Are you willing to help?

The celebration of the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil marks a significant milestone in the lives of catechumens-cum-candidates-cum-Christians.  Liturgically, the catechumenate begins with the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens.  One part of this rite (no. 53, to be precise) reads as follows:

Then the celebrant turns to the sponsors and the assembly and asks them in these or similar words.

Sponsors, you now present these candidates to us; are you, and all who are gathered here with us, ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ?


We are.

If the catechumens in question are children of catechetical age the relevant rite contains parallel questions in no. 265.


Dear parents (sponsors), your children have asked to be prepared for baptism.  Do you consent to their request?

Parents or sponsors: We do.

Celebrant: Are you willing to do your part in their preparation for baptism?

Parents or sponsors: We are.

Then the celebrant questions the assembly, using these or similar words.

These boys and girls have set out on the road to baptism.  They will need the support of our faith and love.  Are you, their families and friends, ready to give that help?

All: We are.

Catechumens become candidates during the Rite of Election.  One part of this rite (no. 133, to be precise) reads as follows:

Then the celebrant turns to the godparents and instructs them in the following or similar words.

Godparents, you have spoken in favor of these catechumens: accept them now as chosen in the Lord and continue to sustain them through your loving care and example, until they come to share in the sacraments of God’s life.

The celebrant of the Rite of Election for children says something similar in no. 285:

Then the celebrant addresses the parents, godparents, and the entire assembly:

Dear friends, you have spoken in favor of these young catechumens.  Accept them as chosen in the Lord.  Encourage them to live the way of the Gospel.  Offer them the support of your love and concern.  And, above all, be a good model to them of Christian living so that by your example they may grow deeper in the faith of the Church.

A last example comes from the Rite of Baptism for Children.  The celebrant asks the parents whether they understand the tasks incumbent upon them as Christian parents.  No. 40 picks up the scene:

Then the celebrant turns to the godparents and addresses them in these or similar words:

Are you ready to help these parents in their duty as Christian mothers and fathers?

All the godparents: We are.

Of interest to me here is that while all of these citations involve asking for help in the care and pastoral direction of those seeking initiation, only the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens directs a question about such help to all present.  Otherwise, the question is restricted to parents / sponsors / godparents.  This approach can be contrasted with that found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

After all the [candidates for baptism] have been presented, the Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?

People: We will.*

There is no comparable passage in the Lutheran Book of Worship** but there is one in the Book of Common Worship for the Presbyterian Church.***  Likewise, those present for a wedding in the Episcopal Church are asked about their willingness to support the marriage they are witnessing.****

It is true enough that during Lent, assemblies everywhere are asked to pray for those preparing for baptism.  When confirmation is celebrated as a stand-alone rite, there are prayers for the confirmandi.  Prayers for those to be wed are a feature of wedding celebrations.  All this is true—but the assemblies are not asked for their ongoing support and care at the Catholic celebrations of these sacraments (or for the sacrament of anointing of the sick, when that rite is celebrated communally).

If, as Karl Rahner famously argued, sacraments are events in which the church realizes itself (see also no. 2 of the Liturgy Constitution), then perhaps the Catholic Church should formalize such questions for the assembly: all in attendance have a stake in the past, present, and future of God’s history with those to whom the church directs its sacramental ministry.  The assembly is not a witness in a passive sense; they are not mere spectators.  What happens in sacramental celebration involves commitment of some kind on the part of all.  Perhaps Catholics have something to learn here from Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

*The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 303.

** The Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1987).

*** Book of Common Worship for the Presbyterian Church USA and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 406.

**** Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 425.



5 responses to “Are you willing to help?”

  1. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    “Are you, and all who are gathered here with us, ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ?” An honest answer from many parishioners would be a resounding NO. I was recently asked if we could publish a notice of scheduled baptisms, confirmations, or other rites so that people could avoid those Mass times. At least she was honest, “I know this will sound selfish, but honestly I don’t know these people and I don’t really care about them or their children or their sacraments.” This was not some old curmudgeon, this was a mother of school-aged children and an active member of the parish. I have heard similar sentiments more times than I can count.

    I don’t believe my parish is any more or less caring than most, so I imagine this sentiment can be found nearly anywhere. In your parish at Sunday Mass, if someone announces, “Today we welcome the N family as we celebrate the baptism of N,” a good number of people will roll their eyes and look at their watches.

    We have a lot of work to do.

    1. Tim Brunk Avatar
      Tim Brunk

      @Scott Pluff:
      Ah, yes, someone on another post had recently referenced the American Liturgical Prime Directive about not adding a single minute more to the liturgy. We do indeed have a lot of work to do.


  2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    There seems to be an assumption that formalizing questions for the assembly would change the assembly. That might be questionable.

    It might be different if these parishes were more like an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community living together within an erev, or “Benedict Option” type communities where parishioners all lived within walking distance of the church and therefore were much more likely to be social acquaintances. To expect the liturgy to overcome social reality is to engage in magical thinking.

    I don’t mind sacramental inclusion in the Sunday Mass *if* the presiding priest and ministers are not what I call “itchy” about the ritual (meaning, they cannot properly self-manage their unease with the ritual as given). If they are itchy about ritual, then I participate in a different Mass. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about that.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      @Karl Liam Saur:
      To an extent, I don’t care if the assembly changes or not. On a broad level, I am concerned that believers move into discipleship, and from there to advanced stages of Christian service and commitment. But that isn’t under my control, even in my own parish. All I can do is create an environment for the Lord to touch them and get myself out of the way as soon as possible.

      Scott’s example is quite telling, and a prime example of Catholic malaise and possibly the moralistic therapeutic deism so frequently cited these days. Such Christians largely live in one of those 95% of American Christian communities with shrinking membership, slowly folding budgets, and whose funerals are far outstripping baptisms and weddings. Or soon will be. The woman of this example isn’t uncaring or bad. Just expressing ignorance. She and her school-aged children and others like her are in their parishes mostly to be serviced.

      And yes, there is a serious lack of liturgical/presidential formation of deacons and priests. If they were smart, bishops and/or seminaries would consult with people like me or Rita or Fritz or a few others and get these guys comfortable with liturgy.

  3. Nick Wagner Avatar

    While I cannot speak to the support that other liturgical traditions offer to those seeking baptism, I would like to point out that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Roman Catholic tradition intends that the community of the faithful offer extensive and ongoing help to those journeying on the way of faith. The introduction to the rite says: “Therefore, the community must always be prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ” (9).

    The rite then goes on to list, in detail, the role of the community throughout each stage of the catechumenate process. The church “realizes itself” sacramentally when, at the Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, we declare ourselves “ready to help these candidates find and follow Christ” (53).

    Given the Roman quality that “rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 34), there is no need to repeat this promise in subsequent rituals as though the first time didn’t quite take.

    What we might learn from Episcopalians and Presbyterians and any ecclesial tradition is how to effectively enable our parishioners to live out the duties enumerated in paragraph 9 of the RCIA. If our brothers and sisters in these other traditions are successfully living out their apostolic vocation to help those who are searching for Christ, I would love to learn more about the practical steps they are taking to make the pastoral life of their communities a realization of their ritual affirmations of support.

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