This coming Wednesday, our Church begins observing the wonderfully reflective season of Lent. Though the major tenants of this season are prayer, fasting and almsgiving, among young adult Catholics in the U.S. Lent is usually associated with ashes on our foreheads, giving up something or adding something to our lives, no meat on Fridays, 40 somber days and nights, the color purple, and “Operation Rice Bowl,” that all ends with the Triduum celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. For those of us cradle Catholics, born into Catholic families and baptized as infants, this yearly adherence of Lent is filled with mixed emotions as people integrate more reflection and prayer into their lives, continue old traditions or develop new ones, or fight with what can sometimes feel like meaningless impositions on our lives. Certainly, each of the traditions and rituals have their origins—usually very justified and important ones, but we cradle Catholics often forget why Lent started in the first place and the reasons why we have such traditions.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Western world was converting to Christianity in droves, the Church formalized and made universal the practice of Christian Initiation. One of the many stages of this process was a final period of retreat, reflection, purification and enlightenment for the Catechumens that lasted 40 days and 40 nights—to follow in Christ’s own desert experience. Once this practice became common, parish communities were invited to follow the catechumens through Lent—a word that means “Spring”—in a modified retreat practice of their own. When the R.C.I.A: Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults process was restored by the Second Vatican Council as the normal way adults prepare for baptism and was approved for use in the U.S. in 1974, our Church’s emphasis and Lent practices were meant to return to its early Christian roots.
This past year, I have been blessed to again coordinate the RCIA program at my new parish. Our only catechumen has been a true inspiration for me, and I sincerely look forward to using Lent as a time to follow her. She had been inquiring with the parish for about two years—long before I arrived, and she struggles greatly in becoming a part of a Church that she sees as oppressive of women, filled with unacknowledged and untreated racism (she is a professional, African American woman), and grapples with being a part of a Church that doesn’t always practice what it preaches. She names the sex abuse scandal, quick threats or acts of excommunication—particularly by St. Louis’ former Archbishop Burke, and the Church’s unwillingness to ordain women, as her major qualms with Catholicism. In having a group of committed parishioners listening and walking through these very difficult and real problems with her through the RCIA process, this woman has come to understand that the Catholic Church is bigger than the rules and failings of its hierarchy and human squabbles. When she made the decision to go through the Rite of Acceptance, where she moved from Inquiry into the Catechumenate, she told the assembly gathered around her for the signing of the senses that she is becoming Catholic to live the Gospel that Jesus taught. She said that during her formation in RCIA, she has come to understand a theological reading of the Bible, embrace the rich Traditions of our faith, and live a life committed to social justice making the Church and world the place that God intends it to be.
Next weekend, this incredibly wise Catechumen will stand with others like her going through RCIA at the Archdiocesan cathedral and sign her name in the Book of the Elect. That act will officially begin her period of purification and enlightenment in this Lenten season, and it will solidify my pledge to examine my life in light of the Gospel through the eyes of someone radically changing her life to live the hard Christian call.
Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.