Friday, May 3, 2013

The End of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate and the End of My Pilgrimage

Friday greetings from Udine, Italy.

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.


Mary Amore said...

Jerry, I share in the sadness of your news of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, but we who are baptized priest, prophet, and king, must always remember that it is our mission to carry on the work of those who have gone before us. Thank you for your unwavering dedication to the mission of Christ. Safe journeys home. Dr. Mary Amore, Executive Director Mayslake Ministries

Nick Wagner said...

Hi Jerry. Thanks for your beautiful and thoughtful reflection. I share your sadness. As you know, you were the one who trained me how to be a liturgist for Forum institutes. I remember how passionate you were (and are!) about the vision of the RCIA. Through you and so many other wonderful colleagues, the Forum has been responsible for shaping my own ministry. Thanks for your commitment and dedication to all of this.


Barbara Stanton said...

I'm very sad to hear the announcement of the end of The North American Forum on the Catechumenate. In 1990 I was in my second year in a parish as the DRE. The RCIA director was moving on and the new pastor asked if I would be willing to take the position. I told him that I didn't know much about RCIA, but he assured me that he felt that I had the necessary gifts to coordinate this process. He also told me of a Beginnings and Beyond Institute that was being held in our archdiocese that summer. Reluctantly, I said OK. I'm so glad that I listened to the promptings of the Spirit. It was a beginning of a journey that continues to this day. I still work with the ongoing process of RCIA. I've taken this vision with me as I've moved on to different parishes. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for that first institute and 6 others that I've attended over the years. I always stand in awe of what moves people to begin this journey. It truly confirms to me the work of the Spirit in people's lives. I've journeyed with many people over the years and my own faith has been enriched from those I've supported on their journeys. I'm so grateful to Forum and the teams that have shaped my life with their experiences. I've been apart of some of the institutes where you've been on the team. Continued blessings on your ministry. God bless.

Dolores Martinez said...

Thank you for your eloquence in expressing what is in so many of our hearts. I became a Forum team member the same year you did, and, yes, while extrememly sad, also deeply thankful. Thanks for posting pictures of these fonts. You've peaked my interest about the trip in 2014. Blessings & safe home.

Gabrielle Suthers, Bolton, Ontario said...

Well Jerry,you can be assured that the Forum has affected my life, and that of many of my friends. It's a sad, sad day when we realise the truth of what you write. But don't worry, you know that our God is much bigger than leaving you with nothing to do. If you don't know by now, then it's going to be a very interesting few weeks or months ahead. Hang in, there's life in the old dog yet!!!

George R. Hoelzeman said...

So sorry to hear of the Forum's impending demise. I attended my first Beginnings and Beyond conference back in 1989 and it launched me on a 24 year journey with the Catechumenate. I still make use of what I learned from the Forum's work.

Thanks for all you and the other team members have done over the decades. The Church is stronger for it.

Denise Anderson said...

Thank you Jerry for such a great tribute to the Forum. It is a great loss... I hope we can find a way to keep the fire burning, so that parishes can do the same and know the value and ferment of Christian initiation in its fullness.

And - thanks for your great contribution to the Forum; your spirit, commitment, and evangelization. God will make a way. Thanks for your part in paving the way. Those whom you have formed to know the value of the RCIA will not easily forget.

Many blessings on your travels. I will keep you in my prayers. Thank you again for all you are contributing to the Church through your commitment, dedication, truth, and joy.

Here is a reflection from another pilgrim, that you might enjoy for your own.

"I had been changed by this pilgrimage, but I do not expect to know how for a long time. Though on this Sunday morning I knew the pilgrimage had reached some sort of completion, it had not ended. This symbolic microcosm of the inner journey had to find its resonances with the longer, day-to-day pilgrimage. Perhaps my inability to know when it ended was a pricise reflection of its inner parallel. We were resuming our day-to-day lives, our journeys of perpetual pilgrimage. This pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury had not ended on arrival any more than life ends with death. But I did feel that I understood better where the sacred place is to be found."

Shirley du Boulay, "The Road to Caterbury"

Todd said...

I've noted the thinning of Forum offerings for the past decade or more. It's hard to tell casually: did Forum do its job really well in the 80's and 90's? Well enough that most all of those inclined to implement RCIA have been reached? Or perhaps the priorities of bishops have shifted away from evangelization, even as some give it lip service?

I attended seven Forum institutes as an attendee or presenter from 1989 to 1994. Jerry mentored me as a musician in '91. I have fond memories and good stories from those experiences.

Denise Morency Gannon said...

You're in my blog this week. Thank you for all of your words. Even though I don't often find time to comment,know that your words always find a place in my thoughts and often in my heart.

With thanks,