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Monday, May 19, 2014

Guest post: Rita Ferrone on the current state of initiation

Rita Ferrone (photo from the Inst. of Sacred Music
Congregations Project website
Rita Ferrone is a woman of passion with an intellect and a voice to be reckoned with. I have had the pleasure, pleasure that was frequently also tempered by fear and trembling, perhaps like the beatific vision, of working with her on several institutes on Christian Initiation through the many years that we both served as team members with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.

It has been about a year since the news hit us that Forum was about to close its doors. In a recent open email to friends in the ministry, Rita opened her heart and her formidable mind to us in an evaluation of the present state of initiation ministry in the United States. She paints a troubling, if not discouraging, picture of the situation, asking all of us to take an active role in pushing the agenda of initiation with integrity in the U.S. church. 

Rita's bio on the PrayTell blog site simply reads, "Rita Ferrone is a writer and speaker about issues of liturgy, catechesis, and church renewal. She lives in Mount Vernon, New York." She also has an M.Div. from Yale Divinity (1983). From her bio on the Yale site, there's this:
...Her writings have had wide influence on North American Catholics as well. Her most recent book is Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium, in the series Rediscovering Vatican II. 
Ferrone also co-authored the 18-volume series, Foundations in Faith, a series of resources aimed at developing parish ministers in the vision and praxis of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Her book On the Rite of Election was an important contribution to Catholic liturgical celebration.
Rita rocks. But before my introduction to her gets longer than her own words, here, with her blessing, are her thoughts on the status quo of initiation ministry, and what needs to be done.

*****

Dear friends in initiation ministry,
Please forgive the group email. I wanted to reach out to a number of you at the same time, and this seemed to be the best way to do it. We’ve worked together through the North American Forum, and have shared some wonderful growth and challenges over many years of engagement with the RCIA, which is why I wanted to talk to you.

I’m writing because it seems to me we are at a kind of crisis/opportunity moment. On the one hand, we have been seeing some of the best advertisement for the Catholic Church in our lifetime – in the person of Pope Francis. His witness has captured public attention, impressed the skeptics and opened many hearts by focusing on mercy. What an opportunity to draw new followers to Christ! At the same time we are facing a retranslation of the ritual text that could remove half the book and most of the people who currently take part in the process (the baptized candidates), depending on how strictly the new National Statutes are written.

It’s not all about the pope or the book, however. I don’t know about you, but I am seeing a lot of initiation processes at the parish level that have gone stale, or are held captive by a single person with a narrow vision, or have simply closed down. In one story I heard recently, a parish now sends their people to “Tuesday night lectures” in the deanery, in place of a formerly-thriving RCIA process. In another, the DRE told me with a sigh, a newly-ordained priest took over and wants to “teach the catechumens” all by himself. They have been fleeing. In a third, the Robert Barron videos have become the backbone of the program (I use that term advisedly). In yet another, it’s all about “converting” the Protestants as the RCIA director proudly announces “I’m a Home Sweet Rome Catholic!” Paschal journey? Not so much.

I recently studied the trajectory and the numbers are grim. Between the year 2000, when Journey to the Fullness of Life was published, and 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, adult baptisms in the US fell by 49 percent. (41% of that drop was between 2005 and 2010) That’s in absolute numbers. Taken as a proportion of the total Catholic population, which has grown during this time, it’s an even steeper decline. I wrote about this in Commonweal. I’d invite you to read the article and make a comment if you wish. This link takes you behind the paywall directly to the article, no login required.

Why did this dramatic fall-off of catechumens happen? Is it all the abuse crisis, or something more complicated than that? What is the situation in your own parish or diocese? Frankly, I think that the “Francis effect” is not going to matter much if what transpires at the local parish is repulsive. It haunts me that we used to be able to do this – not perfectly, to be sure, but we did it -- and now no longer, or perhaps I should say “at half the rate.” Why aren’t all the cylinders firing?

One of my concerns right now is that if the revisions of the ritual text are deep enough, it will push many parishes that are marginally committed to RCIA over the edge into abandoning it. They will either cease to have a catechumenate or water it down to nothing. Someone wrote to me after reading the Commonweal article, to say that he had a bad experience with the RCIA, and when taxed with the story of the repellent experience, the pastor said “Why did you even go? I would have baptized you anyway.” That’s where we are. Hopeful endeavors, like TeamRCIA, are working. But the big picture is worrisome.

When the bishops sit down to ask Rome for adaptations, or to approve new texts, or to write a new set of National Statutes, I would like to think that they will do everything in their power to strengthen Christian initiation. But I don’t know that. What I do know is this: a good outcome is more likely if we advance a conversation among pastors and liturgists and catechists that makes a case for “what works” and distinguishes it from “what doesn’t work.” The Conference of Bishops was very different in 1988 than it is today. But even then, it was the people working at the grassroots who made the difference.

I don’t want to wax sentimental about Forum, but I feel the absence of that organization. I honestly think that RCIA has been on the back burner in many or most dioceses for some time. It needs some more conversation, and loving attention, especially now. Thanks for listening and for continuing the conversation within your own circles, wherever they might be.