How the scrutinies teach

The three scrutinies are at the core of the Lenten journey of conversion for the whole community.

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By Jerry Galipeau

“Jerry, you’ve been parading these people around here for months and now you want to have us scrutinizing them? I don’t think so!” These words, spoken by my pastor in the earliest years of the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, initiated a discussion that helped us both clarify the meaning and potential power of the scrutinies for our parish. A helpful visual demonstration set the course for our preparations for the celebrations. I picked up the Lectionary for Mass, opened it to the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A (the Samaritan woman at the well), and placed that open book over my heart. I said to the pastor, “It is not we who scrutinize the Elect; it is the living Word of God that scrutinizes them, and us.”

The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. (RCIA , 141)

The celebrations of the three scrutinies on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent are at the core of the lenten journey of conversion for not only the Elect, but for the entire parish who walks with them. The scrutinies are perhaps the simplest in structure of all the various rites that are celebrated as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Following the proclamation of the word and the homily, the Elect are called forward. Once they bow their heads or kneel, all pray in silence for some time. Then the intercessions are read or chanted. The exorcism, performed in three segments, is then prayed: the first segment is a prayer addressed to God the Creator; the second is a laying on of hands; the third is a prayer addressed to the Lord Jesus. A song may be sung following the exorcism. Finally, the Elect are sent forth from the assembly to reflect on the word proclaimed and the rite celebrated.

Key elements
There are three keys to celebrating a scrutiny well. The first—and most important—is grasping the fact that it is God’s word, living and active, that actually “does” the scrutinizing. Lectors, deacons, and priests must proclaim the Scriptures on the scrutiny Sundays boldly, growing out of the fundamental belief in the potential the sacred words have to change the lives of both the Elect and the members of the assembly.

The second key is a strong adaptation of the intercessions for the Elect. If the scrutinies have the power to “to uncover, then heal all that is weak,” and “bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good,” the intercessions can be a prime moment to support the rite’s stated purpose. The intercessory prayers in the ritual text, while good prayers, can fall short in supporting the rite’s stated purpose of the scrutiny. Many parishes hold a preparation session prior to the scrutiny during which one of the upcoming scrutiny Sunday’s Scripture texts is proclaimed. This text is used as a scrutinizing tool to get the Elect to name areas in their lives and in our world that are weak or sinful, as well as areas that are strong and good. These named areas of sin and goodness are then used when crafting the intercessions. Processes to prepare the intercessions for all three scrutinies can be found in Chosen in Christ/Elegidos en Cristo (World Library Publications). Chanting the intercessions will help underscore their power.

The third key is a strong praying of the exorcism. The celebrant should proclaim the prayers boldly. Chanting them will assist in the proclamation. The laying on of hands should take place with simplicity and intentionality, always in silence. Placing the Elect and their godparents in the aisles throughout the assembly will not only engage the assembly in the liturgical action, but will make for a slow and deliberate ritual moment. The song following the exorcism can help punctuate the entire action.

School of faith
The liturgy, by its very nature, teaches. Liturgy has been described using the Latin term locus theologicus, the “place or site where theology is expressed.” What do the celebrations of the scrutinies teach? The answer to this question will vary, depending on the particular scrutiny and the manner in which it is celebrated. The rite clues us into the scrutiny’s intention. “[T]he scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life” (RCIA 141).

The scrutinies, then, have the potential to teach what is at the core of the Christian journey: deliverance from the power of sin and Satan and strength in Christ. They do this by placing the Scriptures, particularly the gospel texts of the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus in direct conversation with the realities of sin and goodness present in the lives of the Elect and members of the assembly, society, and the world. This conversation uncovers what is weak and defective and brings out and strengthens what is good. Bold proclamation of these texts, powerful preaching, and solid celebration of the ritual will combine to accomplish this teaching.

Mystagogical method
Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter, Mane nobiscum Domine, which he wrote to inaugurate the recent Year of the Eucharist, spoke about the importance of reflecting on the liturgy. “The best way to enter into the mystery of salvation made present in the sacred ‘signs’ remains that of following faithfully the unfolding of the liturgical year. Pastors should be committed to that ‘mystagogical’ catechesis so dear to the Fathers of the Church, by which the faithful are helped to understand the meaning of the liturgy’s words and actions, to pass from its signs to the mystery which they contain, and to enter into that mystery in every aspect of their lives.” Many parishes use a process of liturgical reflection—or mystagogical catechesis—to help the Elect, their godparents, initiation team members, and members of the assembly plumb the depths of the ritual experience. This session for liturgical reflection, held some time following the celebration of the scrutiny, should be used consistently throughout the initiation journey. Simple questions can help the participants in this process discover exactly what the liturgies of the scrutinies are teaching. Here are some examples:

  • What did you notice about the rite?
  • What did you see and hear?
  • What touched you most deeply about the rite?
  • How did you experience the presence of the Lord?
  • What did the rite proclaim about your own sin and weakness?
  • What did it proclaim about the sins present in society and in the world?
  • How did the rite proclaim and strengthen your own goodness?
  • How did the rite proclaim and strengthen the goodness in society and the world?
  • What are the areas where you feel drawn to grow more into the image of Christ?

The scrutinies offer opportunities to engage in a three-movement process that will help form the Elect and the Christian assembly: preparation, celebration, and reflection. This process will shape the conversion journey of Lent for the entire parish and lead to a renewal of this liturgical season in ways that we have only begun to experience. 

Jerry Galipeau

Jerry Galipeau is worship resources editor at World Library Publications in Schiller Park, Illinois. He has served as director of liturgy and music in parishes in Florida and Illinois. He has been a North American Forum on the Catechumenate team member since 1998 and presents workshops on initiation, music, and liturgy throughout the U.S. and Canada for parishes and dioceses.