Our accompaniment gives strength to catechumens

Bishop Barry C. Knestout celebrated the Rite of Election in the Western Vicariate at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, Feb. 17, 2024. (Photo/Ryan Hunt)

Each year, I look forward to the first weekend of Lent. Except for 2020, when we were confronting COVID-19, I have traversed the diocese annually to celebrate the Rite of Election in each of our three vicariates. This year, those celebrations took place in Salem, Richmond and Norfolk.

This past Saturday and Sunday, I had the opportunity to encounter more than 490 catechumens from 80 parishes who are being formed through the initiation ministry that includes the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and a similar formation program for children and youth. These are families and individuals who haven’t had the long experience of growing up Catholic.

Some have attended Mass with spouses for many years and have decided to become Catholic. Others have been drawn to the Church because of the richness of our liturgical tradition, depth of our theological and pastoral teachings, and the extent and beauty of our charitable efforts. All are answering a spiritual call to become part of our faith community.

As bishop and pastor, it’s a pleasure to be with our catechumens in that special moment of excitement and anticipation as they are preparing more immediately for being received into the Church through the sacraments of initiation – baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.

In my mind, what’s most significant about the Rite of Election is the personal encounter the catechumens and others attending the Rite of Election have with the bishop and each other. It is helpful and encouraging.

The Rite of Election is not an isolated event. Rather, this is an opportunity for Catholics to accompany those coming into the faith to have a tangible experience of walking with each other in faith – the accompaniment about which Pope Francis speaks so often. That accompaniment exists in their own parishes where they are being accompanied by a sponsor and those who are their RCIA formators, but also by their fellow parishioners who are keeping them in prayer as they prepare for their full communion with us.

Through their spiritual reflection and formation, they are gaining a deeper sense of the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives. They are experiencing the hand of God helping to direct them, support them and sustain them in faith as they approach the sacraments.

I also hope that by gathering in large groups regionally, they see themselves as part of a much larger group of people who are also sensing God’s call and becoming aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit. They have a common bond through their joy of learning about the faith and anticipating being fully initiated in the Church.

I pray they will see that accompaniment by the larger community as support and a sign that our faith is not just about God, me and those closest to me, but it’s about God, the whole Church and me. The Rite of Election gives us an experience of our connection with a much larger Body of Christ, the universal Church, as we witness how many people are walking this path each year.

The whole Church prays for our catechumens and supports them in their spiritual pilgrimage. My hope is that they will be strengthened by this experience. This is the larger sense of accompaniment about which we rarely hear. It is best exemplified in Luke 24:13-35 in which two disciples, on the road to Emmaus, are transformed by their encounter with Christ in the sacraments. Having celebrated Eucharist with him, they ask, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32)

That “burning” is a fruit of accompaniment. It is like being in the midst of other larger gatherings, e.g., a manifestation of an athletic or entertainment event, in which our heart is racing because we’re excited to be part of something greater than ourselves. The Body of Christ is much more than each of us, yet it cheers us on individually as we make progress in our faith.

As we celebrate with our catechumens and prepare to welcome them into the Church at the Easter Vigil, Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of walking with each other: “The Lord Jesus also accompanies us in our personal lives with the sacraments. A sacrament is not a magical rite, it is an encounter with Jesus Christ … we encounter the Lord. And he is by our side and accompanies us: a travelling companion” (Sept. 24, 2013).


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