The celebration of the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil marks a significant milestone in the lives of catechumens-cum-candidates-cum-Christians. Liturgically, the catechumenate begins with the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. One part of this rite (no. 53, to be precise) reads as follows:
Then the celebrant turns to the sponsors and the assembly and asks them in these or similar words.
Sponsors, you now present these candidates to us; are you, and all who are gathered here with us, ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ?
If the catechumens in question are children of catechetical age the relevant rite contains parallel questions in no. 265.
Dear parents (sponsors), your children have asked to be prepared for baptism. Do you consent to their request?
Parents or sponsors: We do.
Celebrant: Are you willing to do your part in their preparation for baptism?
Parents or sponsors: We are.
Then the celebrant questions the assembly, using these or similar words.
These boys and girls have set out on the road to baptism. They will need the support of our faith and love. Are you, their families and friends, ready to give that help?
All: We are.
Catechumens become candidates during the Rite of Election. One part of this rite (no. 133, to be precise) reads as follows:
Then the celebrant turns to the godparents and instructs them in the following or similar words.
Godparents, you have spoken in favor of these catechumens: accept them now as chosen in the Lord and continue to sustain them through your loving care and example, until they come to share in the sacraments of God’s life.
The celebrant of the Rite of Election for children says something similar in no. 285:
Then the celebrant addresses the parents, godparents, and the entire assembly:
Dear friends, you have spoken in favor of these young catechumens. Accept them as chosen in the Lord. Encourage them to live the way of the Gospel. Offer them the support of your love and concern. And, above all, be a good model to them of Christian living so that by your example they may grow deeper in the faith of the Church.
A last example comes from the Rite of Baptism for Children. The celebrant asks the parents whether they understand the tasks incumbent upon them as Christian parents. No. 40 picks up the scene:
Then the celebrant turns to the godparents and addresses them in these or similar words:
Are you ready to help these parents in their duty as Christian mothers and fathers?
All the godparents: We are.
Of interest to me here is that while all of these citations involve asking for help in the care and pastoral direction of those seeking initiation, only the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens directs a question about such help to all present. Otherwise, the question is restricted to parents / sponsors / godparents. This approach can be contrasted with that found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
After all the [candidates for baptism] have been presented, the Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying
Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
People: We will.*
There is no comparable passage in the Lutheran Book of Worship** but there is one in the Book of Common Worship for the Presbyterian Church.*** Likewise, those present for a wedding in the Episcopal Church are asked about their willingness to support the marriage they are witnessing.****
It is true enough that during Lent, assemblies everywhere are asked to pray for those preparing for baptism. When confirmation is celebrated as a stand-alone rite, there are prayers for the confirmandi. Prayers for those to be wed are a feature of wedding celebrations. All this is true—but the assemblies are not asked for their ongoing support and care at the Catholic celebrations of these sacraments (or for the sacrament of anointing of the sick, when that rite is celebrated communally).
If, as Karl Rahner famously argued, sacraments are events in which the church realizes itself (see also no. 2 of the Liturgy Constitution), then perhaps the Catholic Church should formalize such questions for the assembly: all in attendance have a stake in the past, present, and future of God’s history with those to whom the church directs its sacramental ministry. The assembly is not a witness in a passive sense; they are not mere spectators. What happens in sacramental celebration involves commitment of some kind on the part of all. Perhaps Catholics have something to learn here from Episcopalians and Presbyterians.
*The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 303.
** The Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1987).
*** Book of Common Worship for the Presbyterian Church USA and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 406.
**** Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 425.