RCIA, the Rite of Christian Inititiation of Adults, is the formal process for those adults contemplating entering the Roman Catholic Church; or furthering their understanding and knowledge of its teachings and practices. Having participated in this program as a leader of discussion groups in the past; in a fictional setting, I offer to you here a number of observations I have taken from my experience. The weekly sessions presented in this series highlight interesting or unusual questions and observations I have encountered.
Please understand that this offering is NOT to be understood as the standard manner in which RCIA is offered in the dioceses and parishes of the Catholic Church. As I've said, it is merely a reflection of my personal experience. Each diocese has its own preferred method and structure for offering the program. If any reader wishes to explore the Catholic Church more fully through RCIA, please contact the offices of a local parish offering the program.
The latest "chapter" follows below. Please refer to the Archives section following the conclusion of this latest chapter if you are joining us "mid-stream" to catch up with our "class" as they move through the program. Or to refer back to something presented before. As a side note, in the week one "chapter" you will meet the people who comprise our "fictional" class here at St. Kate's.
And so our story continues:
“Father, I’d like to ask a question, if I may?”
In unison, the people gathered around the refreshment table, turn to listen.
“Sure David, what’s on your mind?” Father Robert Scanlon, pastor of St. Katherine's says, his coffee cup halfway to his lips.
“Well, I was wondering, and this is, I guess, a pretty generic question, but, why ... Church … I mean why specifically, the Catholic Church? Why not everyone worshipping their idea of God on their own. After all, I’ve always considered faith something personal … you know … between me and God. Why the community thing?”
The group looks at the priest expectantly, as no immediate answer is forthcoming.
Gently, Ben clears his throat. “Why don’t well all take our seats,” he says. “Give Father a moment to collect his thoughts.”
Tonight is the second session of this year’s RCIA class. Everyone has grabbed a cup of coffee or some other refreshment and the class is about to begin. It seems however, that one of the participants, Dave Palmer, just asked a question that is probably quite common among many who question the need and the place of structured religion in their lives. And from the reaction of the group, he is not the only one asking it.
What say, we grab a cup of coffee and take a listen to the discussion?
Everyone moves to get comfortable. Topping off his coffee cup at the refreshments table, the priest walks to the front of the class.
“Well, the first and simplest answer I can give is that God commanded it from the beginning in His covenant with Abraham. Moses codified it in the Torah, and Jesus reinforced it with His words, ‘wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.’ And for us in the Catholic Church, especially at the last supper when he instituted the Eucharist … Holy Communion for those maybe not familiar with the term … when he said ‘do this in remembrance of Me' is our answer to that call in the form of the Mass. Something we celebrate each Sunday. It is our response to the Third Commandment, 'Keep holy the Sabbath.'"
“And he urged us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Janice Manning adds.
“Exactly, Janice. It is a strong conviction of the faithful that the faith of one bolsters and supports the faith of others. In the Third Commandment, the Church considers those admonitions as a command for collectively shared form of action and worship. After all, it’s tough to love others if you don’t relate to them on some concrete, or maybe, communal, basis. We as a people need the support of each other … something Jesus recognized and encouraged. Does that answer your question?”
“Thanks,” Dave says softly, nodding his head gently in the affirmative,
“Any other reasons, Father,” Tony Rice asks?
Seems the question is on more than one person’s mind.
“Well, I could say that’s the reason we have this course of instruction in the first place, but I’ll offer you this. First, the Church was established to maintain a uniformity of belief and teachings. Jesus founded what is now the Church in Rome on Peter, and his successors, and He promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the church, in all truth.
Pausing to sip his coffee, Father Bob wanders down the center aisle of the room and continues.
“To accomplish this the church has a particularly important function, or maybe, office. Called the Magisterium, with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, at its head, it is the teaching authority of the church. Its purpose is to set forth clear and uniform doctrine on matters of faith and morals. One teaching that is universal for all, not dependent on the opinions and beliefs of varying individuals. The position of Rome on matters of faith and morals is uniform in all Catholic churches throughout the world. Granted, some slight differences in observance and understanding may occur in various cultures, but the doctrine, or dogma, is the same for all ….
“Secondly, there is a consistency of the form of our worship; the communal prayer we call the Mass. And although spoken in various languages around the world, its form is uniform, the same everywhere in the world ….
“And third, to comply with Jesus’ words regarding our responsibility to, and concern for, others, it is more effective to address our efforts on behalf of others as a community. The church is engaged in so many areas of education, health care, charity, and other services to those in need that we function far better as a church than as simply individuals.”
