Election Day

Today, around the world, dioceses are celebrating the Rite of Election, the second “step” of catechumens in their journey toward the Easter sacraments. In this rite, which closes the period of the catechumenate proper, the Church hears testimony as to the catechumens’ readiness, and confirms that they are fit to take part in the next great celebration of the sacraments, at Easter.

Language of “judging” and “deciding” should not distract us too much from the essential orientation of the Rite of Election, which is theological. The notes in the ritual text give priority to God’s action. “This step is called election because the acceptance made by the Church is founded on the election by God, in whose name the Church acts.” (RCIA 119). Election is a “divine mystery” (RCIA 125) of God’s unmerited grace (RCIA 135A), the mystery of a God who freely chooses, again and again, to call a people. It is part of the grand scheme of redemption.

There is a response encoded in the rite too: “This step is also called the enrollment of names because as a pledge of fidelity the candidates inscribe their names in the book that lists those who have been chosen for initiation.” (RCIA 119). Putting one’s name “on the line” is a fine natural symbol of commitment, of saying “Yes” to God’s election. I am reminded of the words of theologian Karl Barth,

“Our return to obedience is indeed the aim of free grace. It is for this that it makes us free. … The mystery of the election of God is the summons to obedience.”

This people is called to mission; one’s election is ultimately “for others” as Christ showed us. The other names for the elect associated with this rite historically, photizomenoi and illuminandi, are both related to light. The elect are those who will bear the light of Christ, as the ritual of baptism with its giving of the Christ-light makes clear.

A long time ago, I wrote a book about the Rite of Election (On the Rite of Election, LTP 1994). Some have said it is the best book written on the subject.

It is the only book written on the subject.

The reason I bring it up is to show that I have a long-standing interest in the Rite of Election. So imagine my surprise and delight to find that in this age of the internet, one can actually spy a little on how things are going with this rite around the world. A few weeks ago, when preparing to give a webinar on the Rite of Election through TeamRCIA, I took a tour.

The Diocese of San Jose has fabulous pictures. Westminster cathedral in London is packing them in, and in these pictures from Singapore a sense of parish engagement is evident. The visual impact of the rite was very striking in the diocese of Nanterre in France, where they drape the elect in a sort of purple shawl—a rich, gorgeous color (royal purple?). I was reminded of Lucien Deiss’s hymn:

“Priestly people, kingly people, holy people, God’s chosen people—sing praise to the Lord!”

They wear purple in Paris, and in Grenoble, Switzerland too. In French, the rite is called L’Appel Decisif—the Decisive Call. It’s a nice expression of the meaning of the celebration.

Of course, I like calling this rite Election. But after sixteen years of beating the drum for the theology this title embodies, I realize it’s a tough sell. We like to pay court to the bishop, visit the cathedral, get a thrill out of being in a big crowd. We don’t so much like to remember that Jesus was called God’s elect at his baptism, at his transfiguration, and on the cross.

Yet, I think these are clues as to what this rite is all about. The decisive call, and our “yes” made faithful in the “yes” of Jesus.

3 comments

  1. Rita,

    Thank you for this fabulous reflection! Today some Episcopal communities also celebrated the “Enrollment of Candidates for Baptism,” which also may take place on the First Sunday of Advent, for those to be baptized on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. (The rite for this moment in the Catechumenate can be found in the Book of Occasional Services 2003, pp. 122-126.)

    Unfortunately (he says, sighing), the Episcopal Church has yet to take full ownership of the Catechumenate as a ritual-catechetical process, almost identical to the RCIA. Where it is done, it is done very well, but is is far from widespread.

  2. I hate seeing only one comment on such an important process in the Church today. As Rita says, conversion is an act of God, a calling. I always tell our catechumens that they must have a desire to be Catholic, to live like a Catholic, to pray like a Catholic and to enjoy life as a Catholic. At the same time, the more difficult part is the Church’s discernment of the person’s conversion based upon evidence. For me it has to do with Mass attendance, leaving racist’s organizations, and the development of personal faith that goes beyond mere emotional highs.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful reflection Rita. I chatted briefly with one of the elect from San José’s ritual last weekend. He was glowing and was very excited about everything that had happened in the liturgy. I asked what had the most impact on him. He straightened his shoulders and said, “When the bishop declared that I was one of the elect!”

    I love it when liturgy works like that.

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