Now a word from our sponsor
Mentoring newcomers can refresh the faith of a Catholic at any stage of the journey
Where is the hope in Lent? Isn’t Lent about dying?” I could feel the tension as our RCIA conversation shifted from Christmas to Easter. We were talking about the purple candles of Advent and the purple vestments of Lent, and how both are symbols of hope. The hope surrounding Christmas was obvious, but why do we celebrate hope during Lent?
In the awkward silence I recalled a conversation with my best friend who was struggling with the untimely death of her sister. Though overwhelmed with grief, she was also overjoyed that her sister, who struggled with lifelong physical impairments, was finally at peace. There is hope in death. It became clear to me that I needed to share this with the class. I raised my hand and explained how I saw hope in Lent.
When I finished speaking, one of the other sponsors shouted, “Amen, sister!” I’m not sure where I came up with my answer. It was my first year as an RCIA sponsor. Yet the words seemed to resonate with a sense of authority well beyond my capability. I was stunned.
I offered to be a sponsor without much forethought. I was looking for a volunteer opportunity to occupy my time while I contemplated a possible career change. I had been a Confirmation sponsor for my cousin many years before, but I didn’t know anything about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. A friend of mine coordinated the RCIA program at our parish, and she thought it might be a good fit. If nothing else it was a good excuse to leave the office early and spend some quality time at church.
Much to my surprise, being a sponsor was as lifegiving for me as it was for the candidates. As I walked with those discerning entrance into the church, I could not help but enter into the process with them. Their questions about Catholic beliefs and practices invited me to examine my own faith as well. The syllabus covered a long list of Catholic topics, while our conversation centered on how the living God was at work in our everyday lives.
Each week we talked more and more about what it means to live a life in Christ. At the same time, we celebrated engagements and weddings. We mourned with a candidate whose mother died. We anxiously waited as one of the sponsors applied to seminary, and we bid farewell to a much-beloved catechist. I eventually left my full-time consulting job to pursue a graduate degree in ministry. The Paschal Mystery was unfolding before our eyes.
This was the intention of the early church when members of the community first began to mentor those who wished to be baptized. New members underwent a period of probation in which they were formed in the practices of the faith and supported in their ongoing conversion to Jesus Christ.
This process of purification eventually died out in the fifth century, when infant Baptism became common practice. The Second Vatican Council decreed that the RCIA process be restored as an expression of the church’s renewed emphasis on evangelization and mission.
Today the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is designed for adults and older children preparing for Baptism, those who have been baptized in another Christian tradition who wish to be received into the Catholic faith, and in some cases, baptized Catholics who have not been raised in the church. The process is marked by regular instruction and liturgical rites that celebrate a candidate’s continual conversion. The process culminates with the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
Candidates are invited to choose a sponsor, someone who will journey with them through the discernment process and who is already a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church. In some cases, if a candidate is new to the community or is not familiar with other Catholics, a sponsor is chosen for them.
The RCIA sponsor acts as a bridge between the candidate and the community, witnessing to the growth of the candidate and serving as an example of what it means to live a Christian life. Sponsors welcome those who are new and offer hospitality. They listen and guide, challenge and support. Most important, a sponsor is a living witness of the gospel message—someone who models prayer, love, forgiveness, and social justice.
I once sponsored a young man who decided to leave the RCIA program. Through our time together it became increasingly clear that he did not feel any sense of personal conviction. Rather he entered under pressure and a sense of obligation to his family. God very well may have been calling him, but he was not ready to respond.
Sponsors lead the way to Christ. But in the end we must allow them to freely respond in love to the God who has first loved us.
This article appeared on the July 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 7, pages 37-38).