7. The steps lead to periods of inquiry and growth; alternately the periods may also be seen as preparing for the ensuing step.
1. The first period consists of inquiry on the part of the candidates and of evangelization and the precatechumenate on the part of the Church. It ends with the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens.
Catechumenate directors I know have sometimes differentiated the first and second periods thus: the inquirers set the agenda in the precatechumenate with their questions; the Church sets the agenda in the catechumenate with guidance and teaching. I’m not sure I absolutely agree. The rite suggests the inquiry period is a time for the first preaching the gospel. Yes, questions and concerns should be addressed, but the precatechumenate is a time for hearing the Gospel. Ritually, this means liturgy of the Word, celebrated so that inquirers may hear and begin their apprenticeship in responding to the Word.
2. The second period, which begins with the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens and may last for several years, includes catechesis and the rites connected with catechesis. It comes to an end on the day of election.
Note what the rite says: this period may last for several years. Who determines how long? It would seem to end when the catechumen has nearly completed the needed catechesis.
3. The third and much shorter period, which follows the rite of election, ordinarily coincides with the Lenten preparation for the Easter celebration and the sacraments of initiation. It is a time of purification and enlightenment and includes the celebration of the rites belonging to this period.
4. The final period extends through the whole Easter season and is devoted to the postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy. It is a time for deepening the Christian experience, for spiritual growth, and for entering more fully into the life and unity of the community.
A few words about these two periods, linked as they are to the Church’s liturgical year. Lent is associated with a realignment to Christ. While there are other times in life when the believer is confronted with the need for conversion and renewal, the beauty of Lent is that it happens for everyone, the whole Church, at this time. The readings and prayers and music are harmonized and point to that singular effort.
Likewise that troublesome period of mystagogy. The rite is clear on its threefold emphasis: deepen the Christian experience, which I would interpret as primarily liturgical; spiritual growth, which would seem to lead people to deeper prayer even after the observance of Lent; and integration into community life, which I would think involves both the social aspects of parish life as well as the apostolate in which the parishioners engage.
Thus there are four continuous periods: the precatechumenate, the period for hearing the first preaching of the Gospel (nos. 36-40); the period of the catechumenate, set aside for a thorough catechesis and for the rites belonging to this period (nos. 75-117); the period of purification and enlightenment (Lenten preparation), designed for a more intense spiritual preparation, which is assisted by the celebration of the scrutinies and presentations (nos. 138-205); and the period of postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy, marked by the new experience of sacraments and community (nos. 244-251)
I’ll have much more to say about these periods as they come up on the radar screen. For now, I would comment that the four periods do not have an absolute segregation in terms of their aims and characteristics. Catechesis, for example, happens in all four. But the catechesis of each is directed in a certain way. Likewise liturgy: one can expect period one to introduce the basics, period two to establish a long pattern, period three to be the most intense, period four to see the newcomers blended into the whole community. If there is a sameness in catechesis, liturgy, preaching, and so forth all throughout the journey of catechumens, I would suggest the parish and its leadership haven’t adequately absorbed the ideas behind the stages.