As I was about to sit down and write this blog post, I received an e-mail from the offices of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate in Washington, D.C. I have been a Forum team member since about 1987 and served on their Board of Directors and chaired that Board until November of 1999. The e-mail was from the current Board of Directors, announcing the dissolution of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, effective June 30, 2013. Many of us have been aware of the financial challenges facing Forum for a number of years, chiefly due to the decline in attendance at Forum's RCIA training institutes. The reasons for this drop in attendance are varied. I believe there are two chief reasons: 1. Lack of funds on a parish and diocesan level for training of persons in the RCIA; 2. A growing decline in the perceived importance of the full implementation of the Rite in parishes and dioceses.
To say that I am sad would be an understatement. I simply would not be sitting here in Udine, Italy, after having spent two weeks scouring the North Italian countryside for baptisteries and baptism fonts had it not been for the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. Had Forum's founder, Fr. Jim Dunning, not visited our parish in Florida in 1986 and seen something in a young music and liturgy directory there that told him that there was something in this 28 year-old kid that might help the initiating Church, I don't know where my life in ministry would have gone.
And this is simply nothing compared to the tens of thousands of Catholic clergy, vowed religious, and lay men and women who have been trained by Forum through institutes, writings, and a commitment to a mission and vision for the implementation of the Rite. Jim Dunning himself often expressed the view that Forum should only be around for a few years, after which dioceses would be able to provide the training themselves. Perhaps his vision and viewpoint has only now come to fulfillment; it has taken not a few years, but thirty. Unfortunately, with the budget cuts faced by so many dioceses, I am not sure if they will be able to do the kind of training sorely needed in this field. Other dioceses have taken on the training and done a marvelous job. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is not another "program," like RENEW, or CHIRP, or ACTS. RCIA is at the heart of the Church's sacramental life: it is baptism; it is confirmation; it is Eucharist. The North American Forum on the Catechumenate helped so many see that vision and put it into practical and pastoral practice. My hope is that this was enough of an impetus to keep the power and potential of the baptismal catechumenate moving forward.
Back in the mid-1990's, I helped lead a pilgrimage through northern Italy that was sponsored by Forum. That pilgrimage did more for the development of my own baptismal spirituality and my commitment to help others cultivate a baptismal spirituality than anything else in my life. This is the main reason why instead of two weeks at the beach for vacation, I am here searching out places to help prepare another pilgrimage for other people in 2014. It was Forum that enabled all of this to happen in the first place.
I am deeply sad and deeply grateful all at the same time. I think of those team members, like Jim Dunning and Christiane Brusselmans, and so many others who shaped my life. I think about the scores of Forum team members with whom I worked and ministered all over the United States and Canada. I think of the thousands of good Catholics who shared their own stories of conversion at our institutes over the years. I think of diocesan leaders who committed themselves to hosting those week-long "Beginnings and Beyond" institutes for so many, many years, as well as other institutes. I think about the present and former staff members of Forum's national office. Most of all, I think of the hundreds of thousands of people whose life journey brought them to the Catholic Church and who moved along a road of conversion and formation, ministered to by people who had been trained and formed by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.
Perhaps it is fitting to share these last images of my baptism pilgrimage, which is drawing to an end. These are some of the oldest baptisteries in the world, found on the coast of northern Italy, in the ancient cities of Aquileia and Grado. I first encountered these on Forum's pilgrimage. When I encountered them again yesterday, I was struck by the fact that billions have been baptized as Christians since these holy places were established some time in the fourth century. As I need to say my own farewell to Forum, I do have a deep sense, especially when seeing the long history of the Church's initiatory sacramental life, that the work of evangelization, conversion, and baptismal practice will go on and billions more will "put on Christ" at fonts all over the world.
First, Aquileia. The church was built in the year 313 and was the scene of a historic anti-Arian Council in 381, which was attended by Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome.
The frescoes in the crypt show the early Christian practice of baptism by immersion:
And here is an image of the baptism of four women, all at the same time in the same font:
This is the original fourth-century baptism font found in the ruins excavated beneath the piazza next to the current church.
And here is the later fifth-century baptistery and hexagonal font in the baptistery. The restoration work done since I last visited is exquisite.
And, finally, the baptistery at the cathedral of Saint Euphemia in Grado, several miles to the south of Aquileia:
On this day when I am mourning the apparent end of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, I am grateful for all that Forum has meant in my own life. And, by extension, to you, the faithful readers of Gotta Sing Gotta Pray, I hope that my Catholic formation by Forum has enriched your own.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.