Since the 92nd Academy Awards just aired, I have been drawn to reminisce over the 57th Academy Awards — decades ago in 1985! At this Awards ceremony the actress Sally Field gushed the now famous exclamation, “You like me! Right now, you like me!,” as she clutched the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of cotton farmer Edna Spalding in the film, Places in the Heart. As Ms. Field would further elaborate in her acceptance speech, the award not only ratified her achievement, but also it manifested the respect, in which she had hoped her peers held her as an actress.
Not moving too far a-field (as it were), I believe an interesting parallel exists between Ms. Field’s reaction to winning an Oscar and the expectations and values expressed for catechumens and candidates in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults’ (RCIA) Rite of Sending.
In its table of contents, the RCIA text lists the Rite of Sending to the Bishop as an “optional” rite. Some interpret this “optional” designation to mean that the rite is merely a precursory or a perfunctory parochial act prior to the more formal and significant episcopal celebration of the Rite of Election. “The catechumens and candidates have to go to the Bishop for this rite, so why not ship them off with a little style?”
Unfortunately, acknowledging the Rite of Sending either at best as a mere procedural step or at worse as a mechanical component in the initiation process that loses sight of the powerful statement this rite conveys. For it communicates in a very profound way what the RCIA journey essentially is: neither the responsibility of a particular group nor of a committee, but rather a process, which concerns the whole Church, beginning on the local level.
This reality is expressed first at the Rite of Acceptance. In the Rite of Acceptance, during which the text specifically states that the entire local Christian community be present, this same community is asked if it will support through prayer and encouragement the growth in faith of those asking to be received into the Church.
During the Period of the Catechumenate the parish community is led to embrace its role as a principal conduit of evangelization and conversion for these individuals. It should “get to know them” and their unique faith stories,” “get to appreciate them” for the witness of the Spirit’s work they offer, and, ideally, “get to like them” simply as an expression of Christian hospitality and welcome.
The Rite of Sending is not just the logical progression of this welcome. It is more the affirmation and proclamation that the Spirit’s activity has been fruitful and vibrant in the midst of the local community: “These are people in whom we are confident the Spirit is at work.”
Through the Rite of Sending, the Church says to the catechumens and to the candidates, in effect, “we do really like you,” and not only because of who you are, but more importantly because of what you represent of “the power of God shining through human weakness;” a power, which continues to build up the Body of Christ.
The Church “sends” these people to the bishop, to the chief shepherd of the local church to be numbered among those who have heard God’s call and who are not afraid to respond, “Yes!” The Church sends them in recognition of doing its job: not looking inwardly at itself, but looking always outward, engaging in that great work of evangelization, sowing the seeds of conversion where they still need to be planted!
And the parish “sends” its catechumens especially in a fashion befitting so pivotal a moment in the conversion of these individuals. As in the Rite of Acceptance, the catechumens are called forth again to stand before the local assembly, the body, which has nurtured their acceptance of the gospel. They state again their names as they did at the Rite of Acceptance, however, on this occasion the catechumens are also asked to write down this name. In essence, “signing” their name – a legal action, which binds them, not in a contractual, but in a covenantal sense – that most biblical and wonderful description of the relationship believers are called to have with God and with each other.
The catechumens sign their names in the Book of the Elect; symbolic of that great book written about in Revelation wherein are listed those with courage to proclaim their faith in God. They sign the name given to them at birth, the name by which they have been known “in the world,” and the name used by God to call them into relationship and into deeper faith. It is the same name by which they will be known in the Church.
In a dynamic way the Rite of Sending reaffirms one of the fundamental tenets of this sacramental world – that all of creation is one, and not, as some would prefer to believe, divided into secular and sacred spheres. This “one world” is the world wherein God walks, calling us into relationship just as we are, and when we have the courage to respond, “yes,” to that call, God unlocks insights about ourselves greater than we could ever imagine.