Many years long past, after graduating with my bachelor’s degree I set about the grueling task faced by many post-baccalaureates: finding a job. And I, like so many, began sending out resumes to any and all who seemed to show the barest interest in receiving my credentials for employment.
A sentence in my cover letter, which I hoped and believed would set me apart from other applicants, encouraged a prospective employer: “Scrutinize my resume.” By this challenge I wished to convey that if you looked closely enough at my qualifications you would see that I not only possessed the background necessary for a particular position, but also I possessed the drive and motivation to be successful in it. After about six or seven hundred attempts at getting this message across…it finally worked!
Scrutiny, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, means a close, careful, searching examination or inspection. It is a neutral word, but in many situations use of this word can convey a negative connotation, something punitive or judgmental, or an act of seeking to pick out or find fault with something or someone.
It makes sense, then, that when told they must be “scrutinized” not only once, but three times(!), the reaction from those journeying to the waters of baptism might be one of puzzled trepidation. However, when used specifically by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the context of three crucial periods of prayer in the three weeks prior to the celebration of the sacraments of initiation, “scrutiny” discloses something much more profound.
The Scrutiny Rites are instances of powerful prayer in the RCIA. They resurrect an ancient practice dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. Without grossly over generalizing, one might state that in those days, perhaps not everywhere, professing one’s belief in the God of Jesus Christ was serious business. If caught by public authorities a professed Christian faced imprisonment and even death.
As to guarantee the integrity of the faith and the welfare of the early community new initiates underwent a process of examination and inquiry as to their sincerity and commitment to live this life; a serious commissioning in light of possibly severe consequences. The community prayed over, they scrutinized, the candidates for initiation that they, in turn, would not just ever betray the community, but more importantly would be steadfast and courageous witnesses of the faith especially under dire conditions. Serious business indeed.
While professing one’s belief in Christianity today may not entail the same ominous prospects, the scrutinies are times for the community of faith to pray for the Elect that they take seriously their commitment to the faith. In this light, a scrutiny is a conscious prayer, neither a programmatic formality nor a juridical inquiry. It is a pray not only for the Elect but also and just as importantly for the assembly gathered with them in prayer.
Each scrutiny consists of a series of intercessions for the Elect, a hand laying, and a prayer, which itself goes by that equally most disconcerting of terms – exorcism. Yet, what the Church prays for are three of the most fundamental of human needs: openness of heart, true vision, and victory over death. Furthermore, these prayers do not focus upon a heavenly reward or an otherworldly union, but rather are keenly focused upon life lived in the present, here and now. The prayers are quite specific in their desire that the Elect come to embrace and live a faith with consequence and significance in their daily lives, and by extension in the lives of those with whom the lives of the Elect will touch.
In this way the Elect are truly scrutinized. The prayers, which the assembly prays over them, affirm what makes the Elect worthily numbered among the faithful. The rite also attests to their resolve to remain faithful, even in the midst of confusion, doubt, or rejection. They are prayers of a serious nature, which, in turn, reflect the serious nature of faith.
As I said above, in praying for the Elect the assembly itself, gathered to witness their readiness to enter the community, is also scrutinized. For the scrutinies serve as poignant reminders to the already baptized of what truly is at stake in believing: freedom “from vain reliance on self” (First Scrutiny); freedom “from false values that surround and blind” (Second Scrutiny); and freedom “from the death-dealing power of the spirit of evil” (Third Scrutiny).
In its prayers for the Elect the assembly makes a conscious act of remembering – remembering just what sort of God is our God. A God who responds to our needs and yearnings: the need to be understood and accepted, the yearning to see and believe, and the need to find true and lasting meaning in our lives. It also asks itself how well it has and can continue to be sources of strength, inspiration, and encouragement for all who are searching for credible and authentic witnesses of faith.
In the prayers and gestures of the Scrutiny Rites the assembly and the Elect together are provided the opportunity to affirm belief in the seriousness of faith and in a God who takes us and our welfare seriously. In this time in which we live as people of faith, we need now more than ever to take the gift of faith seriously. The Scrutiny Rites aid all those who dare to believe with the means to overcome all that might hinder or impede as full a reception of faith as possible.