When the local Church officially entered ‘COVID time’ on March 19, Bishop Bill wrote a Pastoral Letter in which he outlined all the liturgical changes that had to be implemented, including the suspension of the Sacraments of Initiation for Children for 2020. Bishop Bill asked parishes to take a ‘fallow year’ to reflect on their existing practice so they would be ready to start afresh in 2021.
What a gift and opportunity 2020 gave parish Sacramental Teams, who rarely have time to stop and reflect from one year to the next.
To support parish communities in this reflection the Diocesan Liturgy Council (DLC) produced a document titled, ‘Sacraments of Initiation: A Fallow Year Reflection Resource’. Parishes were encouraged to share this document widely.
Then as we ended 2020 and Bishop Bill announced that the ‘Sacraments of Initiation for Children’ would recommence in 2021, it was clear that COVID restrictions would continue to impact our life and liturgy. And so, the DLC prepared another pastoral resource to support the community in thinking through the implications of this, particularly for the ‘Sacraments of Initiation for Children’. That document is ‘Shaping Liturgy 2021: A Liturgical Bridge from 2020-2021’.
This gift of time and resources filled some with so much hope. Finally, we had time to reflect on what was generally agreed to be ‘not working’. There was hope that the fruit of this reflection would be seen in some change to the way parish communities prepare for and celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation in 2021. One small step, with a plan for further steps in the years ahead, would sustain this hope.
However, as we move into May, I confess to being disappointed and somewhat frustrated as I see the same basic pattern of Sacramental Initiation for Children re-emerging.
That is not to say parishes aren’t asking questions. These have been mainly practical in nature and about Confirmation. In response the DLC invited parishes to participate in a conversation focusing on Confirmation and First Communion. The aim was to provide a forum for people from different parishes to talk with each other. Fifteen people participated via Zoom on Monday afternoon April 19.
The conversation was most engaging as participants talked honestly, not about practical concerns, but about the significant challenges they face. While nearly everyone involved in this ministry has a story of a wonderful experience that ‘worked’, people shared how easy it is to be worn down, and to become despondent and de-energised, because overall they know what they are doing is not working.
My frustration centres on the chasm between the honest conversations we keep having, and the lack of changed pastoral practice that might go some way to addressing the issues we face. We seem to be paralysed, unable to think outside the existing Sacraments of Initiation box. At the end of the conversation one person spoke passionately about the need for us to be courageous in this space.
What would a courageous response look like in your parish? What would it ask of you and me as parishioners?
I shall share a secret with you, unpopular as it may be. When asked what the biggest challenge is facing the ministry of Christian Initiation in parishes – for children and adults – Sacramental and RCIA Teams and Parish Leaders say … the worshipping community.
Ouch! That’s me and you and all of us together. Our collective behaviour indicates that we fail to appreciate that Initiation is our responsibility, all of us together. All the baptised are commissioned by God to evangelise – ‘Proclaim the Good News’ of God’s love – and baptise.
So I ask myself: Where am I when the Sacraments of Initiation for Children are being celebrated in my parish? Am I there or am I intentionally avoiding it? Of course, there is another side to this question which is: Am I encouraged to be there? Told what time they are on? Invited and encouraged to help?
And where am I and what am I doing when families are preparing for these Sacraments? How am I helping to introduce these families to the Catholic way of life? Is there an opportunity for me to share my experience of the love of God and how it shapes my life as a disciple and a member of the Church? Again, there is another side to this question: Am I invited to be part of this process?
It is also important to note that Sacramental Teams in most parishes struggle to find new members and existing members often feel they are there ‘for the term of their natural life’! So I appreciate members of these teams might find the questions above about inviting parishioners to participate laughable. There are always many perspectives to consider.
In the ‘Liturgical Bridge from 2020-2021’ document mentioned above, an accompaniment process for families was proposed. If there is a parish that is attempting such a process it would be good to know so your experience can be shared.
There is a practical issue that makes community participation difficult, especially with COVID, that is space in the church. Space is an issue if we continue to operate Sacraments of Initiation for Children according to an age/cohort model. This model is contrary to our appreciation of faith as a response to a personal encounter with God in Christ. When understood as a faith response to a personal experience of God, people are ready for Initiation at different times. Initiation happens in response to the movement of the Holy Spirit NOT the parish or even Bishop’s schedule.
In the April 19 conversation, we talked about collapsing this age/cohort model. That might take time, but it is not difficult, or hard to imagine.
Let’s think about Confirmation. As I said above, the same pattern of celebration is emerging. A parish with multiple churches and large numbers of candidates might have two or three Confirmations, all scheduled within a narrow time frame, perhaps across two weeks. What possibilities might open up if instead, these parishes scheduled two or three Confirmations across the year? Parishes who have one Confirmation a year could consider having two. Small parishes, some of whom celebrate Confirmation every second year or as needed, are already able to be flexible. Changing the schedule in this way would expand the possibility for children and their families to seek Confirmation when they are ready, rather than according to the parish schedule.
Such a change would also enable the parish to make sure there is room in the church for parishioners to participate, sitting with families, accompanying them and supporting them in simple ways such as knowing when to sit or stand. Participation of regular members of the worshipping community would also enable the dialogue responses to be heard and hymns to be sung with some volume. This would greatly enrich the whole liturgical experience.
Parishes are free to schedule as many Confirmation ceremonies as they believe is pastorally needed. It is up to the Bishop’s Office to manage the schedule for the Bishop or his delegate.
Now let’s think about First Communion. In many ways, this is easier because it does not involve the Bishop or his delegate. First Communion of its nature belongs within the community of faith that gathers on Sunday. Issues about numbers and fitting people in also can be addressed by collapsing the age/cohort model. In a truly initiating community, families would present their children for First Communion at any Sunday Mass on most Sundays of the year when it has been discerned that they are ready.
For some families who live in the heart of the parish community, their children may be ready before the specified age. For other families, their children may be ready later. This model is also suggested in the ‘Liturgical Bridge from 2020-2021’ document. In such a scenario the parish worshipping community could grow in its appreciation of its role in the ministry of Christian Initiation, and the liturgy might resound more fully with the sound of the voice of faith.
We are reflecting on the Church’s core business. This is the reason it exists. To say our core business is not ‘working’ and to keep repeating the ‘not working’ model is beyond both logic and the imperative of faith.
What are you thinking? As a member of the faithful who shares responsibility for the ministry of Christian Initiation, how might you respond to the call to act courageously in this space? As a start, I recommend to your reflection the two resource documents referenced at the beginning of this article. Then perhaps … step up and offer to help.
We shall continue to reflect on the ministry of Christian Initiation in the next Liturgy Matters article. In the meantime, you might ponder what ‘working’ means in this context.
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