Discussions of the state of U.S. Catholicism today often fail to note a worrisome trend: a steep recent drop in the number of adults being initiated into the faith. In fact, adult baptism in the United States fell by a startling 43 percent between 2005 and 2013. And while I think I know the reasons for the decline, I am frankly even more concerned about a certain stagnation of our collective imagination concerning the rite of baptism itself—a sclerosis in our ability to consolidate and implement the important liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

The reformed rites of adult initiation appeared in 1972, and the first English edition two years later; in 1988 a new edition was released with American adaptations, mandated for use in U.S. dioceses, and for the church in the United States there followed a period of impressive expansion and growth, lasting nearly two decades. (To give you an idea of how remarkable this period was, the U.S. bishops’ study of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults published in 2000 was initially titled “Amazing Growth.”) Then the bottom dropped out.

What happened? Two forces have worked against this postconciliar reform. The first is simply a reaction against the council itself. We see the backlash in seminaries, on blogs, and in diverse actions of the hierarchy and lay groups dissatisfied with Vatican II. The backlash gained intensity under Pope Benedict, who favored a “reform of the reform”; his leadership gave the green light to many who wished to undermine or redirect the reforms. Return to preconciliar liturgical practices; hostility and suspicion toward liturgical changes rampant on the web; fervent attempts by the Vatican itself to reconcile the Society of Pius X despite its rejection of Vatican II; a chilling of ecumenism; and finally the attempt to “set the clock back” on inculturating the liturgy by tying all the rites tightly to the original Latin texts and reducing or removing local adaptations: the backlash against the council has truly been sweeping.

The second factor is the flourishing of a problematic narrative about religious education, one which amounts to a backlash against postconciliar catechetics. You’ve heard this narrative many times: Everything was in disarray after the council; catechesis lost its content; the 1970s sacrificed sound doctrine for butterflies and pop songs, leading a whole generation to drift away, while those who remained became “cafeteria Catholics” enervated by secular culture’s “dictatorship of relativism.”

It’s an easy hit, of course, because the targets are mostly women, as Cathleen Kaveny pointed out in these pages (“That ’70s Church”). Women carried the burden of catechesis throughout the period in question. Women wrote those “problem” textbooks. Women were the ones deemed “soft on doctrine,” too “creative” in their approaches, too “understanding” toward deviant ideas and behaviors, and so on. And the remedy? Too often it has been unyielding answers to messy and controversial questions. Proponents of such firmness fantasize that a more forceful teaching style will restore the Catholic community’s nerve—and return it to the glories of 1950s postwar expansion. For the Christian Initiation of Adults, this means content-heavy instruction in lecture format, usually by male authority figures such as priests or deacons, conducted at a regional level. Parish community involvement and an integrated practice of liturgical celebration are regarded as inessential, as extras. It’s frankly a return to the kind of “convert instruction” practiced before the reform. We can see already how well this is going!

So where does this leave us? On the positive side, I believe that the backlash against the council and its reforms is finally waning. We have a new generation coming up, many of them eager to move beyond the impasses of the reaction against the reform. We have a new pope, Francis, who, whatever else he may be, has certainly been formed by the council and is not disillusioned with its vision. The situation is ripe for revisiting the reform of baptism and allowing it to reawaken our passion for the church. The connectedness of faith to life—ritualized and celebrated within a believing community—holds an incomparable power. Once experienced, it changes us.

I do not expect our bishops to lead us in this effort. Their minds are on canon law, or consolidating parishes, or handling sexual-abuse cases, or evangelizing the already-Catholic or, God help us, on what to wear; but not on this. And, truth to tell, they have rarely led in this realm. It’s up to the laity to pay attention and look at initiation afresh—not merely as a program or a tool in the kit of parish life, but as a profound expression of the values that make the Christian community what it most essentially is. The dynamics of Christian life itself are what shape our rites of initiation: opening up the Scriptures; walking the way of faith with companions on the journey; discovering Christ in our midst; recognizing him in the breaking of the bread; going forth to announce the good news that “he is alive.” It’s up to those for whom this baptismal “stuff” of conversion not only makes sense, but also makes a difference, to consider more deeply what it actually means—and to live according to that meaning. But in order to implement these reforms, we first have to understand them.

Understanding the postconciliar view of baptism begins with embracing a larger horizon of meaning. We need to break out of the facile assumption that the reform of baptism was about minor improvements in how we “do things to infants,” and begin instead to see it —through the lens of the new rites—both as a communal, ecclesial event, and as a paschal celebration of glory. The reformers knew well that baptism is the foundation of Christian life, and in their commitment to bolstering this foundation they built a new context for baptism, primarily through the restoration of the catechumenate and its rites. This context not only provides a model for adults, but also imparts renewed vigor to the celebration of infant baptism.

