The St. Nicholas Catholic Church building is an imposing gothic structure on Ridge Avenue in south Evanston whose tall steeple is a visible landmark. The parish was founded by German-speaking Luxembourgers in 1887 who embraced German-speaking Catholic immigrants from Germany and Poland who lived in nearby communities. The neo-gothic structure was erected in 1904-06.
St. Nicholas Parish has served a variety of other immigrant groups over the years. African-American Catholics became a growing element within the St. Nicholas Parish during the Evanston school busing conversations in the 1960s. Caribbean Blacks, especially from Haiti, and Blacks from various African nations followed in later decades. And the closing of Ascension Parish in 1990 brought a thriving Hispanic community to St. Nicholas and reestablished the parish as a multilingual community with a significant immigrant population.
An extensive renovation and reconfiguration of the interior took place over a period of nine years beginning in 1991. One notable feature of the renewal is the placement of the altar, at the crossing of the nave and transept, with seating for the assembly circling it. Another striking addition to the space is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted by renowned Mexican artist Octavio Ocampo. I think the most notable new feature is a baptismal pool located in what had been the chancel area of the old configuration. A main door from the parking lot alongside the Pope John XXIII School brings worshipers into the building through the apse. The space and the altar were dedicated by Francis Cardinal George on June 5th, 2000.
Hispanic ministry, social ministry outreach, and liturgical renewal all flourished under the pastor emeritus, Father Robert Oldershaw. Several lay members who worked for Liturgy Training Institute of the Archdiocese of Chicago and served on the Board of The Liturgical Conference undoubtedly made a contribution to the vibrant liturgical life of the parish. Not the least of these liturgical developments was an Easter Vigil that has become the liturgical high point of the year and the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) with its catechumenate. The RCIA has been in the parish since 1982.
The catechumenal process is coordinated by Sister Christina Fuller, osf. Sr. Christina is officially the Director of Religious Education of the parish. I visited with Sr. Christina in the St. Nicholas Rectory. What follows is the content of my interview and Sr. Christina’s answers to my questions. This is not a verbatim, but she has seen and agreed to this report.
I first asked about her role in the RCIA at St. Nick’s. She said that she has coordinated the RCIA team since 1995. The RCIA team consists of volunteer members of the parish who recruit and train sponsors and catechists.
How are candidates for the RCIA gathered at St. Nick’s? Every available means is used. Invitations are placed in the parish bulletin in August because the catechumenal program begins in September. Parishioners invite their friends to seek baptism. Some people respond after seeing the rites celebrated at the Easter Vigil or from attending masses during Holy Week and desiring to make a deeper commitment. People inquire. Sr. Christina said that many call in January, perhaps because of making a New Year’s Resolution to get baptized.
Sr. Christina distinguished between different categories of persons who participate in the RCIA. Among those who inquire are some people who identify themselves as Catholics but had never received the sacraments. Some African-Americans and Hispanics, for example, might have grown up in a family that considered itself Catholic but they were not raised in the church. But there may also be inquirers who were baptized as young children but were not confirmed or communed. There are also people who come from other Christian traditions who need to be received into the Catholic faith. So the persons who are enrolled in the catechumenate are distinguished in terms of catechumens who need full initiation, candidates who are completing initiation (Confirmation and First Communion), and baptized candidates from other Christian traditions who are making a full profession of faith. But they all go through the same formation because, as Sr. Christina said, they witness to one another. And sometimes inquirers have already done some studying of Catholicism before being enrolled and may know more than others.
How many catechumens and candidates are you dealing with, on average? In recent years the number of catechumens and candidates has ranged from 7 to 13. But there is a great diversity in this small group. They might be multi-lingual and multi-cultural: from Nigeria, Brazil, and Spanish-speakers. They may range in age from children through older adults. Sometimes a whole family is preparing for initiation. If possible, younger children are placed in a separate group.
Are young children baptized at the Easter Vigil? Sr. Christina said no, except if a whole family is baptized together. The baptism of young children takes place on Easter Day and at other times. Some parents prefer a separate day for the baptism of their young children.
