Thursday, March 27, 2008

RCIA - An Easter Tonic

I had my most meaningful experience of Easter three years ago when I was living in the Parish of Our Lady’s Nativity in Leixlip. My parish priest, Father Michael Hurley, a native of west Cork, placed inter-county rivalry to one side and invited this Kerryman to act as sponsor for a young Nigerian doctor who had asked to be received into the Catholic Church. In fact, four young adults were preparing for baptism on Holy Saturday night that year in our parish.
(Right: Our Lady's Nativity, Parish Church, Leixlip, Co. Kildare, Ireland)

Those who wish to be received into the Church follow the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) programme. In Leixlip we met every Saturday evening for almost a year before the Easter Vigil. It was a great experience as it forced one to reflect deeply on ones own faith while assisting another on their own faith journey. The programme also had a positive impact on the parish community who witnessed the commitment of these young adults each week.

The experience was so positive that I would recommend that it be given much greater pastoral priority in Ireland. We often hear about the need for evangelisation and this can often seem to be a vague and abstract concept but the RCIA programme is a wonderful practical expression of that.

In addition, it is a powerful source of hope and encouragement for the Church. I was working in the United States after the Long Lent of 2002 during which, day after day, a new clerical scandal seemed to appear in the media. Imagine the boost which the Church in America received when, on Holy Saturday night, despite all the negative publicity, over 60,000 adults were baptised as Catholics.

In fact, large numbers of bishops reported in a recent survey that RCIA has the power to “transform parish life”. Perhaps the implementation of an RCIA programme would be a useful project for the many newly created parish pastoral councils. It would also be a wonderful way to make use of the skills and talents of the many lay catechists with whom the Church in Ireland is now blessed.

Promoting RCIA demands that one has confidence in ones own identity but it also creates great confidence and gives people hope. The challenge facing our leaders at national, diocesan and parish level is to devote significant resources- time and personnel - to this work. For me personally and for our parish community I can honestly say it was a tonic. (c) The Irish Catholic.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Good Friday to Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday's message of hope has been obscured
John Waters
Irish Times, Friday 21st March 2008

TODAY IS the darkest day, the day that is all night. It is a remarkable commentary on the power of a Catholic childhood that, despite the movability of the feast and the social changes that have rendered Good Friday largely indistinguishable from other days, at 3pm today it will grow dark all around my head.

In ways beyond metaphor, the clouds will gather and the sun shrivel away. Even if I should find myself sitting in Starbucks in the Dundrum Town Centre, I will shiver a little and feel bereft. The death of the Saviour will assert itself as the remembrance of a real event and I will experience the horror all over again. This is the power of culture.

Remarkably, Easter Sunday does not for me have an equivalent religious power. Somehow, the meaning of Easter, as I have apprehended it, seems to derive more from myth than history. My impression, born of the same culture, is that Easter represents a lifting of the shadow of the Crucifixion, but only in the sense that I feel permitted to cast off the sackcloth and embrace the spring, to live again in the world with a sense of undeserved reprieve.

It's my favourite time, but mainly because it brings this sense of release and relief. I may have caused Christ to be crucified, but somehow He has gotten me off the hook. Whereas Good Friday is unambiguously religious, Easter Sunday in our culture feels more like a secular feast, a celebration of the fact that we have shaken off the guilt and gloom of religion. The chocolate eggs accentuate this feeling: a corrupted symbol of rebirth that diverts rather than deepens meaning.
A couple of years ago, talking to a Puerto Rican priest with an acute gift for simplicity, I found myself embarrassedly asking if he could explain to me the core meaning of Christianity.
He urged me not to feel bad, since about 95 per cent of Christians do not understand Christianity either. He said that, a short time before, while lecturing in a Catholic seminary in the US, he had been approached by a young man, about to be ordained, who asked him a related but more specific question. He wanted to know the meaning of the Resurrection.

The priest took him to a graveyard and picked a grave at random. The headstone indicated that a man named Daniel was buried there. What, the priest asked the young seminarian, do we know of Daniel?
The young man shrugged. We know, said the priest, that Daniel is dead; that his body is inert, his mind a void; that, even if we were to bring 20 dancing girls and have them cavort around his grave, Daniel would continue to display a radical disinterest in reality.
On the evening of that first Good Friday, he went on, this is how it was with Jesus. But then, 40 hours later, something happened that would change everything. Jesus came back to life. Let us be clear, he emphasised, Jesus began to breathe again, grew warm, started to move, re-engaged with reality, became interested in things around Him. Having been as dead as Daniel, He became, once again, as alive as we are.
This, too, is history.

This, he told me, is both the meaning of the Resurrection and the central idea of Christianity: that death has no dominion, that beyond the end there is a new beginning. Christianity, he said, is the announcement to the world of the death of death.

In 50 years of immersion in a Catholic culture, I never heard it put like that. Although none of the story was new, I had never before quite grasped its meaning. In a life spent in Catholic churches and schools, reading Catholic periodicals, nobody had ever succeeded in communicating to me that the central message of Christianity is about hope beyond human imagining.
If you had put me on the spot to explain the core of Christian belief, I would have mumbled something about Jesus dying for our sins. Why? Not sure. I had a strong sense that I was responsible for the death of Jesus, and very little that I was entitled to feel anything other than undeserved relief about Him rising again.

I don't think it's just me. Something in the kind of Christianity we have inherited suggests that the point is to feel bad mostly, but occasionally to celebrate because, though we are unworthy, God is merciful and good.

In its constant reiteration of rules, the Catholic Church has seemed to forget that there is a need to tell people why, rather than out of blind obedience and a perverse desire to be told how to live their lives, they might want to listen to its message.

Very often those who are the voices of the Church fail to emphasise the most important part: that once in history, 2,000 years ago, God came to earth as a man to demonstrate that death is a myth born of the limited human imagination.© 2008 The Irish Times