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April 8, 2009
Spiritual friendships vital in sustaining faith of new Catholics
By Julie Filby
Nearly 1,300 new Catholics will join the Church in the Denver Archdiocese this Easter season.
These individuals have devoted several months to prepare for the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation and Eucharist—through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program (RCIA) in their parishes.
Unfortunately, statistics show many of these new Catholics won’t be around by next Easter.
“It’s estimated that 40 percent of people baptized or confirmed at Easter are not attending Mass by the following Easter,” according to James Cavanagh, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Denver metro area. “It’s a significant problem."
Cavanagh said this type of apathy in new Catholics tends to occur when individuals are not well catechized (instructed); or when pragmatic concerns, rather than spiritual ones, motivated their involvement in the RCIA program.
He added that one of the biggest dangers in the Church is that new converts can feel isolated, alone and neglected.
“At a typical Catholic Mass, where you might have as many as 1,000 in attendance, it’s difficult to develop personal relationships,” he said.
Whatever the reasons for alienation, the entire Christian community should work to improve the retention rate of new Catholics by fulfilling the obligation to “spiritually be-friend” those coming into the Church.
“The idea of ‘spiritual friendship’ is a huge part of Christian life,” said Cavanagh. “Friendship has fallen on hard times these days, and we really need spiritual friends to accompany us on our walk with Christ.”
Consider the many examples of friendship in Jesus’ last days: Veronica giving her kerchief to Jesus to wipe his forehead, Simon of Cyrene helping him carry the cross (Mt 27:32), and Mary Magdalene ministering to him at the crucifixion (Mt 27:56).
Cavanagh suggested that parishioners “go the extra mile” to meet the newly initiated. Consider welcoming them into the Church by attending the reception after the Easter Vigil; or on a more informal basis, introduce yourself when you recognize a new Catholic at Mass.
“Small gestures of friendship and words of welcome can go a long, long way,” he said.
RCIA sponsors, who accompany the candidate or catechumen on their journey to the sacraments of initiation, need to stay engaged with the person they sponsored. At periodic intervals throughout the year, they should ask the new Catholic: Are you going to Mass? Do you have any questions? Is there anything I can help you with?
Hollie Stockton is currently sponsoring her husband, Kevin Stockton, in the RCIA program at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial.
“Part of being a good sponsor and spiritual friend is exploring and developing your own faith,” she said. “It’s important to help that person see that you’re never ‘done.’ Faith is a lifelong journey.”
Her husband agreed.
“A good sponsor is supportive of your learning, encourages you in your quest for information and is willing to expand their faith as well,” Kevin said. “Being part of the community of the Church helps us understand that we are accountable not only to God, but to one another. This strengthens our resolve to live less selfish, more accountable lives—lives more like Christ’s.”
Another way for new Catholics to build spiritual friendships is to stay involved with their RCIA community. While many people think the RCIA process ends at Easter when they receive the sacraments, there is one more stage—mystagogy.
The Latin word “mystagogy” means “to lead the initiated one into the mysteries.” Within the Church, another word for mysteries is “sacraments”.
“Mystagogy can be compared to a honeymoon,” said Jere Allen, director of catechesis and RCIA at St. Thomas More. “It’s when new Catholics are giddy because they’re so in love with their new faith.”
While parishes differ, RCIA classes usually continue meeting until Pentecost, the conclusion of the Easter season. Sometimes meeting frequency is reduced from weekly to once a month.
Some RCIA group members form bonds of friendship and continue to meet on their own after formal classes have ended. According to Linda Chagnon, director of RCIA at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Loveland, their parish had several members from last year’s group return to assist with forming this year’s group. They also meet for coffee after weekend Masses and attend Friday night fish fries together.
According to Cavanagh, all Catholics share the period of mystagogy because “we are constantly exploring the meaning of the sacraments and how they apply to our lives.”
The homilies of the Easter season, or mystagogical homilies, are intended to focus on the meaning of the sacraments.
“These homilies help us understand the connection between the resurrection that took place 2,000 years ago—and the fact that Christ still lives through his Church and through the sacraments,” he said. “Friendship is one of the means by which we see and touch the risen Christ today.”