If you attended an Easter Vigil Mass this year, then you participated in what St. Augustine called the “mother of all holy Vigils”(Sermo 219)—the day the Church receives many new Catholics through the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.
The newly baptized, or “neophytes,” (a Greek word meaning “new plant”) begin a fourth and final period of formation called mystagogy, which lasts the Easter Season until Pentecost. If you haven’t personally participated in the formal process of becoming Catholic as an adult (called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, in parishes), chances are you haven’t heard this word recently… or maybe ever.
What is Mystagogy?
Our faith needs mystagogy first and foremost because of one simple reason: we celebrate and proclaim a mystery.
As evangelists and catechists, I think it is important to recognize that for some people, the idea of religious “mystery” prima facie, conjures up images of a Da Vinci Code-esque Church shrouded in secrecy, New Age spiritualism, or even a pre-scientific belief in “magic.” But the sacraments do not initiate us into a special club or secret society. Through them, we are made participants in the life of Jesus Christ.
Faith begins and ends in mystery, most especially the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, “the central mystery of Christian faith and life . . . the source of all other mysteries of faith” (CCC 234). In the scriptures, liturgy, and sacraments, we truly encounter and participate in the Triune life of God. But no matter how intelligent or insightful we are, we will never fully wrap our minds around God’s glory or totally experience it with our five senses.
Mystagogy comes from the Greek word meaning, “to lead through the mysteries.” The Catechism describes mystagogy as a “liturgical catechesis that aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ” (CCC 1075). Mystagogy leads us from the external signs and rituals of the liturgy to the inner, spiritual meaning of the divine life they signify. Mystagogy is the form of catechesis that helps us unpack and explore the spiritual treasures contained in the sacraments by continuously reflecting on their meaning and significance in our personal lives of faith.
Mystagogy was the way the early Church Fathers embraced and trained new Christians in the practices and beliefs of the faith. Perhaps the most well known teacher of mystagogy was St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 CE), who delivered a famous series of sermons, known as “mystagogic catecheses,” during the time of Lent through the Easter Octave. After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revitalized this ancient practice, especially in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But mystagogy isn’t just for the newly baptized; it is the way every Catholic can continually deepen their relationship with Christ by daily drawing on the grace of the sacraments.
Significance for our New Evangelization
Just as Catholics are rediscovering the importance of the “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) for evangelization, mystagogy is incredibly important in our approach to catechesis in the New Evangelization. John Paul II wrote, “Through catechesis the Gospel kerygma is gradually deepened . . . . and channeled toward Christian practice in the Church and the world” (Catechesi Tradendae, n. 25), specifically the form of mystagogy. Additionally, mystagogy serves as a trustworthy guide when reflecting on ways to improve our catechetical methods.
Living the Mystery Daily
Ongoing mystagogy is important because our relationship with the sacraments change as we grow and mature as individuals and meet new life challenges and circumstances. In turn, the sacraments really change us. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one's life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated” (Sacramentum Caritatis n. 64). By reflecting regularly on the sacraments, we access an incredible strength for our daily tasks.
Developing a practice of Eucharistic mystagogy can combat the routinization that often sets in to our receiving communion. For those who are married, or preparing for marriage, there is a mystagogy of marriage. With ongoing mystagogic reflection, you may discover new fruits of that sacrament in every season of life.
Studying theology and the Bible is often an undervalued way of developing our spiritual life. Learning about someone or something is a sign of love, and we truly become what we behold (cf 2 Cor. 3:18). Reading the great books and sermons of Catholic authors and theologians greatly expands our hearts and minds to experience the truth and depth of our faith.
The great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is attributed as stating, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Mystagogy is the path leading Christians to learn to live the mystery of our faith. I encourage you to follow the path trod by St. Cyril up through popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in making this incredible tradition and gift called “mystagogy” a part of your life.
To learn more about Catechesis, please consider reading the General Directory for Catechesis or the National Directory for Catechesis.
For more resources on Prayer and Catechesis, click here.