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Gregory HillisApril 03, 2023
a priest's hand reaches into a gold container of chrism oil for confirmationPhoto via iStock.

I asked to be received into the Catholic Church in 2007. Raised in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, I had for years been a devout Anglican Christian. I loved and still love the Anglican tradition, particularly its liturgy, but I had gradually come to the realization that I was theologically and spiritually Roman Catholic.

My decision to become Catholic was the culmination of years of searching and exploration. I was at the time in graduate school studying early Christian theology, but my studies extended beyond what I was formally studying to include the writings of figures like Thomas Merton, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others. I was actively involved in my Anglican parish as a lay reader, someone appointed by the bishop to lead prayer and preach on occasion.

In other words, I was not a blank slate when I asked to become Catholic, and I was fortunate that the priest at a local parish recognized this. After our discussion, he concluded that I did not need further catechesis and suggested that I be received at the Easter Vigil, which was when other candidates were to be received. I demurred and suggested Pentecost instead, to which he agreed without hesitation. A good friend who attended this parish became my sponsor, and I spent the next few months worshiping at this parish, waiting for Pentecost to arrive.

I am grateful to this priest for the pastoral care and sensitivity he showed me. Unfortunately, the option I was given is not available to most baptized Christians who want to become Catholic. At parishes across the country, large numbers of baptized Christians will be received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil after undergoing months-long catechesis as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It will be a joyous occasion, and we will rightly celebrate our unity with these new Catholics.

But most of us will not realize that we are also witnessing a pastoral and liturgical misstep.

In conformity with early Christian teaching, Vatican II recognized that those baptized outside the church received a valid baptism and, as such, do not need to be baptized a second time should they wish to become Catholic.

The Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate for adults as part of the renewal of the sacramental life of the church (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 64). The focus of the initiation process was to be on adult catechumens, people who had never received the sacrament of baptism. This highly structured process was the new official way for catechumens to be introduced into Catholic faith and practice over an extended period of time, culminating in the celebration of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist in a single ceremony at the Easter Vigil.

This was a recovery in many respects of the practice of early Christianity, when catechumens would undertake a long period of catechesis and training before being initiated into the church through the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil. Those who had not participated in these sacraments previously would thus become Christians and be brought into the fullness of the Catholic faith.

In addition to restoring the catechumenate, the Second Vatican Council also clarified the relationship of Roman Catholics to baptized Christians from other traditions. In conformity with early Christian teaching, Vatican II recognized that those baptized outside the church received a valid baptism and, as such, do not need to be baptized a second time should they wish to become Catholic.

The council declared that Catholics possess a measure of unity with non-Catholic Christians because of their shared baptism. “Unitatis Redintegratio,” Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, declares that “all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers [and sisters] by the children of the Catholic Church” (No. 3). As such, “Lumen Gentium”declares that even though we do not share a common eucharistic table, “we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too he gives his gifts and graces whereby he is operative among them with his sanctifying power” (“Lumen Gentium,”No. 15).

There is a danger of triumphalism by receiving baptized Christians at the Vigil, and that triumphalism has detrimental ecumenical implications.

The Easter Vigil has traditionally been the time when the unbaptized become baptized, are confirmed and receive Communion for the first time and thus become Catholic Christians.

To receive already baptized Christians into the church at the vigil may be well-intentioned and likely comes from a desire for inclusion and a welcoming spirit. But liturgically speaking, it sends the opposite message and is akin to suggesting that the candidates were not actually Christians before being received into the church, despite the clear teaching of the church. There is a danger of triumphalism by receiving baptized Christians at the Vigil, and that triumphalism has detrimental ecumenical implications. It is also a triumphalism that we do not want to inculcate in those being received into the church.

In 1986, the U.S. bishops approved and adopted the National Statutes for the Catechumenate, which provide guidelines for the catechumenate and included regulations for the reception of baptized Christians from other communities into the Catholic Church. Statutes 30 through 37 focus particularly on these, and the directives regarding reception of baptized Christians are clear and unambiguous. It is also clear that they are largely ignored.

