Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
____________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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5 Responses to “Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA”

  1. nancyv January 23, 2017 at 8:56 am #

    This is really good! I’d like to share this with our RCIA team. Thank you.

  2. Loye Young January 23, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    The similarity between RCIA and AA is not accidental. The spiritual principles of AA were worked out by Bill Wilson with the help of two clergymen, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker (an Episcopal priest who was the leader of the Oxford Group Movement in the US) and The Rev. Edward (“Father Ed”) Dowling, S.J. (a Jesuit priest who noticed the similarity between the Steps and the Ignatian Exercises). Mr. Shoemaker helped Bill come up with the 12 Steps, and Father Ed was Bill’s confidant and spiritual adviser. Father Ed (along with The Rev. John Ford, S.J.) also helped edit AA’s companion text “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”.

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