Baptism: Reforms of the Second Vatican Council Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 26, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
Patrick Gorman

Lent is a season of preparation and recollection of our Baptism. This is the seventh and final article in a series of articles reflecting upon the Sacrament of Baptism.

Our Lord's parting words to his disciples were, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt. 28:19-20).

Ever since that day, that is what the Church has done.

Reform of ritual

The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy addressed the reform of the Baptismal ritual.(1) The council called for the restoration of the Catechumenate and the possibility for adaptations with local customs in mission lands.

They directed a reformation of the rites for adults and for a rite to be drawn up that acknowledges that Christians who were validly baptized enter full Communion with the Catholic Church. They also called for the revision of the infant rite to take into account that those being baptized are, in fact, infants.

The last six articles have addressed the various rituals associated with the Rite of Baptism, primarily through the lens of infant Baptism, but the major reforms took place with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Inspiration from early Church

The Vatican promulgated the RCIA in 1972 (in Latin) and the English version in 1987. The inspiration of the RCIA is from the early Church, particularly the Baptismal practices of the Third and Fourth Centuries.

In those early years, those who sought Baptism often knew that it may mean martyrdom. The Catechumenate -- what we now call the RCIA -- was a practice of evangelization so that those who converted could become very strong in the faith. It also served as a mechanism that allowed the Church to avoid infiltration and betrayal by those who sought to stop them.

In the reform of the rites, the Church renewed the ancient practice whereby people were fully initiated at the Easter Vigil. They were baptized, confirmed, and given First Communion together at the same Mass. The three sacraments were separated over time, and Confirmation now has become the final sacrament in the initiation sequence for those baptized as infants.

Some dioceses have restored the order of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist for children (confirming children prior to the reception of Communion, often at the same Mass).(2)

Four parts of RCIA

The RCIA is made up of four continuous parts.

• The whole process begins when someone approaches the Church and says they are interested in exploring a desire to learn more about God (this is sometimes called the pre-catechumenate). There is no set agenda for this period, so the Church offers the inquirers a chance to learn about God and his great love for us or to ask questions about Scripture, Catholic practices, etc.

• When they ask and are deemed open to deeper conversion, they enter the Catechumenate. They seek to start a spiritual life and to learn more about God and the Church. This period emphasizes prayer and conversion even as sessions address important topics, such as the sacraments, Scripture, and the saints.

• On the First Sunday of Lent, the catechumens are sent to the bishop for their "election." They become "God's Elect." God has set them apart for an intense period of prayer and reflection during the Lenten journey.

• Finally, they are baptized, confirmed, and given first Eucharist at the Easter Vigil and they enter the final period, called Mystagogia. Last week’s article addressed this topic at length.

The passing from one period to the next is always within the context of a liturgy (Acceptance into the Catechumenate, Rite of Election, Rites of Initiation). The liturgy is the doorway into a deeper life in Christ.

Many challenges

The RCIA presents many practical challenges. A great deal of catechesis takes place and there are numerous liturgies to celebrate along the way, often outside of the view of the parish community.

But it is primarily a time of conversion, when candidates turn away from sin and turn towards God. I recall Bishop George Wirz passionately asking me never to forget that, when working with people in the RCIA, all is meaningless if the person's heart is not converted. We can know many things without allowing the Lord to truly change our hearts.

The RCIA is part of what is called the "Roman Ritual," or the liturgical books required by the Church. Each parish is to either have their own RCIA or in conjunction with other parishes. It's the evangelical arm of the parish -- seeking out those who need God and walking with them throughout the process.

Many people are needed as sponsors, team members, and in other roles. I have never known a Catholic involved in the RCIA to regret the time spent. We learn about our own faith even as we walk with others.

Those who celebrate the sacraments can tell you of the way that God has changed their lives, inspiring us all to show gratitude to God for things we may take for granted.

(1) Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, nos. 64ff

(2) In the spring of 2012, it was reported that Pope Benedict XVI personally congratulated an American bishop for restoring the order of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist in his diocese.


Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison.