Part of the distinctive character of Lent is the preparation for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night. In this regard, there are several special liturgical rites that take place during Lent, the first one being the Rite of Election on the First Sunday in Lent. After this rite, catechumens are more specifically referred to as elect, a “catechumen judged by the community… as worthy to move to the second stage of Christian Initiation, namely, the period of purification” (Rev. Jovian P. Lang, OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy (1989), p. 176).
The liturgical rites specific to this “period of purification” are known as the scrutinies.
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. These rites, therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all (The Roman Ritual: Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1988), n. 141).
In the ancient Church, there were originally three scrutinies before the number was eventually increased to seven.
From the Middle Ages onwards owing to the fact that most who received baptism were infants the prescribed scrutinies were reduced… The subject-matter of these scrutinies was the faith and dispositions of the candidate (William Fanning, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), vol. 13).
Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the scrutinies were restored as part of the new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a book of The Roman Ritual that is currently undergoing a new translation and will soon be more accurately known as the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA).
In the scrutinies the elect are gradually instructed about “the mystery of sin, from which the whole world and every person longs to be delivered and thus saved from its present and future consequences… From the first to the final scrutiny the elect should progress in their perception of sin and their desire for salvation” (RCIA, n. 143).
The Roman Missal contains proper ritual Masses for the celebration of the scrutinies, which are ordinarily celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent. At Mass for the Third Scrutiny on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the celebrant prays the following collect:
Grant, O Lord, to these chosen ones that, instructed in the holy mysteries, they may receive new life at the font of Baptithat sm and be numbered among the members of your Church.
The readings for used for Masses for the celebration of the scrutinies are always those assigned in Year A for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent. The scrutinies are celebrated “in order to inspire in the elect a desire for purification and redemption by Christ”, filling the spirits of the elect “with Christ the Redeemer, who is the living water (gospel of the Samaritan woman in the first scrutiny), the light of the world (gospel of the man born blind in the second scrutiny), the resurrection and the life (gospel of Lazarus in the third scrutiny)” (RCIA, n. 143).
The scrutinies take place immediately after the homily with an invitation to silent prayer. Then follows the intercessions for the elect, the exorcism, and the dismissal of the elect. At the invitation to silent prayer, the celebrant says: “Elect of God, bow your heads (or kneel down) and pray”. After a period of silent prayer, the intercessions for the elect are prayed by all in attendance.
Let us pray for these elect whom the Church has confidently chosen. May they successfully complete their long preparation and at the paschal feast find Christ in His sacraments… that they may remain faithful to Him and boldly give witness to the words of eternal life… may the grace of the sacraments conform them to Christ in His passion and resurrection and enable them to triumph over the bitter fate of death (RCIA, nn. 153, 167 and 174).
Following the intercessions is the rite of exorcism, when the elect “who have already learned from the Church as their mother the mystery of deliverance from sin by Christ, are free from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil. They receive new strength in the midst of their spiritual journey and they open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Savior” (RCIA, n. 144). As part of the rite of exorcism, the celebrant lays his hands on one each of the elect. The celebrant then dismisses the elect, saying:
“My dear friends, this community now sends you forth to reflect more deeply upon the word of God which you have shared with us today. Be assured of our loving support and prayers for you. We look forward to the day when you will share fully in the Lord’s Table” (RCIA, nn. 155, 169 and 176).
And that day will be at the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night.