The renewal of adult initiation teaches us, for example, that private baptismal celebrations are not the norm, that the “family” involved is not only the biological family but also the parish. It teaches us that baptism is not about avoiding the threat of limbo—or wearing a nice dress for a day—but rather about crossing the Red Sea, and the promise of Christ that “I will be with you always.” A robust baptismal polity for adults helps to heighten our sense of the numinous quality of each ritual gesture for infants, and also to see the role of parents and godparents anew, for they too minister. They are partners in the action as it unfolds, not merely honorary figures or witnesses to what the priest or deacon is doing.

I’m going to focus on the RCIA, rather than on the baptism of infants, because the most significant and far-reaching aspects of the reform are seen most clearly in the rites of the RCIA. There’s a wonderful ritual in the first liturgy of the catechumenate, in which the candidate, standing at the doors of the church, is marked by the sign of the cross on the forehead, ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet. The etching of the sign of the cross on the body constitutes a “first consecration” of the candidate, and marks the change of status that the rite effects as candidates become catechumens. Signing catechumens with the cross is very ancient; Augustine remarks on it. Yet it would never have come to us in its modern form except for Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy.

These renewed ancient rituals were the work not only of a council or a pope, but also of scholars who researched them, missionaries who called for a restored catechumenate, and pioneers around the world who conducted catechumenal experiments in the years prior to the council. Catechumenal centers began in France during the postwar period, when de-Christianization propelled a search for intentional rites and communal support that might form adults for discipleship in a secular world. Equally important were the labors of Coetus XXIII, the council’s subcommittee that drafted the new ritual texts, opening them to adaptation and foreseeing the immense importance of participation by the entire Christian community at every phase of the initiatory process.

Here in the United States, we owe much to the efforts of imaginative liturgical scholars like Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, and to the Belgian religious educator and influential teacher Christiane Brusselmans, who crisscrossed the country persuading catechetical leaders to buy into the “new thing” that the restoration of the catechumenate represented for parish life. Christiane’s protégé, Jim Dunning, founded the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, helping to shape thousands of pastors, parish volunteers, and church professionals. And as already noted, a special debt is owed to lay women in parishes—for the great majority of people leading and promoting RCIA processes, during the period of their greatest flourishing, were women.

Some might wonder about using the word “consecration” to describe what happens in the catechumenate. Why do the praenotanda—the notes in the ritual text—speak this way? Aren’t the people we meet in this rite simply joining the church, that great amorphous sociological hodgepodge? Why lavish so much attention on those who occupy the lowest rung on the ecclesiastical ladder? After all, they’re not even baptized! Why interrupt Sunday Mass to go to the doors and sing to them and welcome them and applaud for them and trace crosses on their bodies? Is something actually happening here, to them and within this community of faith, by the grace of God, to which we must pay attention? We in the Catholic sacramental tradition do not throw around that word, “consecration,” lightly. It signifies the awesome mystery whereby bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Do the real flesh and blood of catechumens become...bread and wine?

Perhaps this rhetorical play is not so far off the mark, if one considers what it means to be Christ’s own in the world. For what is a Christian if not bread broken, life poured out, for others? Did not St. Augustine say, in a homily to the newly baptized, that “it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table: receive your mystery. Say Amen to what you are”? Yes, something is happening here before us—something so important, in fact, that the whole people of God needs to name, cherish, ritually own, and bless it.

The signing with the cross is the catechumen’s first consecration. And other consecrations are coming, as each catechumenal rite furthers a progressive realization of the mystery of God calling, claiming, and forming this human person to live as Christ. The Rite of Election, the Rites of Scrutiny, the giving of the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer—all are moments in the crafting of an identity, a precious and authentic identity which is both given and discovered under grace. “I have called you by name; you are mine.” Indeed, baptism itself is a consecration, of the pilgrim on her sacred journey home to God.

Liturgy is a system of signs, and therefore any liturgical reform must be understood in its organic and systemic dimensions. The reform of initiation syncs the public and communal rites of the catechumenate with the structure of the whole liturgical year, giving these rites maximum visible presence and allowing them to influence and inform our vision of church. Initiation is an entry point for the faithful into the central mystery the church celebrates: the Paschal Mystery. It provides a paschal narrative throughout the year, helping catechumens experience the Christian way of death to sin and life for God, setting the pace for the Sunday celebration throughout Lent and culminating at the high point of the liturgical year, the Easter Vigil.

The reform of initiation also brings to light rich resources that occur nowhere else in our ritual system. A whole collection of images and symbolism in the Easter Vigil, for example, affirm and even celebrate women as bearers of salvation. These were formerly hidden behind the veil of Latin, which few people understood. Now they are more accessible, but do we even notice them?

