The last decades have witnessed, both in scientific and in popular fields, the multiplication of studies and research relating to Christian initiation, especially after the publication of the Ordo initiationis christianae adultorum (OICA) and the reintroduction of the institution of the catechumenate, as recommended by the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium (n. 64). On the one hand, this choice of the liturgical reform was a response to concrete instances of pastoral exigencies regarding sacramental care presented by Council Fathers, especially those from mission lands who asked for the modus procedendi in welcoming new members into the Church or, as Tertullian would put it, “in becoming Christians”. On the other hand, the conciliar decision to recover the catechumenate clearly showed the will of the conciliar fathers to return to the source of the Christian faith and its celebrative praxis. The return to the ancient Christian practice would also have occasioned the recovery of the profound unity of the sacraments of Christian initiation, as recalled by Sacrosanctum concilium (n. 71), later taken up by OICA, with a unitary celebration and the correct succession of the three sacraments.
Although the basic idea of this reform was certainly praiseworthy, some difficulty still attends the reintroduction of the Christian initiation of adults, especially given that today the adults who ask for the sacrament of baptism are few and far between. The traditional practice of infant baptism remains the mainstay of sacramental pastoral care. It will be recalled that from the 5th century, the predominance of infant baptism led to the gradual disappearance of the catechumenate and the emergence of a non-unitary celebration of the three sacraments. Further, there arose an inversion of the order in which the three sacraments were administered, especially since it was impossible for the bishop to be present in different communities for the administration of the sacrament of confirmation («si episcopus adest seu episcopus abest», as provided by the sacramentaries of the 8th century): the latter, the second sacrament of the dynamism which few centuries earlier was called “Christian initiation”, would then take the place of the Eucharist, the summit of the initiation itself. Though the inverted order of the three sacraments may augur well for some pastoral contexts, it goes against the grain of the “logical” and “theological” understanding of the intrinsic connection and the consequentiality of the three sacraments in the maturation of faith and in the gradual internalization of the Mystery celebrated in the liturgy, manifested fully in the correct sacramental order handed down to us by Tradition: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.
A further development can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Penitential of Theodore, dating back to between the 7th and the 8th centuries. This Penitential reports that «penitentes secundum canones non debent communicare ante consummationem poenitentialium», urging penitents not to communicate before receiving the sacrament of penance – which practice would later be codified by Lateran Council IV. The sacrament of reconciliation will thus be interposed in the dynamism of Christian initiation. Consequently, from being a sacrament possessed of its own theological identity, albeit in intra-sacramental relation with the other sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation risks becoming (at least in pastoral practice) a sacrament that prepares for the reception of the other sacraments, being placed between baptism and the Eucharist, and, consequently, preparatory to the other sacraments. This pastoral practice creates a “new sacramental paradigm” that underpins pastoral care but which will inevitably give rise to some reactions in the field of theology. This is the question and problem taken up by the research of Willy Ngongo-Omatete, liturgist, published as the second volume of the series Ecclesia orans. Ricerche. His book, entitled Naissance et re-naissance. Dynamiques interactives entre l’initiation chrétienne et la reconciliation, is a unique contribution in the field of the sacraments of Christian initiation, for it is the first study in this area to address “head on” the question of the insertion of reconciliation within the confines of the “sacramental area” of Christian initiation. The author treats this question as a problem inasmuch as, in the words of the author, it compromises, to some extent, the coherence among orthodoxy, orthopraxis and orthopateia; it leads to the short-circuiting of lex credendi from both lex orandi and lex celebrandi.
On the one hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and theological reflection, solidly founded on OICA, insist on the traditional succession of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist and, only then, reconciliation, which sequence is based on theology, with constant reference to the Fathers. On the other hand, catechetical and celebrative praxis in the dioceses (with rare exceptions) upset this order by putting reconciliation in the second position and by placing Eucharist ahead of confirmation. Ngongo-Omatete tackles the quaestio disputata with competence and dexterity, interfacing his reflection with historical, patristic, liturgical and magisterial sources. His work also enters into dialogue with various theological reflections which, in all sincerity, have been unable, on account of their lack of depth, to bring all the relevant knowledge to bear on the question. The author, after a clear and even scrupulous status questionis, does not forget to offer his own proposal which may meet with favour in today’s pastoral praxis.
The book is therefore a milestone in sacramentology, especially with regard to the relation between the sacrament of reconciliation and Christian initiation in its sacramental integrity. The author purports to help sacramentology to read from the correct vantage point this relation which nonetheless preserves the Eucharistic celebration as its source and summit. In his post-synodal Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis of 22 February, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called to mind the rediscovery of the intimate relation among and the order in the administration of the sacraments of Christian initiation (cf. nn. 17-18). The work of Ngongo-Omatete is thus a significant contribution and concrete response, from the scientific arena, to the call of Pope Benedict XVI, as we wait in hope for the coming of a new pastoral spring imbued with the wisdom capable of translating theological and magisterial reflection into good ecclesial practice.