Thursday, 20 February 2014

Shifting from Graduation to Initiation - Paradigm Shift Part 2

In our North American society, there is little doubt that our lives are governed by the school calendar: summer vacation, Christmas vacation, March or Spring break.  Even when nobody in our immediate lives is in school, this calendar still affects us.  One just needs to look at vacation package prices for Spring/March break to be reminded of this reality.

In a society that lives within this academic-year backdrop, it is no surprise that the “graduation model” permeates so much of people’s thinking about the sacraments that we celebrate with young people and their families.  Think of the requirements needed to obtain a High School Diploma: courses that need to be completed, certain grades that must be attained, a defined minimum number of credits in subject categories, and a minimum number of hours in each of those credits.  This need to complete these permeates this graduation model.

This graduation paradigm is reinforced when we speak in terms of knowledge to be gained, work to be done, hoops to be jumped through, before a child or young person can celebrate a sacrament. You need to do this – in order to get that.  All of “these things” need to be done before you get the carrot at the end of the stick – whatever sacrament that might be.  Once you have graduated you have completed the task.  Just as graduation is seen as the end point, so the sacrament is seen as the end point.

We also live in a culture where experiences are treated as commodities, where the experience of praying and chanting compline in a chapel with monks is then packaged as a CD to be played in the background at a dinner party or cocktail hour.  A mystical spiritual experience that requires time and effort on the part of a participant is now packaged for “atmosphere” and demands nothing of the hearer, let alone that person’s attention.  The graduation paradigm also fits this approach, treating sacraments as commodities.  Something must be “done” so something can be “obtained.”

We need a paradigm shift here: a shift from graduation to initiation.

Now, the initiation paradigm sees the preparation for and the celebration of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist as incorporation into the life of the church.  Initiation is the opposite of graduation.  Initiation sees each of these sacraments as a beginning, as a start, as immersion into the life of Christ, not as an ending, or as a final goal.

How do we make such a shift?

First, we need to see how we operate out of the “graduation” model as ministers within the church.  How often do we treat the sacraments as commodities that we dole out when people have achieved a certain knowledge base, or have done a certain number of community service hours, or made a certain number of visits to the church?  I remember a parishioner who was absolutely distraught one Sunday morning a number of years ago.  The source of her distress was a comment that the mother of a family had made to one of her children who was literally tearing the songbook to shreds: “Don’t worry, honey, after today we only have to come back here one more time.”  Have we forgotten that readiness to celebrate a sacrament is connected to relationship: relationship with God and with the local believing community?  Hoops, hoops, hoops.  Come to this Mass, present this letter, receive this cross, get your name checked off …  We need to examine ourselves: does the graduation model not lurk in all these approaches?

We also need to name the difference for our parishioners.  Let’s use clear examples of the difference between the two mindsets.  When we speak to families of young people who are preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, we can quite literally speak of how a child who graduates from elementary school is no longer welcome in that school without a “Visitor” badge from the office.  In this situation graduation means completion and departure.  Celebrating a sacrament of initiation is the exact opposite of graduation:  it is about belonging and inclusion.  Regardless of the timing and order of the sacraments of Initiation, each one and all three together are about incorporation into the life of Christ, who brings us into the shared life of the Trinity.

When we work with children and families who seek a sacrament, there is a catechesis relevant to the sacrament that is being anticipated.  This is different from religious education.  Ongoing religious education, either in a Catholic school, or in the parish and home setting, differs from the formation and catechesis that are linked to initiation sacraments.  In religious education, participants fill in books, and get stickers and perhaps even grades.  And they pass from one grade to another.  Religious education rightly falls within the scope of the graduation paradigm.  Preparation for sacraments of initiation does not fit this paradigm.  Some parishes expect candidates for a sacrament to participate in a certain number of community service hours.  Community service is a good thing.  Years ago the Province of Ontario instituted a specific number of community service hours as a requirement for graduation from secondary school.  Seen in this light, a set number of community service hours as a requirement for young people preparing for Confirmation reinforces the graduation mindset.  Publicly stating this, and encouraging candidates to see service as a way we live our life as Catholic Christians, not merely as something (or worse – as a hoop) to be “done” in order to “get” confirmed, can allow both parents and children to make this shift as well.

A number of historical and cultural factors have influenced our mindset and impacted on our parish practices.  The graduation model encourages people to see sacraments as end goals, instead of moments that invite us into continued relationship with our Triune God.  What we as church are about in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist is initiation: bringing people into this life of God lived in the community of the Church gathered around the table of the Eucharist.  Until we as pastors, catechists, religious educators, sacramental preparation leaders and co-ordinators realize the need for this shift from graduation to initiation, the people we serve will hardly be able to make this shift themselves.

Written by Fr. Larry L├ęger and originally published in Celebrate! March – April 2010