Are sponsors recruited for every catechumen and candidate? Yes. The team looks for people who practice their faith and can walk with their candidate not only through the catechumenal process but for a year after their baptism. The sponsors are expected to contact the newly-baptized at least once a month for a year after their baptism.
In terms of the content of the catechumenal program, I asked if catechumens are engaged in acts of ministry. Sr. Christina said that the parish RCIA team has not intentionally provided for this, but that sponsors may also bring the catechumens and candidates into the activities of the parish, including social ministry projects such as soup kitchens.
How often do the catechumens and sponsors meet? There are weekly meetings from September through Easter, and then after Baptism until Pentecost.
What would be the content of the catechesis? Sr. Christina said that the study of Scripture, especially from the Sunday lectionary, is primary. This includes discussion of how to read the Bible. Theological issues are addressed. Who is God? Who is Christ? The concept of sacramentality is explored along with the sacraments observed in the Catholic Church. The Church’s moral teachings are also presented and what it means to be the Church.
I noted that in the ancient church instruction on the sacraments or mysteries (mystagogy) took place after the newly baptized had experienced Baptism and Holy Communion. Sr. Christina agreed that this was so. The post-baptismal classes at St. Nick’s discuss how Christians live the sacramental life.
The rites of election and the scrutinies are intended to be public rites in the RCIA. How are those handled at St. Nick’s? Sr. Christina said that all catechumens in all the parishes of the archdiocese are presented to the archbishop during Lent. This happens five times during Lent. Holy Name Cathedral is filled each time with catechumens, their sponsors, and families. The point is that they are not becoming members of a parish but of the Catholic Church. So there has to be a way for the bishop to be involved in the process of Christian initiation. This was the practice of Cardinal George and it is expected to continue under Archbishop Cupich.
The handing over of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer takes place in the catechumenal class sessions and these texts are repeated back at Morning Prayer on Holy Saturday.
We talked about the practice of Baptism and First Communion at the Easter Vigil at St. Nick’s. I noted the impressive baptismal pool that has been installed in the sanctuary and asked how baptism in the pool is handled. Sr. Christina replied that the candidates know they will get wet, so they are told to wear something suitable. They have not taken to wearing bathing suits (Easter can be pretty cold in the Chicago area), but they might wear old pants and a t-shirt. They also remove shoes and socks. They kneel down in the water and water is poured over their heads. They will dry off, change clothes, and put on an alb afterward.
What about the pastor? Fr. Bill Tkachuk also goes barefoot into the pool wearing an alb and stole. He changes vestments afterward.
(I didn’t ask, but I assume that suitable songs—litanies, psalms, hymns—are sung while everyone is changing clothes.)
In the Eucharist the newly baptized present the bread and wine at the offertory. They also stand around the altar to receive First Communion as a group. (The altar stands at the crossing of the gothic transcepts on a circular platform.)
I asked about Confirmation, since that is usually administered by the bishop in the Catholic Church. Sr. Christina said that the archbishop gives authority to parish pastors to confirm those who are baptized at the Easter Vigil. The bishop’s involvement with these candidates is at the rite of election. Otherwise the baptized have to be confirmed at the cathedral or when the bishop comes annually to visit the parish.
Finally, I asked Sr. Christina for her assessment of the RCIA in general and its use at St. Nick’s. She replied that “it is always a process, never a program.” People come into the catechumenate with different motives and needs and there is always the issue of balancing individual need with the communal life of the Church. Those who are enrolled as catechumens need to be committed to the process. “If they are not committed to the process, they may not be committed as Christians,” she said. Sr. Christina added, “I tell people that if I’m working too hard to help you, this may not be the right time for you to be making this journey.” (This struck me as good advice for all pastors!)
In conclusion, Sr. Christina said, “The RCIA works at St. Nick’s because of good liturgies and good catechists. Sponsors are also key. They have to make the faith journey with the candidates.”