When unbaptized adults (or older children) seek to join the Catholic Church, they are "embedded" in their parish community for a time of faith formation called the Catechumenate, which culminates in the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation and full membership in the Church. During the Catechumenate, seekers learn the fundamentals of the faith and come to know Jesus. They embark on a process of conversion that invites and enables one to put Jesus at the center of one's life.
Catechumens attend Mass and reflect on the Scriptures; they participate in worship and devotions, learn about the sacraments, Church history, the lives of saints and much more, accompanied by Catholics who love Jesus and want to share Him with others. There is much to absorb, but perhaps the most important thing that happens during the Catechumenate is the beginning or deepening of love for and friendship with Jesus.
Mercy flows in abundance in the faith journey of the Catechumenate. God offers friendship and the promise of salvation to all who seek God with a sincere heart. Catechumens have heard God calling them to enter into this living relationship and have responded by embarking on a faith journey. This journey unfolds differently for each person, but the common theme is the desire to have God in one's life and to worship God through the sacramental life of the Church. The sacraments of initiation: Baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, prepare and equip catechumens to take their place in the Body of Christ, to worship with the faith community and to live their faith in everyday life.
Pope Francis, in declaring the Holy Year of Mercy, reminded the Church that "Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in Him," (Misericordiae Vultus 1). Jesus is the sign of the reign of God on Earth. By including all in His embrace: the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, outcasts and sinners, Jesus proclaimed that all people are loved by God and belong to God's family. God calls the human family into one sacred community and this community makes God's kingdom visible and present here on Earth. The Catechumenate is a sign of God's abundant mercy as it welcomes people into God's family and fosters friendship with Jesus.
What greater mercy is there than knowing Jesus? During their time of formation, Catechumens come to know the mercy of God enfleshed in Jesus and they become His disciples. They learn to receive mercy and to give mercy. The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are duties of all Catholics and Catechumens also participate in this privileged activity. When Catechumens serve others following the mandate of Jesus, they experience God's grace flowing through them to another.
Mercy flows as Catechumens participate in "The Scrutinies." Celebrated at Sunday Masses during Lent, the Scrutiny rituals give Catechumens the strength to turn away from sin and to follow Jesus.
The Scrutinies intensify conversion and open one's heart to receive God's mercy through the saving waters of Baptism. In this powerful ritual, the baptized pray for those who will soon be baptized, strengthening the bonds between Catechumens and the faith community. The Scrutinies call each of us to reflect on God's abundant mercy on our lives.
Because baptism forgives all sins, Original Sin and any sins committed by the person, the newly baptized receive the sacrament of reconciliation after their reception into the Church. The healing power of the sacrament enfolds them, as it does all of us, with God's forgiveness and unconditional love. We experience God's mercy though the sacrament of reconciliation as God wipes the slate clean and welcomes us back into spiritual freedom and grace-filled relationship.
During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites all of us to live mercy in our daily lives. The primary task of the Church "is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God's mercy by contemplating the face of Christ," (Misericordiae Vultus 25). The Catechumenate multiplies the joy of the Gospel as faithful Catholics introduce others to Christ and accompany them along the faith journey, a mutually enriching experience permeated by God's mercy.
Sister Barbara Schiavoni is associate director for Lifelong Faith Formation and a member of the Diocesan Catechumenate Board.