This is the somewhat arcane name given to the three brief ceremonies for those who are preparing for baptism at the Easter vigil. These ceremonies are celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. At the scrutiny, these people are presented to the Church community, which prays for them, so that they may defeat sin and Satan, successfully endure temptation, and be strengthened in Christ.
Unbaptized persons over the age of 7 who wish to join the Church are ordinarily enrolled in a process called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Those who have never been baptized are called catechumens for most of the RCIA process, which lasts at least six months. At the beginning of Lent, the catechumens are presented to the bishop at the Cathedral and are enrolled in the Book of the Elect, after which they are called the elect. Our catechumens were taken to the Cathedral on the First Sunday of Lent.
Did you know that Lent originated as a time of prayer and fasting for those who were preparing for baptism? The entire Church quickly caught on to the season, but unfortunately the baptismal roots of Lent were forgotten. Following the reforms of Vatican II, the RCIA process was re-introduced. The Church once again walks with the elect toward the great feast of Easter.
In addition to the elect, persons who were baptized into a Protestant church will make a profession of faith at the Easter Vigil. The Church recognizes and respects all valid baptisms in Protestant denominations, and therefore never 'rebaptizes' a person unless it is unsure that the person was validly baptized in the first place. Those making a profession of faith at the Easter vigil will also participate in the scrutiny.
There is one other category of persons who has been participating in the RCIA: Catholics who have never received Communion or Confirmation. Participation in the RCIA provides the instruction they need in order to understand the sacraments they will receive.
Why all this fuss? Why not do all this quietly and privately? Because we are the People of God welcoming new people to our midst. When a person is baptized or received into the Catholic Church, they are received by Christ into his body, the community of faith. We would think it odd to receive someone into our family when they marry, but to do it quietly without any communal celebration. It is the same with the family of faith: we have great cause to rejoice that men and women wish to be part of us, and we celebrate that fact.
It also is a good time to remind ourselves that we have been given the faith by the grace of the Lord acting through the people who brought us to faith. Every time someone joins the Church, it should prompt us to consider whether we are providing encouragement and good example to them. Further, we should pause to remember and to thank God for the good people who taught us the faith, whether they are parents and grandparents, teachers, friends or neighbors. God has worked through them mightily. May he also mightily work through us to share our faith to others!