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Easter rites of initiation bring good news for American Catholics

By David Yamane


For many Catholics in America, waking up in the morning to find no news about the church is a relief. They won’t have to deal with stories about the lingering stench of the priest sexual abuse scandal, the consolidation of parishes and closing of schools, controversy over Catholic hospitals and the loss of Catholic youth, fewer and older nuns and more and younger “nones.”

But what if no news was not the only good news? What if Catholics turned on their TVs and opened their papers on Easter Sunday and heard some real good news instead?

Photo of family watching tv

Family watching television 1958. Image credit: CC 2.0 via Flickr.

At Easter Vigil Masses on Saturday night, 19 April, something truly remarkable will take place. Tens of thousands of adults in thousands of parishes across the United States became Catholic. For most of them, this rite of passage is the climax of a months- (and in some cases years-) long process of formation called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

As I have written previously, the implementation of this modernized ancient process of initiation is an excellent example of the contemporary re-invention of rites of passage and a fruitful legacy of the Second Vatican Council. It is a Catholic success story.

Sign reserving pews for the Catechumens.

Sign reserving pews for the Catechumens. Photo by John Ragai. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

Although based on a single, universal ritual text, the way the RCIA process is implemented differs from parish to parish. We do well to remember a variant on Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local.” All Catholicism is local. In some parishes we find elaborate and beautiful rituals, rich with fragrant oils and soaring hymns and full body immersion in the waters of baptism. In some parishes, we see minimalistic ceremonies that strain the use of the term ritual.

Regardless of the quality of the celebration, however, through the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist—individuals become Catholic. When the officiating minister speaks the words and performs the actions of the sacraments—“I baptize you…” and “Be sealed…” and “Receive the Body of Christ”—from the perspective of the church, they have the intended effect. It does not matter if the priest says the words excitedly, sincerely, or in a monotone while yawning under his breath. It does not matter if a team of 20 catechists and thousands of parishioners welcome the new Catholic warmly and profusely, or if a single deacon rushes through a minimalistic ceremony while a few dozen assembled individuals wait impatiently for communion. It does not matter if the symbols of the initiation ceremony are rich or sparse. An individual who receives the sacraments of initiation in a Catholic Church is a Catholic. The individual now can check the “Catholic” box, join a parish, receive communion, get married in the church, and so on.

Pink Floyd album cover

Dark Side of the Moon album cover. Via pinkfloyd.com.

This fact reminds us that, at the same time that all Catholicism is local, we can also say that no Catholicism is only local. Without the universal church, there would be no RCIA process in local parishes. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (promulgated in 1963) led to the editio typica of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum (issued in 1972), which led to the vernacular typical edition of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (published in 1988), which has gradually been implemented in US parishes. Understanding this movement from universal to local is important. I think of this as being like the image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon.” The album cover shows a beam of white light hitting a triangular prism, which refracts it to create a rainbow of colors. The culture and resources of local parishes do act as prisms, but without the light, you have no rainbow.

With unprecedented opportunities to choose a religion (or no religion) and to choose how to practice that religion (or not practice), the fact that tens of thousands of people still voluntarily chose Catholicism again this year is indeed good news for American Catholics.

David Yamane teaches sociology at Wake Forest University and is author of Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape. He is currently exploring the phenomenon of armed citizenship in America as part of what has been called “Gun Culture 2.0″—a new group of individuals (including an increasing number of women) who have entered American gun culture through concealed carry and the shooting sports. He blogs about this at Gun Culture 2.0. Follow him on Twitter @gunculture2pt0.

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