To offer just a few examples: In the Exsultet the scriptural image of Christ the Morning Star is a feminine one (the Morning Star is Venus). The words “rejoice O mother church in shining splendor” envision the church as a radiant, shining woman. The praise of the bees in the Exsultet includes a paean to “apis mater,” the mother bee who produces wax for the candle. And birth imagery has long graced the text of the blessing of water. Though some of these references were dropped in reforms that sought to sharpen the focus on Exodus, another vitally important element was restored: immersion. The liturgical action of immersing in water, which plays upon symbolism of birth and death, womb and tomb, speaks louder than words. What is it saying? Well, consider baptismal fonts. Although the womb image is not the only one used in the design of fonts, it has been an important theological topos, suggesting the fertile church, the life-giving church. Most commenters also interpret the dipping of the candle in the water during the blessing of the font—an option in the modern rite—as a reference to sexual procreation. The font is a locus of fertility, a living stream that “swallows up age and spits out youth”; “this spring is life that floods the earth.”

Finally, the importance of baptism for ecclesiology cannot be overestimated. Via the reforms of Vatican II, baptism provides a foundation for the ministry of the laity in the world—both women and men—as well as sacred ecclesial actions of various kinds. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that sacramentals flow from the baptismal priesthood. The Christian is called to bless and to be a blessing; thus parents bless their children and catechists bless the catechumens in their care. And while the special role of the ordained is maintained in the liturgical reform, the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy affirmed in a fundamental shift that lay persons do in fact carry out genuine liturgical functions (as readers, etc.) that are not delegated functions of the priest. Their role, right, and duty to participate in the liturgy arises from their baptism. Baptism’s inclusiveness is comprehensive and empowering.

Does giving baptism ritual and ecclesiological prominence make sense? I think it does. There is nothing quite like the rites of Christian initiation, which are properly considered “baptism in its fullness.” The sacraments all use the vocabulary and syntax of the ritual language first established in Christian initiation. Initiation introduces ritual elements that will appear again and again in our liturgical rites, such as laying-on of hands, anointing, vows, clothing, the kiss of peace. Indeed initiation is foundational for everything that follows, up through the final gestures of the funeral liturgy, when a pall is placed on the coffin in remembrance of the baptismal garment, and water sprinkled over the body of the deceased one last time. Baptism likewise establishes the necessary context for a right understanding and pastoral praxis of Eucharist—the sole repeatable sacrament of initiation. Viewing Eucharist as the culmination of an initiation into discipleship and community gives us a far more vigorous understanding of Eucharist than does the privatized, sentimentalized, me-and-Jesus version of Eucharist so common in the past.

It is no secret that the absence of a robust initiatory polity over long spans of our history has contributed to ecclesiological distortions, such as an overemphasis on Holy Orders and a shriveled concept of the laity (a shriveling that Vatican II’s emphasis on the universal call to holiness sought to change). The growth of religious orders, while a salutary development, nonetheless illustrates how key elements of baptismal piety— such as community involvement, discernment of a divine call, and empowerment for ministry and mission—were transferred to special cadres in the church. These gifts and responsibilities once belonged to all the faithful, through baptism, and required no “special” religious vocation. Over time, however, elaborate staged procedures arose to accompany Orders and religious profession, while baptism was narrowed by the minimalizing ideas of cleansing infants from Original Sin and formalizing their adoption into the culture of Christendom (“christening”). The shrinking of baptism to a few minimal rites represented a decline.


IN SEEKING TO return baptism to its proper role, the efforts of Vatican II represent nothing less than an attempt to reform the church at its roots, and from the bottom up. The council’s documents, Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes, repeatedly point out the great dignity and calling of all the baptized, not just the ordained. The universal call to holiness, as well as the solidarity and witness that the faithful give to the world, are the birthright of the baptized; we are not merely “poor banished children of Eve.” In the council’s liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium, the call for active participation rests on baptism. It is the proper calling of the baptized to share in offering the eucharistic sacrifice and also to offer their lives. This is a strong endorsement from the constitution—for those who have ears to hear, anyway. But if it is not to be “just talk,” it must be accompanied by a changed conception and attitude toward what it means to be church.

Postconciliar liturgical reform gave the principles enunciated at Vatican II actuality in reformulated ritual gestures, texts, and actions. What was articulated in words (about God, church, and salvation) in the council documents becomes flesh in the celebration of rites. This is true not only for the catechumens, but for the assembly as a whole. We all become more truly who we are.

That’s the theory, anyway. And when it’s done right, it works, splendidly. The trouble is, it’s done right far too infrequently these days.

How should we move forward? I would suggest that we need more grassroots leadership. We need the Christiane Brusselmans of today to propose in fresh and persuasive language what this reform is about, lest we see it dwindle, along with other postconciliar initiatives, such as general absolution or parish celebration of the hours, that flourished for a time and then faded. We need leaders among us to remind us just what there is to value in this reform, and just how important the challenge to realize it is for all of us. We have the resources to meet this challenge, I believe, but we need to see it clearly as it is and marshal our resources to meet it. The prospect of doing just that continues to inspire me with hope for the church of the future.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the October 9, 2015 issue: View Contents
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