Baptism reformed as end of rich process.
Their entrance to Catholicism, an adaptation for children prescribed in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, represents a new pattern in the church that is likely to become more common as parishes implement it. Joe remembers inscribing his name in a massive book of church members. Tom recalls the great bonfire, parading into the church carrying candles and standing in a wading pool as the priest splashed water on his head.
What is distinctive about the initiation, said James Moudry, is the interplay of ritual and catechetical reflection during a long preparatory period that climaxes with celebration of the three initiation sacraments at the Easter vigil. Moudry directs the Institute for Christian Initiation of Children, which he cofounded with the late Belgian catechist Christiane Brusselmans.
The institute is one of two U.S. entities that train catechists and other leaders to implement the initiation ministry.
The other is the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. The initiation process is for children of catechetical age, usually 7. At Christ the King, children are involved as young as 3, said Betsy Ramsey, the Fricton boys' mother, who is a catechist for the program.
The young baptismal candidates may enter the church from one of three starting points:
* They may belong to an unbaptized family, in which members proceed apace, adults progressing in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults as their children advance in the parallel process modified for them.
* Protestant families becoming Catholic similarly move together, parents and children, Moudry said. However, having been previously baptized and Christianized, they skip the catechumenate and instead take inquiry classes and/or associate with sponsoring families. When they feel ready, they make their profession of Catholic faith, come to the eucharistic table and are confirmed as Catholics.
* A third group consists of the unbaptized children of parents who were baptized Catholic.
Among them, explained Maureen Kelly, associate director of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, are children of immigrants in the Southwest -- Haitians, Vietnamese and other Asians. After immigration laws eased in recent years, the parents lost their fear of being deported. Previously unwilling to be seen in parishes, they began participating with their families and requesting sacraments for their children. Others in the third category are Catholics who drifted away or became alienated from the church. They are returning now as parents, and their children go to church with them for six months, a year or more. Then, when the parents are ready to support their children's journey, the children begin the initiation process leading to baptism.
That was the Fricton boys' path. As preschoolers, sons of a nonreligious father and a once-Catholic mother, they occasionally attended Mass with their Catholic baby-sitter. They watched friends go, too. "I told my mom when I was very young that I wanted to go to church because my friends were going," Joe recalled.
Ramsey remembered she "was sort of glad. Yet I thought, what if I start going and I don't like it?" She had grown up in a small, Iowa town, in a parish where "the pastor's idea of a homily was reading a letter from the bishop." She had to memorize the Baltimore Catechism during Saturday classes, and the parish had "no spirituality at all," she said. She did not miss that church.
But when she took Tom and Joe to their neighborhood parish, Christ the King, she said, "I loved it, I just loved it. I felt my spiritual development growing" in an environment that fostered assistance to the homeless and "wonderful things for children, just total community involvement."
She decided to join the parish and told the staff she wanted her children baptized. Richelle Pearl-Koller, the pastoral assistant, put the brakes on, suggesting that the family get used to Christ the King before beginning the boys' initiation process. They waited a year, Ramsey said.
Then the catechumenate began with rituals during Sunday Masses. Children left Mass after the homily for their separate catechetical session.
"The earthshaking difference about the reformed initiation process, whether for adults or children, is the centrality of liturgical experience in the conversion process and in the instruction or catechetical process," Moudry explained. Since the Council of Trent, instruction or catechesis had been stressed, "but the reform is saying that way is too narrow," he said. "We're interested primarily not in people knowing about the faith but living the faith, practicing the faith." The key is "how you live as a Christian, how your conversion is playing itself out in your behavior." Ramsey agreed. She said Pearl-Koller 'stresses to us as catechists, |Don't worry about how much didactic information the kids are getting.'" More important is that they remember the symbols, among them the water of baptism, symbolizing new life, and fire symbolizing the light of Jesus.
When prebaptismal children leave Mass with their catechists, she said, they talk about what they saw, heard or felt during Mass."When they're older, they won't remember what I taught as much as what they saw, felt and heard," she said. The Easter vigil at which the children are baptized, confirmed and receive first communion is full of ritual starring them. For the Fricton boys it included such elements as the priest and children blessing the congregation with holy water; praying the Litany of All Saints with specific mention of St. Josiah and St. Thomas; changing from the swimsuits worn for baptism in the wading pool to suits and a white shawl for confirmation and communion.
"The key thing is to work at conversion before instruction," Moudry said, then religious education or religious instruction can take place for the rest of the Catholic's life.
Kelly, who with Fr. Robert Duggan wrote the book Christian Initiation of Children: Hope for the Future, said, "The rite presents us with a marvelous paradigm for conversion, so much more commitment of children and families to the church. You have children who say,|I want to go to church, I really want to do this.' That's the thing we ought to concentrate on," not on whether a child learns in the rote way students once learned the Baltimore Catechism.
The newly baptized children's early reception of Eucharist and confirmation can create quandaries large and small. Ramsey mentioned "a minor thing": Young children who receive communion in a parish where children's initiation is not practiced can elicit raised eyebrows. "We never really had any problem" when visiting her parents in Iowa, she said, but the priest would look at them quizzically.
More serious, in Moudry's view, is the resistance some parishes show to disrupting their usual pattern of infant baptism followed by first Eucharist about age 7 and confirmation years later.
Some such parishes bypass the initiation process for unbaptized children, he said. Instead, they put the youngsters in a Catholic school or religious education program, then baptize them "whenever they think they have enough instruction." Other parishes will implement the children's initiation model for baptism and Eucharist but withhold confirmation until the age standard for the parish. Still other parishes have restored the sequence of the sacraments and put confirmation before Eucharist" for all parish children, he said. This can be a wrenching change, because confirmation, once removed from its initiation matrix, was imbued with rite-of-passage meanings appropriate for a 12-year-old in one instance, a 16-year-old in another. Kelly said confirmation before first Eucharist is the church's norm for all Catholics, even though it is not yet practiced in many places. "It causes plurality -- some would call it polarity," she said, because it alters the traditional pattern of confirmation at junior high school or high school age and because it creates more work for those already heavily burdened. Catechumenate directors tend to complain that the director of religious education should prepare children for confirmation, she said, and the DRE in turn will complain of being overworked.
Nevertheless, several dioceses have changed or are changing their policies and guidelines to place confirmation before first Eucharist. Among them, said Kelly, are Sacramento, Calif.; Venice, Fla.; Saginaw, Mich.; and Corpus Christi, Texas.
More significant than the order of celebrating sacraments, said Moudry, is that everything starts with the word of God. Reflection on the word of God and making that interface with your life experience, and shaping your life experience, is the key to formation in this conversion journey."
However slowly the initiation model for children creeps into common practice, it is likely to be the Catholic way of the 21st century. After all, the U.S. bishops mandated the reform in 1988.