Last week I described my exit from the world of full-time secular work. My experience of the Paschal Triduum twenty years ago this month at St Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, Indiana was certainly an eye-opener. I had the immediate hope that all parishes would celebrate the Three Days as fruitfully–maybe every parish needed a liturgist to facilitate this. I didn’t make the immediate connection I wanted to be that person.
My college chum Marianne was in law school at IU. By phone she described briefly how student-friendly the townie parish was. The university’s Newman Center attracted casual Catholics who wanted Mass, if that, and no entanglements. She also told me that had “our CIA” at St Charles. “Your CIA?” I said. “Is that what I think it is?”
The letter “R,” she clarified. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I had no idea. No matter; I would see it in action. Some of her friends were involved. In fact, I would be crashing in the apartment of the godparents.
An aside here. The RCIA “brown book” had been out since 1972, but implementation was fairly spotty to non-existent in my home diocese of Rochester, New York. People who know that diocese by its bishop have the sense it was and is progressive. Really, it’s not. After Fulton Sheen’s attempt to improve race relations and his opposition to the Vietnam War (1966-69), we had a local parish pastor appointed bishop for a decade. Matthew Clark was seen as a throwback, in the sense that he was from Rome. And as a young bishop of the new young pope, he gave the impression at first of being a careerist. Many people disliked him. Plus, there wasn’t much going on liturgically in the diocese. A few parishes had good music programs. Maybe five.
At any rate, my bus came to central Indiana on Holy Thursday afternoon. I was whisked away to a home celebration of a Seder Meal. The liturgy included footwashing, but it wasn’t open as I recall. I joined the community for stations and liturgy on Good Friday. They also prayed the Hours during these days.
In my phone call to my friend, she also explained the Easter Vigil was a little more involved than it was back in our college days. They observed an all-night vigil. My friend was enthusiastic about all this. I said I was probably going to be tired form my travels–maybe I would just go for the start and the finish.
That Saturday was my first experience of an excellent Easter Vigil. The pile of wood for the fire was as tall as I stood. The embers were still warm the next morning. I’m sure we did all nine readings, because by the time the elect and candidates were called forth, the liturgy was already an hour and 45 minutes old. Technically speaking, Easter Vigil didn’t really last from 7:30pm till 7:50 am. We took a pause in active liturgy, while the RCIA community and many parishioners remained for prayer. What else do I remember?
This parish didn’t have an immersion font. So the elect built their own font with a feeding trough, an upper basin, a water pump, and a few wheelbarrows of rocks. By 10:30-ish the plan was complete, and a trickly stream emptied into a pool in the middle of a rock outcropping in the church.
Some of us had an impromptu jam session in the choir loft.
One parishioner was writing out her Easter cards.
Some of us went outside and warmed our hands in front of the fire. One person remarked that if only we had marshmallows to roast.
As a serious law student, my friend Marianne decided she needed her rest and study time. So it was I who stayed up the whole night.
By 6am, the church was fully lit and full of worshipers. I had met one of the elect, a young man named John–he came from a Buddhist Chinese family in San Francisco. They had threatened to disown him if he went through with his conversion to Christianity. But he was a very determined and faith-filled young man. I was seventeen when I was a freshman in college. I don’t know that I would have had the strength and courage to do as he did. But I marveled at his new faith, and his willingness to share his story so freely. RCIA was more than an all-night Easter Vigil. It seemed to do things to people.
We had a pancake breakfast afterward in the church’s social hall. John was still wearing the baptismal garment and the special stole. His godparent (my host) chided him about getting syrup stains on his stole. But John grasped the ends of it and said he was wearing it all week as part of his celebration of being a new Catholic Christian.
That a teenager would endure alienation from a close-knit family: that witness amazed me. I don’t think I went through that weekend with more than a blizzard of experiences and images. But it was as momentous a conversion experience as my first was in 1969-70. When I was ten, I became a believing Catholic Christian. In 1983, I had my first awakening as a disciple. I began to think in terms of doing things, both taking personal initiative in my faith life as well as doing things for others.
I was broke and unemployed. And worse, I had no career, no real prospects for one. And no future. Or so it seemed.
I had nowhere else to go but turn tail and stay at my parents’ house while I started to figure it out. I didn’t see clearly in the Easter of 1983 what was happening. My own sense of being a church minister was slow to waken over the course of the next year. But that’s a post for another day.
I will say that as I look back with fresh eyes on thirty-years-ago, I have a renewed sense of compassion for many of the young people at the Student Center. Especially the eones who have yet to discern a real life’s path. Or who feel that there’s no place out there where they fit. I remember it well. And I can look back on how formative it was for me. But the perspective of three decades is a lot easier than the days when one is trampling through it.