Pausing, Father Bob sips his coffee. “For now, does that satisfy your question?”
“Yes Father … it’s a good answer. Thanks.”
“Any time, Tony. My door is always open, so to speak,” the priest says with a grin. “And be assured, we will look at the various functions of the Church in more detail as we go through the session.”
A third member of tonight’s participants in tonight’s session raises her hand. With a gentle smile, Father Bob recognizes her. “Yes, Sandra?”
“Would you then please explain this idea that the Church is infallible; I believe that’s the word I’ve been told, Sandra Bradshaw asks?”
“That’s a good question. What caused you to ask, if I may inquire,” the priest says softly
“Well, on occasion, I have the opportunity to work with several nuns, and last week two of them were discussing some matter which they said was an infallible teaching and must be believed. I mean, I respect the church, but saying that it can do no wrong is a bit of a stretch to my way of thinking.”
The priest pauses a moment, the look on his face says he is considering his response. Clearing his throat, he looks at Sandra and the class.
“Sandra, I know Ben and Joey have a fairly extensive examination of just this topic planned for a future session. I'd like you to wait for that because they have structured it well, and I don’t have all the scriptural references at my fingertips to adequately answer your question.
Pausing a moment, a sly smile ambles across the priest's face. "However, I will offer you a short answer now; don’t want you thinking I’m trying to evade your question.”
Sandra smiles gently as Father Bob again sips his coffee, then continues.
“You used the term ‘no wrong.’ Another word for doing ‘no wrong’ would be impeccable – being perfect. That is precisely not what infallible means. In the church’s understanding, infallible means the church, guided by the Holy Spirit whom Christ called “the Advocate” will not teach error, will not teach perverted doctrine. I believe you will find that gospel reference somewhere in the gospel of John. And please understand this, infallibility applies only in matters of faith and morals. And it doesn’t apply to the person of the successor of Peter, the Pope, or any individual member or either the clergy or the laity. Some mistakenly believe that the pope is perfect and that is what infallible means. The pope will admit he has his failings, he sins, too.”
“Would you please amplify on that,” a voice in the back of the class is heard to say? "Where is the justification for such a concept found in Christ's teachings."
Father Bob chuckles Like I said, I don't have all the scriptural chapter and verse right here at my fingertips. But you will find it the gospel of John when Jesus promises the apostles that "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth ... the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you."
"That is found in the fourteenth chapter of the gospel of John," Joey interjects, setting down a Bible always available to answer just such questions.
"Thank you Joey," Father says, smiling and giving Joey a slight nod of the head.
"May I offer something," Ben adds, opening the Bible Joey just set down.
"In Chapter sixteen of John, Jesus also says, "When the "Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ..."
"Again, Ben, thank you. And to finish answering Sarah's question let me offer you this. If the pope says to bet the mortgage on Lucky Lady to win the Kentucky Derby, keep your money in your pocket, like I would. The pope probably doesn’t know any more about horse racing than me."
"And just how much do you know about horse racing," Janice asks, a wicked grin ambling across her face.
"Well, enought to put a couple bucks on Secretariat in '73," the priest replies, a grin on his face.
A faint chuckle rolls through the room at Father Bob's jest. "But, back to the subject at hand," the priest says. "If the Pope proclaims on a matter of faith or morals, speaking as the supreme teacher of the Church, from the Chair of Peter, as we call it, that pronouncement is infallible.”
“So only the pope can speak with infallibility,” Clarice Evert asks?
“No,” the priest says. “Actually, if all the bishops of the Catholic Church throughout the world speak in one voice, on matters of say, the death penalty, abortion, the perpetual virginity of Mary the mother of Jesus ... matters of faith or morals ... they are infallible, they are not teaching error.”
The priest, and the class fall silent. Then, picking up his coffee cup, Father Bob says, “As I said, Ben and Joey have a more extensive class session on just this topic. There is more to this concept of infallibility than I have offered here. I suggest you wait for that. But I do hope I answered your question. If you're still wondering, I suggest reading the chapters Ben and Joey cited.”
Sandra’s smile, Dave’s nod of his head, and looks of satisfaction on the faces of the group seems to indicate that Father Bob’s words have addressed their concerns … for now.
“Okay,” Ben says, as the priest takes a seat. “Moving on with tonight’s topic, let’s start our discussion of the history of the Church.”