Monday, March 30, 2015

Why non-Catholic Christians Should Not be Received into Full Communion at the Easter Vigil

I love the Easter Vigil. I love the new fire, I love the candles, I love the Exsultet, and I love the baptisms. It's a beautiful service to which I look forward every Lent with anticipation.

Less happy for me is when I see Christians from other traditions being received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. I need to explain this. I am myself a convert to Roman Catholicism - I've described this transition to Rome elsewhere - so I'm obviously not opposed to the idea of non-Catholic Christians becoming Roman Catholics. What I object to, rather, is receiving these Christians into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

In the history of Christianity, the Easter Vigil was traditionally the time when catechumens were baptized after a long period of preparation. Those who had not experienced new birth through water and the Spirit experience that new birth at the Easter Vigil as we celebrate the renewal of life in and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In recent decades, those catechumens went through a process of catechesis known as RCIA - Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Unfortunately, Christians already baptized in non-Catholic traditions who wish to become Roman Catholics have been asked to go through RCIA themselves, this despite the fact that RCIA was developed specifically for those with little to no exposure to Christian history and theology, and not for those who were practicing members of their own non-Catholic traditions. With non-Catholic Christians and catechumens taking RCIA together, the Easter Vigil has become a time when both catechumens are baptized and non-Catholic Christians are received.

None of this is in accord with the National Statutes of the Catechumenate, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986. The statutes can be found in Appendix III of the RCIA ritual book, and they can also be found here. The key statutes are nos. 30-33, and I've pasted them below:

Statutes nos 30-31 stipulate that not all non-Catholic Christians should participate in the full RCIA program. Each case is to be assessed individually. At the moment, the RCIA has become something of a 'catch-all' for everyone, regardless of their earlier formation and participation in another tradition. I suspect this is due to a lack of resources, though I do not think this is a good excuse.

Statutes nos 32-33 are the important ones in terms of receiving non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil. The USCCB is very clear here that such Christians should not be received at the Easter Vigil due to the ecumenical implications of doing so. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium - affirmed that, despite the disunity that exists throughout Christianity, we are truly one through the Holy Spirit who we received at baptism, no matter where that baptism took place (see Lumen Gentium 15). There exists "a true union in the Holy Spirit" among Christians, despite our lack of Eucharistic communion. In other words, non-Catholic Christians are really and truly actual Christians with whom we share the grace of the Holy Spirit (I pray that this is not news to anyone, but I know I shouldn't be optimistic).

To receive non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil is, however subtly, to negate the ecumenical insights of Lumen Gentium. For at the Easter Vigil we have over the centuries celebrated the gift of new life in and through the Holy Spirit given in baptism to those not previously baptized. When we receive non-Catholic Christians at the Easter Vigil, we give the mistaken impression that these Christians are in the same state as the catechumens, that it is the same thing to belong to another non-Catholic tradition as it is to belong to no tradition at all.

Statutes nos 32-33 wisely recognize this danger, and for this reason the USCCB makes clear that non-Catholic Christians should be received into full communion at another date other than the Easter Vigil.

I vented about this point on Twitter the other day, and a few people commented to me that their priests are clear at the Easter Vigil about the difference between catechumens and those being received into full communion. I'm glad about that, but no matter what the priest says or doesn't say, it is powerful and problematic symbolism to receive non-Catholic Christians at a time when we're to be celebrating the new life of the Holy Spirit which they have already received.

It also seems to be to be a very easy thing simply to receive non-Catholic Christians at a regular celebration of the Sunday mass, as the National Statutes themselves suggest to do.

Can I make a suggestion? If non-Catholic Christians are received at the Easter Vigil, celebrate with them and welcome them wholeheartedly.  But when the dust of the Easter Vigil settles, might I suggest that you charitably talk to your priest about the National Statutes of the Catechumenate, and request that, in the future, such receptions into full communion take place at another time?

My hunch is that most priests simply don't know these statutes, and that most would be very receptive to making a change in conformity to the directives already stipulated by the USCCB.

Update (March 31)
Since publishing this post yesterday, I was happy to learn that the Archdiocese of Denver reemphasized these statutes this year. Very good news indeed. I pray that more dioceses and parishes follow suit.