RCIA 331-369 covers “Christian Initiation of Adults in Exceptional Circumstances.” We will examine the explanatory section (331-339) in detail. The remainder of the section gives rubrics and ritual texts for the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist. When we get to that, we’ll take things a bit more quickly, just touching on comparisons to the Easter Vigil.
First, note that the bishop, not the parish priest or catechumenate director, makes the determination:
331. Exceptional circumstances may arise in which the local bishop, in individual cases, can allow the use of a form of Christian initiation that is simpler than the usual, complete rite (see RCIA 34.4).
The bishop also has flexibility in his discernment:
The bishop may permit this simpler form to consist in the abbreviated form of the rite (RCIA 340-369) that is carried out in one celebration. Or he may permit an expansion of this abbreviated rite, so that there are celebrations not only of the sacraments of initiation, but also one or more of the rites belonging to the period of the catechumenate and to the period of purification and enlightenment (see RCIA 332-335).
What might these “exceptional circumstances” be, that a bishop’s authority must be invoked for their use? You might be surprised as to what the rite tells us:
The extraordinary circumstances in question are either events that prevent the candidate from completing all the steps of the catechumenate or a depth of Christian conversion and a degree of religious maturity that lead the local bishop to decide that the candidate may receive baptism without delay.
Recall that in this rite, we are speaking of the unbaptized. Uncatechized Christians are treated in RCIA 400-472. If a person is in danger of death, we will turn to sections 370-399. It might be that in largely Christian societies, that some unbaptized people will come to the Church with a well-developed Christian sensibility. I suspect that there is a twofold reason why the framers of the rite desired that exceptional cases be referred to the bishop. First, the bishop is the traditional guardian of the catechumenate. The Church is much larger and more complex than when the local Church’s leader would personally monitor catechumens and judge their progress. I suppose that the framers wanted to give parishes flexibility to raise up a religiously precocious candidate (like Saint Ambrose), while discouraging the process for the cases that would be clearly borderline or possibly frivolous. Want to get baptized early? Let’s talk to the bishop.
In the next post, we’ll look at those “events” referenced in RCIA 331. The rite expands a bit on the possibilities there. But for now, any questions or comments?