Keeping Vigil with the Elect

by Joyce Stolberg

Budding crocuses and daffodils chase the slushy mounds of old, dirty snow up through the northern latitudes as the springtime sun climbs higher in the sky. Easter will soon be upon us. Now our Elect are making immediate, contemplative, intense preparations to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. The Church eagerly anticipates the moment when they will be welcomed as fully initiated members of the body of Christ. Candidates will soon, or perhaps already have been, welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church. What can we do for all our participants right now to meet their needs in these last weeks of Lent?

Chapters from the Gospel of St. John are read at Sunday Mass during these weeks, in which the scrutinies are celebrated; they provide ample material for in-depth meditation. I strongly recommend spending time in your sessions actually praying, using various methods of Catholic prayer, and practicing specific Catholic devotions. About two weeks ago, we spent our whole session simply praying: I lead the guided meditation on page 60 of God Calls You by Name; we prayed the rosary, practiced the Jesus Prayer, and experienced Lectio Divina. We concluded with Evening Prayer from the Divine Office. These prayer experiences may be quite familiar to us as Catholics; however, persons coming into the Church likely have not been taught to pray using these methods. I thought that we were doing very ordinary exercises with our group, so I was astonished when two people came and said that this was their best RCIA session ever!

Our parish holds Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings during Lent and our RCIA group led this devotion one evening. Because it was carried out in a very simple format, conducted by the laity, our Elect were thrilled to take leadership roles. Following Stations, we shared the simple pleasures of homemade meatless soup and bread. One of our young adult Elect once remarked, "In public school they were careful not to teach us religion, so I never heard the story of Jesus' sufferings before this." The liturgy, of course, is our most essential prayer; frequent or even daily reception of Holy Communion defines our piety and bears fruit in our lives. Yet private devotions nourish our spiritual life: the careful combination of vocal prayers, thought-provoking meditation and physical movement pierce our psyche, allowing the grace of God to penetrate our spirits through the actions of our bodies and minds. This leads us to a deep contemplative openness to the love of God, our Blessed Mother and the saints. The Elect are hungry for a deeper spirituality. During this period of Enlightenment, nourish this hunger through prayer, devotions, and meditation, as well as through participation in our liturgical rites.

Your major phase of intense discernment took place before the Rite of Election; yet all through Lent, the Church continues to ask the Elect, "Are you ready?" Discernment continues to take place right up until the Easter Vigil when the sacraments will be received. Encourage sponsors to be especially solicitous during these weeks in regard to any questions or doubts their participants may express. Be available yourselves to deal with any issues that may arise.

Take some time also to share the tremendous spiritual and biblical treasures compressed into the liturgies of Holy Week. Save places for your elect, sponsors, those recently received into full communion, those still discerning, and team. This will be the first time many participants take part in Holy Week liturgies.

Until several years ago, the Combined Rite brought both candidates and elect into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Now, many bishops are directing that candidates be received at a different ceremony, usually before Easter. This clarifies the purpose of each rite, honors the baptism of your candidates, and enables them to participate fully in the Holy Week liturgies. If they have been received into the Church before the Easter Vigil, engage their assistance in helping the Elect into and out of the baptismal fountain, and with other practical necessities. Include them in the procession back to the baptismal fountain. These participants have taken the journey together, and have bonded emotionally and spiritually: they should all share in some way in the climactic events of the Easter Vigil, and they should be honored at your reception following the Vigil.

You have a retreat design for your Holy Saturday morning recollection time on page S-95 of the supplement section of God Calls You by Name, Catechists and Directors Edition. I prepared a lengthy meditation which encompasses all the readings proclaimed at the Easter Vigil Liturgy of the Word. This will enable the Elect to truly hear, ponder, and respond to these readings in a relaxed setting. I designed this reflection to compress the faith journey of the Elect, and to elicit responses that encompass their embrace of the totality of the Catholic Faith, and their loving response to God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Here, I suggest that in answer to the questions beginning with "Do you...?" you elicit a strong convincing "I do." Evoke this response repeatedly as you continue through the meditation, and your Elect will answer in the same firm, convincing manner during the ritual questioning immediately prior to Baptism. You may conduct additional activities during this retreat as time permits, such as allowing each person to share his/her choice of baptismal and confirmation names, and allowing time for any residual questions to emerge. While the Elect do not need to know all the details of the ceremonies, they should receive enough information about the basic logistics in order to be well prepared and at least somewhat at ease. They should have some essential practice in the basic mechanics of receiving Holy Communion.

The Ephphetha Rite, though an integral part of the Baptism of infants, is conducted separately with adult Elect. The performance of this rite marks a wonderful conclusion to this Holy Saturday retreat and prepares the elect to return joyfully in the evening for the celebration of the Easter Vigil and the Sacraments of Initiation. After you conclude the retreat, you will likely need to bring the sponsors into the church to rehearse for the evening rites, while the lilies are being unwrapped, the sun beams through the stained glass windows, and the choir practices the longed for "Alleluia."