March 10, 2024 –
The Fourth Sunday of Lent [Year B]

Fr. Matt Siegman

On the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent this year, we notice that there are two different options for our readings at Mass. Depending on your Missal, one set is usually marked with a note about Christian Initiation of Adults, a scrutiny, or catechumens. I thought it would be good to take a step back and ask ourselves: what are these “scrutinies” and why do they have different readings?

As we approach easter, those wishing to enter the Church enter what is called the “Period of Purification and Enlightenment.” At this point in their journey to join the Catholic Church, we call them the “elect.” During this time, the elect are called to leave aside the things of this world, to purify their hearts, and open them to the light of Christ. It is a time when their resolve to become Christian is tested. Lent is a challenging time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for those of us who are Christian and receive the sacraments: Imagine the challenge of not yet being Catholic and still being asked to do these same works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving!

The Church, in her desire to assist, strengthen, and inspire the elect, celebrates three scrutinies. The scrutinies are meant to assist the elect as they search for the weakness and sin in their hearts so that they might offer it to our Lord for healing. They are meant to assist them and protect them against the power of sin and Satan. They are meant to strengthen them is all that is right and just as they seek the Lord, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

In order to do these things, the Church directs our attention to three particular moments in the Gospel: the Meeting of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Healing of the Man Born Blind, and the Raising of Lazarus. Each of these moments in scripture remind us of the healing power with which Christ strengthens us. There is nothing beyond the power of our Lord: he heals our broken and sinful hearts, he opens our eyes to the truth of reality, and he conquers even death itself. (Without breaking a sweat, I might add.)

After calling to mind God’s action in history through our communal reading of Sacred Scripture, we then invite the elect to come forward so that we might offer intentions specifically for them, for their conversion to Christ, and for their healing from anything that might stand in between them and our Lord. After the prayers of the congregation, the priest then prays a prayer of exorcism over the elect, so that any power of evil that might have hold of them will be cast out. So often, we think that exorcisms are big, flashy things like in the movies, but the reality is that most exorcisms never rise to that level. Any time we prepare someone for baptism, whether they are an adult or a child, the priest will command every influence of evil to leave the person before the baptism takes place. That is what is happening here. Each of these beautiful prayers reference the Gospel read earlier at Mass, casting out a particular spirit of evil, and asking for a specific grace to take root in the heart of each of the elect.

After these prayers are complete, the elect are, ideally, sent out before Mass continues. While this might seem strange, it is an ancient practice of our church. Because they are not yet Catholic, they are not only unable to fully participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but they are not yet ready to join us. St. Paul teaches that those who are not ready for “solid food” are given “milk” until they are no longer “of the flesh.” (1 Cor 3:1-3) In practice, many parishes invite the elect to stay at Mass as a sign of hope in the graces which they will soon receive.

Finally, on these Sundays, after the elect are dismissed, we do not stop praying for them and their godparents. We remember the godparents of the elect specifically in special prayers inserted in the Eucharistic prayers at Mass. When the Church does things like this—adding to the Eucharistic prayers—we should take note that this is something the Church finds incredibly important and allow it to be a call to prayer for the elect and for those entrusted with guiding them as godparents.

Whether we were baptized as children or as adults, we were all in the place of the elect at one point in our life. Let us never forget this as we pray for those who desire to join us at Easter.