Statute 30 declares that “[t]hose who have already been baptized in another Church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens or so designated,” and then emphasizes that the degree to which they need to participate in catechesis prior to reception into the church needs to be determined on an individual level. There are some seeking reception who possess understanding of Catholic theology and spirituality and who therefore do not require a long period of catechesis and preparation.

Statute 31 unpacks this further by declaring that “baptized persons who have lived as Christians and need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate.” The R.C.I.A. is not a single event but a collection of rites, and Statute 31 makes clear that baptized Christians are not to take part in those rites intended for unbaptized participants in the catechumenate (like the Rite of Election and the Scrutiny rites, among others).

While it is not always the case, baptized Christians entering the Catholic Church are often individuals who made their decision after serious theological and spiritual exploration.

In other words, baptized Christians are to be clearly distinguished from unbaptized catechumens in their catechetical preparation. The R.C.I.A. program is intended for unbaptized people, yet in many—even most—parishes, it has become a catch-all for the unbaptized and baptized alike. This may be necessary at some parishes because of staffing or practical issues. But this was not its design.

While it is not always the case, baptized Christians entering the Catholic Church are often individuals who made their decision after serious theological and spiritual exploration. They are people who take their faith seriously, so seriously, in fact, that they decided to continue their Christian journey as Roman Catholics. Many, therefore, do not require significant additional catechetical instruction.

There are, of course, some baptized Christians who can and do benefit from the catechesis offered in the catechumenate, but too often parishes require all prospects for reception into the church to take these classes regardless of whether or not they were baptized and are practicing Christians.

It has been my experience that parishes do not do nuance well. It takes time and effort to meet with each candidate for reception to discern whether or not they require formal catechesis or not, as my priest met with me. Too often priests and parish administrators take the route of putting everyone into the same program whether they require formal catechesis or not because they don’t know what else to do with them. And this has become so much the norm that most parish leaders don’t even know they could offer other options.

I was received into the Catholic Church in the context of the Sunday Mass on Pentecost Sunday, an ideal time to be received in a manner that diminished neither my baptism as an Anglican nor my former Christian traditions.

Nor are they aware that, according to Statutes 32 and 33, the confirmation of baptized Christians should take place at a time other than the Easter Vigil. Statute 33 reads as follows:

It is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil lest there be any confusion of such baptized Christians with the candidates for baptism, possible misunderstanding of or even reflection upon the sacrament of baptism celebrated in another Church or ecclesial community, or any perceived triumphalism in the liturgical welcome into the Catholic eucharistic community.

While the statutes acknowledge that, for “pastoral reasons,” a baptized Christian may be received at the Easter Vigil, the statutes are clear that from a theological perspective this is far from ideal precisely because of the dangers of implicitly or explicitly confusing catechumens with the baptized. The statutes do not unpack what kind of “pastoral reasons” might suffice for allowing baptized Christians to be received at the Vigil, but given the emphasis these statutes place on carefully distinguishing between catechumens and the baptized, we can infer that the bar needs to be very high for determining whether those “pastoral reasons” are sufficient or not. If we take seriously the relationship between liturgy and theology, as we should, then we need to be sensitive to the theological message our liturgies communicate.

It is joyful when baptized Christians decide to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Such an event merits celebration as we enter into full eucharistic unity with them in the body of Christ. But we must avoid any liturgical or theological message that does not acknowledge that there already exists a level of unity through the Spirit who was given to us all in baptism.

I was received into the Catholic Church in the context of the Sunday Mass on Pentecost Sunday, a feast celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit and so an ideal time to be received in a manner that diminished neither my baptism as an Anglican nor my former Christian traditions. There was one other person received alongside me. At the completion of the homily, the priest invited the two of us, along with our sponsors, to the front of the church where we each professed our belief, adding to the Creed that we had just recited along with everyone else in the congregation, in “all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God,” after which we received the sacrament of Confirmation. A few minutes later, we received the Eucharist for the first time as Roman Catholics.

There was cake and coffee to celebrate our reception into the church, but apart from that, there wasn’t much fanfare. There was no confusion about who I was before I became Catholic and no triumphalism over my choice to become Catholic. There was the simple recognition and celebration that I had entered more completely into the full communion of the church.

And that was enough.

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