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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

Becoming someone's Simon of Cyrene


One of the more inspired decisions I’ve made in the last few years was volunteering for my parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up, but five years later, it’s become a fixture in my life. The reason is simple: In RCIA, I see the paschal mystery revealed in the people seeking to join the church. It’s sometimes painful, often joyful, always meaningful.

I am ever humbled by the reasons people give for joining the church. As a cradle Catholic, my decision to go through adult confirmation was easily made. That’s not to say a great deal of thought didn’t go into my decision, but there wasn’t a great deal of work involved in the process. A few meetings and a Mass at Pentecost with the bishop, and I was confirmed. The people going through RCIA, however, are committing to an eight-month discernment process that is often painful. That so many people persevere is awe-inspiring.

For eight months, the catechumens and candidates are put through what can best be described as an extended examination of conscience. They are asked to reflect on their lives and find where God has blessed them and where they have failed to heed God’s call.

It’s a tall order, and part of being a member of the team is to go through it yourself. Digging around in one’s memory and finding those places where God has blessed you, reflecting on those blessings that weren’t so pleasant, finding your fingerprints on the misfortunes caused by your failure to listen to God, this is what is asked of the catechumens and candidates.

For five years I’ve watched people go through this process, and it never ceases to amaze me. This is their Via Crucis. They are the nomads who have wandered from church to church searching for the true Gospel. They are the unchurched who had given up on organized religion until they met someone from the parish or attended a Mass. They are the previously married, denied entry into the church until they completed the annulment process. They are the gay men and women, constantly told they are disordered, yet undeterred in their desire to enter the church.

They bare bits of their souls to people who are essentially strangers, and in so sharing, create a community. We team members and sponsors are asked to show them the true church, minus the posturing, pettiness, meanness that crops up in the aisles. They have gone through the sexual abuse scandal, the disputes among bishops and politicians during the 2004 elections, the liturgy wars, the various pronouncements on homosexuals.

Yet, still they come. It would seem that nothing the leadership of our church can hurl at these brave folk can overcome the ultimate message at the heart of our faith: God loves us unconditionally and we are called to be a supporting community of believers.

I think that is what keeps them coming back, that knowledge that they are not alone, that our faith calls us all to be Simon of Cyrene. We must help each other with the crosses we all bear.

The reward, at least for the candidate and catechumen, is the Easter Vigil. For their months of labor, the church puts on its greatest show, and they are the stars. Fire and water, light and dark, the vigil is a magnificent reward. Incense, the fragrant chrism oil, the newly blessed waters of baptism, the ringing of bells during the Gloria, the return of the Alleluia, the Paschal fire and candle, the scripture readings that take us through the first Creation to the new Creation in Christ resurrected; this is the story of our faith, acted out on a spring evening for the benefit of the newly joined.

I view each Easter Vigil with a nervous excitement, because the catechumens and candidates are so nervous and excited. It means more to me because I have an inkling of how difficult a journey getting to the vigil has been for many in the program. The liturgy is more profound because I know that it represents a hard-fought victory for many. Helping others enter the church has strengthened my faith in this church. It’s funny how such a simple decision has come to mean so much to me.

Tara Harris is assistant to the NCR editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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