“The role of a sponsor is not to teach content, but to serve as a model of the Christian faith who lives the content. This person should be prayerful, giving, humble, and willing to commit time and energy to listening and deepening a new friendship.”
Our Catechumenate in Action
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, Washington, we bring adults to the waters of the baptismal font through the catechumenal process. After several years of offering the Catechumenate at St. Paul’s, we have improved our sponsor-recruiting skills, involved a wider swath of parishioners, and trained more catechists. Each year contains both minor disappointments and major joys.
What Do You Need for the Catechumenate?
Some may feel that their congregations lack the resources to offer a catechumenal process, but size and money are not the issue. What do you really need?
1. An unbaptized adult
For now, you’re still more likely to find adults who want to be confirmed or received, but remember that the word catechumen refers specifically to an adult preparing for baptism. It is good for those seeking a renewal of faith to learn and grow in community with catechumens, but if everyone in the room is baptized, it’s technically not a catechumenal process.
2. A sponsor for each catechumen
The sponsor should be central to the process, not an afterthought. I believe it’s best for a clergy person to handpick a mature Christian to walk alongside a catechumen. Ideally, the role of a sponsor is not to teach content, but to serve as a model of the Christian faith who lives the content. This person should be prayerful, giving, humble, and willing to commit time and energy to listening and deepening a new friendship. A sponsor doesn’t need to have all the answers but should know where to go to find potential answers.
3. Liturgical rites in the presence of a supportive congregation
In most contexts, the catechumenal process will be a learning process not only for those directly involved, but also for everyone who hears about it. Catechumens should never be prepared anonymously, because nobody can be a Christian in a vacuum. Using the liturgical rites from The Book of Occasional Services creates support in a congregation. Additional resources from Journey to Baptismal Living NAAC (click here) are also helpful.
4. A weekly meeting for the participcants
If you lack the resources to hold weekly sessions, a wise, well-trained sponsor can do the bulk of the work that would happen at a weekly meeting. In other words, liturgy in the presence of the congregation trumps the need for an established weekly “program.”
What About The Content?
Sometimes the catechumenal process can be big on prayer and community-building, but light on the teaching of content. This is something St. Paul’s has wrestled with. Last year a young couple with literally no knowledge of Christianity came to us seeking Baptism. They missed half the weekly meetings and didn’t communicate with their sponsors. Immediately after their baptism they announced that they were getting divorced, and we haven’t seen them since. Their faith and their marriage were fragile, but they didn’t know how to ask for what they needed. This couple needed formal, pre-catechumenal training.
This year St. Paul’s added to the adult formation schedule a weekly meeting in which newcomers were invited to learn about the Catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Through open discussions on the most basic Christian beliefs, we hope to discover potential catechumens and confirmands and to be able to pair them with sponsors. When our catechumenal process begins later in the year, those who do commit to it will at least have engaged the basics of faith on some level.
Space for Questions
For those seeking faith in this postmodern world, the worst enemy is the voice that insists, “Stop asking questions.” The fact that people are asking questions is good news. It means that more people who are different and diverse are coming to a personal faith on their own terms, not just blithely accepting someone else’s beliefs.
On the downside to the questions people are asking about faith is their distinct distrust of the wisdom of ancestors. In some circles, “dogma” has become a dirty word because it sounds suspiciously like it might be made up of clichés and platitudes. But distrusting the wisdom of ancestors is a mistake. Dogma is not hard and unyielding, but flowing and shifting.
Dorothy Sayers said, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.” Until we realize this, we will fail to teach the actual content of Christianity. Our faith is not a rigid set of rules, but a story that we must keep telling, always inviting new generations of people to locate themselves within it.
We must not teach our seekers clichés and platitudes. We don’t say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, we embrace a theology that helps us understand how God speaks to us through the Bible today.
The ancient Catechumenate links a commitment to learning with a hunger for liturgy. Hopefully, this combination will help develop the newly baptized and the congregation that supports them into disciples of Jesus who will keep learning new ways to proclaim the mystery of their faith.
The Rev. Josh Hosler is Associate Priest for Adult Formation at St. Paul’s in Bellingham, Washington. In addition to overseeing the catechumenal process at St. Paul’s, he spends much of his time among the college students of Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.