They stood in front of the altar at the Easter Vigil, officially Catholic for all of twenty minutes, and they looked a mess. Two of them with hair plastered back, still wet from baptism. All five with an oil slick of chrism smeared on their foreheads, fragrant with the scent of confirmation. They were about to taste the Eucharist for the first time, the final step of their initiation into our community. A damp, greasy, messy-looking crew, these brand-new Catholics...and the most welcome and restorative image of hope I had seen in a very long time.
Why join us now? Why would someone want to hitch her wagon to Catholicism at a time of such institutional dimness? You would think that anyone capable of reading a headline or listening to the five o’clock news would run away from any invitation to sign up for envelopes. Yet here they were—two women, three men, all of them parents—stepping aboard the very ship from which so many have disembarked. It made no sense.
Maybe that’s why Christian initiation takes place during the Easter Triduum. At their best, these three wonderful days with their breathtaking liturgies act like an icon, giving us a glimpse into a Kingdom that will come. It’s a Kingdom of surprises, of the upside-down and the inside-out, where first is last and the least are the greatest, where God is always in the unexpected place. The Kingdom is subversive, as uncontrollable as leaven let loose in a bit of flour.
That is how I make sense out of my five new adult Catholics. The Holy Spirit didn’t flirt with them through a dry set of doctrines, but rather through a person or group living out some aspect of a dynamic faith. They could have been fascinated by a Lenten soup supper. Perhaps their child brought home an intriguing question from a religious-education class. Maybe they were inspired by the topics raised in a discussion group. A wake service or wedding might have engaged their imagination. However it happened, whatever the route, their interest eventually led them to be welcomed by even more people into a formation process, the RCIA, in which they were treated as adults and fed as adults. Sure, they quickly sensed humanity in the bones of the church, but they fell in love with the Christ they met at the heart of it. As one of them remarked to me, “Any institution—church, marriage, friendship—is flawed, but the flaws don’t necessarily overshadow the inherent goodness. They can coexist. And don’t Catholics believe that goodness will prevail?”
I’d say it depends on where you look. Some expect goodness to prevail and wrongs to be righted from the top down. I too believe that will happen. But in the meantime, I’m taking my cue from the parables. I’m looking for treasure in the fields that I plow, in the pearls that sit in the pews in front of me on Sunday. My five just might be the ones to change everything, the ones who will add the right leaven to the dough, who will cast seed on the prize-winning soil. One of them might be the widow who wins her case with the unjust judge. We may have just welcomed into the church the persistent one who finally gets the homeowner to answer the door in the middle of the night. You never know. This Kingdom that grows as quietly as a seed in the ground will always surprise us.
Someone in the parish recently observed that we ought to take “exit interviews” of those who are leaving the church. That would help determine not only what we need to fix, but where we should spend more energy and prayer. But when I want to fill my oil lamp with a little hope, when I want to be ready and waiting for the Kingdom-of-what’s-happening-next, the people I really want to talk with are the ones who just signed up for the envelopes.