julie Billiart in San Jose, Calif., where he volunteers on the RCIA team, parishioners are asked to host catechumens and candidates for dinner as a way to help them meet others in the community. The parish also makes a point of inviting them to other activities.
Often, those activities can be part of their catechesis, Wagner said. For example, catechumens and candidates who volunteer with parishioners at a food pantry or soup kitchen can use that experience to reflect on what the Church teaches about feeding the hungry.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.