One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate during this Year of Faith, was the restoration of the catechumenate in Sacrosanctum Concilium (No. 64) and the subsequent establishment of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to facilitate the entry of adults into the Church Universal.
In a time when various cultural trends have led to an eclipse of the sense of God in our society, those involved in RCIA provide us with a renewed sense of hope for the next generation of Catholics. One of the most inspiring events of the Church year is the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion for (a) unbaptized catechumens who are preparing for all three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion – and (b) candidates who have already been validly baptized in either a non-Catholic ecclesial community, or in the Catholic Church as an infant, and are now preparing for Confirmation and First Communion. This exciting moment in the life of the Church of Washington takes place on the First and Second Sundays of Lent, February 17 and 24, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and for the last several years, more than 1,100 people annually have sought to be received into our family of faith.
Each person has his or her own personal reasons for wanting to be Catholic. For some, part of it is that built-in desire for the transcendent, for God. As Saint Augustine famously wrote in the Confessions, his exemplary account of his own conversion, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him who formed us in His image. Others are drawn to the Catholic Church because of a desire for the sacraments, that outward visible sign to confer grace. Many have become Catholic precisely because of a longing to be fully in communion with our Lord in the Eucharist or to receive the healing of forgiveness in the confessional. Still others might first be attracted to the Church because of her unbroken continuity with the Apostles or because, being built on rock, she remains steadfast in truth and love even throughout uncertain times.
However, even though each person’s journey of faith on the way to the Basilica is unique, there are certain things which are common to all. They do not travel alone – none of us does, we all have company and help along the way.
Some of that help is grace – faith is not only a personal act, it is not only a virtue, it also involves grace. Before we go searching for God, He is already there waiting for us and He helps us to find Him.
In addition to the light of God’s grace, each person coming into the Church was touched in some way by some other person of faith. And that is what we who are already disciples of Jesus are called to do, to touch the lives of others, to let some sign of Christ emanate from us so that they might know Him too.
This does not necessarily require superhuman efforts or great study – the smallest of things might be what opens the door of faith to another. We can see this in the conversion experience of Edith Stein, who was born into a Jewish family, but then became an atheist. One day during World War I, she saw a woman going into a cathedral and kneeling in prayer. “I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.” She then began to feel drawn to Christ and, within a few years, she was baptized into the Catholic Church. After her death at Auschwitz, Edith Stein was canonized as a saint.
We might think that what we do in our daily lives is insignificant, but the smallest thing might be what sets another on the road to being a saint. Those who have drifted away from the Church may be greatly encouraged merely by the example of someone standing up for the faith, someone who is proud to be Catholic. Others, non-Catholics and fallen away Catholics alike, may simply be waiting for someone to invite them to Mass.
The littlest gesture of faith, the smallest act of charity for love of Jesus manifested in countless ways, might be that something that another person never forgets. In sojourning through this world, no one should be left to find their way alone. The Year of Faith is a time for us to ask others to walk with us, to join us on the road of faith so that it might be a prosperous journey that leads to new and everlasting life in the Easter Vigil and beyond.