Lent --- the Final Sprint Toward Easter

by Joyce Stolberg

Humongous hummocks of soggy snow, useless for making snow angels, stained ash gray by slush-splashing cars and coal dust from nearby chimneys, lethargically awaiting their inevitable demise under the lengthening, strengthening April sunshine, framed my childhood encounters with Lent. I remember reluctantly giving up those stops at the candy store on the way home from school, placing my allowance in the "mite" (tiny offering) box, and stopping in my parish church to pray the Stations of the Cross. I recall wondering --- if all those luscious looking milk chocolate figurines were sold before Easter, and if I couldn't purchase or eat any until after Easter --- when would I ever get to enjoy them? We were, indeed, taught about prayer, penance, almsgiving, and gloom, both in theory and in practice.

 The reinstatement of the RCIA sacramental preparation process in the late 1970s transformed Lent forever, rendering it, in my opinion, the most exciting liturgical season of the year. Restored to its original purpose, Lent now facilitates the final preparations for persons receiving the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter. What had been (and still is) a time of personal prayer, penance, and almsgiving emerged into a phase of intense intercessory prayer and sacrifice for catechumens and candidates.  After personal journeys lasting from about a year up to a lifetime, these persons are welcomed and prayed for in multiple ceremonies during Lent. With the Rites of Sending, Election, Call to Continuing Conversion, Scrutinies, Presentations of the Creed and the Our Father, and other minor rights, Lent has acquired a richness and depth beyond any experienced in the recent history of the Church. Without neglecting prayerful contemplation of the passion of Christ, practices of personal penance, and acts of charity, we continually center on Christ in the persons of the candidates and catechumens lining up for that final sprint towards toward the Sacraments of Initiation. How we long to embrace them as fully initiated members of our ecclesial community!

In the ancient Church, the Enrollment of Names, conducted 40 days before Easter, was a thrilling, suspense-filled event. Who among the catechumens would come forward to declare their intentions to receive Baptism this year? St. Augustine recounts in his Confessions, how a certain highly esteemed professor came forward, amid great cheering, to publicly enroll his name. Recreate some of this holy excitement at your Rite of Sending as you call catechumens and candidates forward by name, and share the testimony you gathered at your pre-election retreat. Post their pictures and names on your church bulletin board. This Sending takes on a literal meaning when team, sponsors, and participants must hustle out of their local church and carpool to the Cathedral in time to claim their seats for the Rite of Election, when the bishop welcomes those who have been sent to him from local parishes across the diocese. This first trip to the diocesan cathedral can be a thrilling adventure, especially for participants who come from outlying areas.

This is only the beginning. You celebrate rites each week for the first five weeks of Lent, followed by the participants' first experience of the Holy Week liturgies. When directors cooperate closely with the parish liturgist or with the pastor in implementing these rites, they bring new life to the whole parish.  The Call to Continuing Conversion, a prayer over baptized candidates, takes place on the second Sunday of Lent.  The three Scrutinies are celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent: these are prayers and blessings specifically for catechumens. They assist in clarifying catechumens' intentions to receive the sacraments at Easter. We are reading from lectionary Year A this year; therefore the Gospel from St. John is proclaimed at all Masses.  During Years B and C, the readings from Year A should be used at the Masses during which the Scrutinies are celebrated. Several options are available for the presentation of copies of the Creed, however, it should be celebrated in the presence of a community of the faithful, within Mass, after the homily (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults USCCB). Because catechumens and candidates formally congregate on Sunday, the favored time for this celebration is immediately following the first scrutiny. Likewise, the presentation of the "Our Father" should be done during the fifth week of Lent, likely immediately following the third scrutiny. Involve your candidates and catechumens in active roles, such as the foot washing, during Holy Week liturgies, and secure reserved places in processions and near the Paschal fire.

It has often been asked in one form or another, "Why is all this attention being concentrated on a few new adults while other active groups in the congregation receive attention rarely or not at all?" Our catechumens and candidates are a sign of hope for the whole community, and they remind us all of our own initiation. The salvation won for us through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is being offered to them, as it has been offered to us, and the essential missionary nature of the church is being expressed, here and now, within the whole community.

The season of Lent is no longer a lengthy drag; it has become a breathtaking sprint. The chocolate or lack thereof is not even important. From the ashes received on Ash Wednesday near the end of winter to the new life springing from the flowing water of our baptismal fonts in the exuberance of springtime, the whole Church rejoices in new life, new hope, and an abundant outpouring of grace on all.