Liturgy Celebrating

Celebrating What the Rites Have Taught Me

by Kevin A. Demetroff

Presented to sponsors and team members, Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, Saint Jude Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana

When I began to work full time at St. Jude Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the mid 1980s, the Christian Initiation of Adults in our parish consisted of “convert classes” and a few rites, particularly the Lenten scrutinies, celebrated at Sunday Mass. Over the years, the Order of Christian Initiation has taken root in our community. The seed sown by the Roman Rite fell on fertile soil at St. Jude’s. The rites in all their richness have been carefully nurtured, have blossomed, and continue to flower.

My part in this growth, as a parishioner engaged in music ministry, differs from that of initiation team members who take part in breaking and in various forms of catechesis outside the Sunday assembly. I do not witness the many epiphanies of God’s grace seen at Tuesday evening meetings. I seldom see catechumens and candidates come to grips with a sometimes difficult approach to the life of faith in the Catholic Church. But as a member of the community, duty-bound to welcome new members, I, too, become part and parcel of their covenant making as we celebrate rites to mark their ever deeper penetration into our communal life.

When we accept catechumens and welcome candidates, when we question their motives for entering here, when we mark them with the sign of the cross, when we consecrate their whole being to the God who calls them to this place, God’s power flows through sponsors and the whole assembly to impress on them the sign of our salvation, the sign of suffering and triumph, on forehead, ears, eyes, lips, hearts, shoulders, hands, feet and whole persons.

This sign is a brand. These people are now marked as Christ’s own, little by little surrendering every fiber of their being to the One who saves. Like a cattle brand, this mark is not easily removed. Unlike cattle being branded, these newly-marked people have not been lassoed into our midst. Though some, like many of us, have come kicking and screaming all the way, they are here of their own free will. This branding reminds me that I, too, bear that same sign, that indelible mark of Christ, that holy brand, though I often fail to live up to my commitment to follow Christ.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have called you and you are mine” we sing as the cross is imprinted on each new member. In our repetition of this, year after year, I have come to know in my heart that this is not a case of “we” singing to “them,” but of Christ singing out to all of us, claiming us, making us his own as we promise to follow him.

Christ stands among us, waiting with “everlasting love” for us to come back every time we break our promise. He stands there to remind us that the covenant he seals with us stands firm, no matter how often we turn our backs on him.

He stands in the sponsors and, with his hands, emblazons the sign of victory on every one of these newcomers, just as he did on every one of us.

He stands in those being marked, and reminds me that I too once stood there, though I don’t remember it; that my parents brought me to him and made promises that I could later make my own, or turn away from; that no matter what I choose to do, his mark will endure.

This Christ sings out his love to me and to all of us as we sing those words. He sings out the same love he sang to those who would not turn from the cross, but preferred being torn apart by beasts to the delight of Roman circus crowds, the same love he has sung to centuries of mothers and fathers raising families under the shadow of his cross, the same love he sang to you and to me at our baptism, the same love he sings to us every day as we pick up that cross and carry on with our lives, the love he now sings in our rites, in our voices (for we are his voice in this world) to these people we accept and welcome in his name.

This singing Christ is a touching Christ, too, for his hand marks catechumens and candidates from top to bottom, from side to side. His fiery brand brings cool refreshment. His cross weighs on us lightly if we surrender to him. His touch challenges us to come fully alive, and reassures us that he stands at our side.

During the signing of the senses I watch Christ open minds to his presence, open ears to hear the good news, open eyes to see the light of the world, open lips to announce his coming, open hearts to overflow with compassion, shore up shoulders to bear any burden, strengthen hands to do his good work. I watch Christ, servant of servants, kneel down and put his mark on the feet that he commands us to wash. And finally, I watch Christ stamp his sign on entire persons — bodies, souls, spirits, hearts — all of a piece, no longer divided, but brought together on that cross.

