The Monastic Way–The Catechumenate Way

The Slow Work of God —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

One of the challenges with the catechumenate process is dealing with the reaction of many seekers when they find out that the process is more than one month. If one uses the “school year” model (invite participants after Labor Day and celebrate baptism and reaffirmations of baptism at Easter in April), we have an eight month process. This makes some hesitate. Why to sooner? And, if we talk about the process being a full year or more, we may lose even more potential participants. Those who think this is a ridiculous amount of time just to get baptized do not realize the seriousness of the venture.

It is best not to talk timelines at all at the beginning of the journey. As inquirers travel on the way, they slowly realize the length of time needed for conversion. They come to recognize the slow work of God is beyond our timelines. The realization itself is part of the journey. Hopefully, a seeker’s expectation for a celebration at the next Vigil will lessen and the recognition that the slow work of God will take as long as it takes will grow. Paradoxically, if realization is not part of the journey, then the journey needs to continue.

Jim Dunning’s brief history of the catechumenate recognizes that the process developed in the 4th Century church. It was not something new. They recognized that this was the formation journey of the Prophets and of the disciples. The process shrank into oblivion in the 6th Century EXCEPT, and this is an important exception, in the “2nd Church,” the church that continued to strive for spiritual growth (as opposed to the “1st Church,” the church-state of Christendom).

The catechumenate process reemerged in the early 20th Century to answer a need in Africa, namely the need ” to speak the language” of conversion with those who were used to celebrating stages of growth and initiation into adulthood. And Benedictines in Europe were beginning to study the liturgies of the early church to see what might help us move beyond the spiritlessness of contemporary worship. This all came together in the Second Vatican Council. The bishops were wrestling with how to save a Western Christianity that found itself being overrun by secularism. This was a pervasive secularism that emerged from two horrendous world wars. The ungodly experiences of the war(s) led people to lose Faith and to live as if God is dead. The bishops realized that we are in an environment like that of the 4th Century. Christianity exists in the midst of secularism. Christiandom is gone. Christians are called to live and die like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. Christians are again be called to be witnesses, disciples, zealots and martyrs. As minorities in society, Christians will need to be able to stand up and proclaim the Good News and their belief in the Lordship of Jesus.

But I digress. Jim Dunning was fond of saying that the monastic church preserved the catechumenate process for us, and the Baptists preserved the baptismal pool and immersion baptism. Let’s look at the monastic process. When the seeker first comes to a Benedictine monastery, he enters through a door in which the words “Friend, why are you here?” are inscribed. The first “official” act the seeker/inquirer in the catechumenate does is knock on the door of the church and answer the question “what do you seek?” This happens at the start of the Rite of Welcome. The “beginner monk” goes through the door and into postulancy. The inquirer goes through the door and enters the catechumenate. (Both have already been through that nebulous solitary inquiry period where God calls during the quiet moments that are present in the midst of the noise of our secular society. The parallel is not accurate. There is a “formal” inquiry period in which the seeker reaches out to the faith community and says, “I want to see a bit more,” but with no commitment. This is more like the soon to be postulant standing before the door and know, that in knocking, his life will change forever.

The important part is that both the monk and the catechumen travel similar journeys of faith. The monk moves from standing in front of the door to going through the door into postulancy. The catechumen stands before the door and moves through into the catechumenate. The questions are the same: “why are you here?” and “what do you seek?” Postulancy leads to the novitiate. The postulant asks to enter the novitiate. He comes to this question in mutual discernment with his spiritual director. The inquirer asks to go through the door. She comes to this question with the help of the pre-catechumenate team. Discernment has begun in both processes. The novice applies to make temporary vows. If the community discerns his readiness, he commits himself to a three year process of intense preparation in the midst of the community. He is a junior monk. The catechumen, together with her sponsor and catechumenate team, discern if the catechumen is ready for enrollment into the intense period of preparation for baptism. The answer may be, “no, not yet.” The answer is not hers alone. However, when she signs the book on the first Sunday of Lent, she becomes a candidate for baptism. After three years a junior monk may ask to make final vows for life in the monastic community. The monastic community discerns readiness. The postulant and novice are free to turn and walk back through the door at any time during the first periods. It is much more difficult after taking final vows. After 40 days, the candidate is baptized. The candidate along with sponsor, spiritual director and catechists may discern that she is not ready. Delay is extremely rare. We believe that spiritual growth continues through baptism and during all of one’s Christian life. Once baptized, there is no turning back. Once professed a follower of Jesus, always a disciple of Jesus.

Both faith journeys are designed to form committed Christians. Both faith journeys are long. They both recognize the slow work of God. The monastic path is designed so that the monk travels the journey and is comfortable in witnessing through the garb of the cassock and through the constant prayer that is ora et labor The catechumenate path is designed so that the newly baptized is able to proclaim in word and deed how Jesus is alive in her life. Both continue to seek greater understanding of who Christ is and who they are in the Body of Christ. Neither is “artificial.” The early church recognized that this is the way of formation of Prophets and Christians. The monastic tradition realized that the 4th Century church had found the Way. The monks preserved it for us. Now we need to join them in recognizing that this is the path of the slow work of God.

About Jerry

Catechumenate ministry is my passion. I have been involved in the catechumenate since 1980 in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal branches of the Church. I am a "progressive," ecumenical Christian who is realistic enough to know that the Church has never been "One"; is often not "Holy"; strives to be "Catholic" and is "Apostolic" only when members respect the Tradition rather than the latest customs. I have been fortunate to be able to focus on various elements of philosophy, theology and Christian history during my studies. I am able to bring them all to bear in catechumenate ministry.
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