As we lay hands on these new catechumens and candidates, I see the Spirit at work. The Holy Spirit works through the hands of Christ, and our hands are his. It is Christ himself who lays hands on these people that the cooling heat of the Spirit may fill them and give them the grace they need to follow Christ’s call.

These rites are not empty rituals. They may fill us with joy, fill us with despair, fill us with bitterness, fill us with love, fill us with emptiness. They may leave us completely unmoved. But they are effective. They impart grace to those disposed to receive it. They are the action of God’s love in our community.

I did not always see things this way. I first approached the Acceptance of Catechumens and the Welcome of Candidates as a text we had to follow.

Later, my first experience of the rites was that of an anthropologist: I watched, tried to discern what was going on. First, I saw a warm welcome, much as any club would welcome new members. The mixture of fluid movement and clumsiness, of ease and awkwardness, fascinated. The words spoken called forth both depth and banality. Any long-term effects were hidden, not at all evident.

The next time, it was more of the same, just a little more familiar. But over the years, repetition of the rites softened my heart to understanding. Little by little, in the tiniest of increments, I saw who was calling these people to this place, who was using our hands and voices and personalities to welcome them.

Little by little, I began to learn the lesson of the rites, that what we do here, in this protected place, I must do every day of my life. I must make my hands and voice and personality an instrument of Christ’s call and Christ’s welcome. I must surrender the anthropologist in me to the God who made me.

I see sponsors keep a warm hand on those called to the church, and I know that I must extend my hand to support those around me. I hear hundreds of voices sing Christ’s love, and I know I must speak love, not hatred, to family and friends, enemies and strangers. I see the cross of Christ imprinted on every part of these people’s bodies, and I know I must stamp every moment of my life with that same cross. I hear these new members called to continuing conversion, and I know that my life slowly changes as my heart opens and my will bends to the power of the Holy Spirit.

The power of our rites has taught me how important it is to perform them well – with acceptance, tenderness, and beauty. If we cannot here, in this protected place, treat each other as members of Christ’s Body, then how can we live the rest of our lives in a Christ-like way? If I cannot be patient and kind here, then how will I witness to Christ while standing in line forever at the supermarket while a poorly-trained clerk makes mistakes that eat up time I consider precious? If I cannot reach out my hand to touch those gathered here, then how will I be Christ’s instrument of peace when a cantankerous neighbor accuses me or a member of my family of destroying a flower bed, when I know it was his own child who did it? If I cannot take the time to let the actions and music and words of the rite sink in, then how will I show Christ’s compassion and understanding as a friend goes on and on and on about things that mean nothing to me? If I cannot bring my full concentration to prayer with this assembled Body of Christ, then how can I ever control my self-satisfying desires and seek instead the fulfillment of a greater good?

This is what I have learned from the rites of initiation: the relationships we act out ritually before the altar must little by little become our daily reality. I have learned that these are not empty rites, that every movement, every sound, every scent, every touch has significance — it all means something. And it is only as I learn, little by little, the meaning of these rites, and little by little bring my time and effort and attention into a loving performance of these rites, that I learn to celebrate Christ’s presence in our midst. Happy or sad, invigorated or exhausted, glad to be here or wishing I were somewhere else, I celebrate.

It is no accident that the Order of Christian Initiation is made up of rites. Certainly, the other aspects are essential – instruction in the mysteries of the faith, sponsors walking with new members on their journey, initiation into the life of the community, the passing on of a Catholic Christian ethic. But the rites have an importance beyond what many might suspect.

We are not just marking passages in a growth process with pretty symbols – every culture does that, and for that you don’t need a church. We are not just extending a hand, putting out the welcome mat for guests. Rather we, the church, in our rites, are learning how to live as Christ in the world. When we bring our best to the rites, bend our will to Christ present in our midst, and attend to the action of the Spirit in our hearts, we act like the Body of Christ that we are, and we learn to celebrate.

St. Jude Catholic Church
2130 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-6609

St. Jude Catholic School
2110 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-4611

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(260) 484-6609