Editor’s note: The Church calls the baptismal catechumenate, as described and outlined in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the “model for all catechesis” (General Directory for Catechesis, 59). For those who are unfamiliar with the RCIA’s plan for Christian initiation, the process consists of a series of stages punctuated by major liturgical rites. The first stage is called the “Precatechumenate” and at its end is celebrated the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. The second period, the “Catechumenate,” concludes with the Rite of Election, when those seeking full communion in the Church enter their third period, called “Purification and Enlightenment.” The celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil is the last of the major rites, following which the “neophytes” enter the process’s final period, known as “Mystagogy.” This normative process described below will focus almost exclusively on non-baptized persons, even though the RCIA process adapts its plan to accommodate baptized non-Catholics.
At present, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is retranslating the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults into a second version according to the translation principles outlined in Liturgiam Authenticam.
Next year, we will be commemorating the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the United States. Without a doubt, the re-introduction of the baptismal catechumenate into the life of the Church after Vatican II has been an occasion for renewal and revitalization of the mission of evangelization and catechesis. RCIA has become a normal reality in many parishes across the country. The process has become, as the catechetical documents teach, the model form of evangelization and catechesis in the parish.
However, a lot has changed since the rite was first introduced in 1988, both in our culture and in the Church. Culturally, many are now convinced that we live in a post-Christian era, an attitude which largely affects those who are coming to us seeking to enter the Catholic Church. This decline in Christian influence on culture means that many of those who enter the RCIA process are going to need a more extended period of formation to bring about an adult conversion than was needed perhaps ten or fifteen years ago.
Much has happened in the Church as well, such as the introduction of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the publication of the General Directory of Catechesis (which also informs the RCIA process), and a greater awareness and understanding of the mission of the New Evangelization enlightened by the pontificates of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis. All of this makes the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Rite an excellent occasion for an assessment—or an “examination of conscience”—on how the RCIA has been and is being implemented in our parishes.
I often say that in this time of the New Evangelization, it is not business as usual. This time of the New Evangelization requires us to assess and re-examine how we are implementing the RCIA to be sure that it is being done as the Lord wishes in his Church, and that it is also adequately meeting the needs of those who come to us in light of our current cultural situation.
Heart, Mind, and Soul
Any assessment of the implementation of RCIA in the parish must always start with the three aspects of formation that are intrinsic to the RCIA process: the pastoral aspect, the catechetical aspect and the liturgical aspect. Here it is important to recall the words of Jesus: “You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). These three aspects of the RCIA process allow the catechumens to do exactly what the Lord commands through their journey of conversion.
• The pastoral aspect of formation pertains to the heart by turning their hearts towards the Lord and away from sin—forming them into life-long, witnessing disciples of Jesus.
• The catechetical aspect of formation pertains to the mind, and through evangelization and catechesis, helps the catechumen to know the sweetness of the Word of God and become “not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy with Jesus Christ” (Catechesi Tradendae [CT], 5).
• The liturgical aspect pertains to the soul, which is infused with grace through the many liturgical rites and allows them as a priestly people to proclaim, “I lift up my soul to you, my God” (Psalm 25:1).
Like the unity of the heart, soul, and mind seen in the greatest commandment given to us by Jesus, there is a unity and interrelationship between the three aspects of formation in the RCIA process. Just as it would be incomplete for a disciple to love the Lord only with his heart or his mind, the RCIA is rendered incomplete and ineffective if any one of the three aspects of formation is omitted or poorly implemented. Therefore, the RCIA process is continually informed through all four periods by these three aspects of formation and each has its critical role to play in the overall formation and conversion of the catechumens.
In addition, the three aspects of formation are interrelated to one another. The pastoral aspect is always oriented to the overall discipleship formation of the catechumens and is concerned with the signs and stages of conversion that are present in each period and major liturgical step throughout the process. The pastoral aspect also informs what occurs in both the liturgical and catechetical aspects, and these two aspects in turn support and complete the pastoral formation the Church desires through the grace given by Mother Church (liturgical) and the gradual knowledge and understanding of the Word of God (catechetical). We can then come to understand these three aspects of formation in the RCIA process as being like a three-legged stool. If one or more of the legs are weak or missing, the entire stool collapses. Likewise, when one or more aspects of formation in the RCIA is weak or missing, the conversion process breaks down and becomes ineffective.
Therefore, those who direct and are involved in the RCIA, especially in the current cultural context of the New Evangelization, need to be keenly aware of and fully implement the pastoral, catechetical, and liturgical aspects of the RCIA process and also understand how these aspects of formation change and evolve in each of the four different periods of the process. Such an undertaking requires time and skill, a thorough and prayerful knowledge of the RCIA ritual itself, as well as a knowledge and understanding of other key documents and resources that inform these aspects of formation such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the General Directory for Catechesis, and our own National Statutes for the Catechumenate. The remainder of this essay will be exploring each of these three aspects of formation and will be discussing some key areas in each that are of particular importance in this time of the Church’s life and mission.
I. Heart: Pastoral Formation
The pastoral aspect of formation in the RCIA process can be described as one’s conversion from an earthly, self-centered orientation (sin) to intentional discipleship (seeking holiness) and contains within itself the ultimate goal and purpose of the RCIA process—the formation of life-long, intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. However, as we know, forming disciples is not an easy and simple process. It certainly involves what Pope Francis calls “smelling like the sheep” and requires all of those involved in the RCIA process—the pastor, RCIA director, team, sponsors, and the entire Christian community—to know and fully support the catechumens throughout the process.
Not One Size Fits All
It is also important to remember that this pastoral formation and conversion process takes time and is not a “one size fits all” process. One of the great challenges of doing RCIA, especially in our current cultural climate, is moving away from a “conveyor belt” approach to RCIA and embracing instead an approach that respects the conversion process of each person. As the ritual states, “The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults that varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place” (RCIA, 5). Not every person who comes to the precatechumenate will necessarily enter the Church the following Easter—some may need additional time and formation to complete the process of conversion. However, if we adopt the “conveyor belt” approach, the expectation is that everyone will come into the Church at Easter with very little concern or discernment for the spiritual readiness and conversion of the individual catechumens.
The correct approach to the RCIA journey is certainly a more thorough and demanding one, and it will indeed require more from all involved. Because of this more involved approach, the pastoral aspect is the easiest to neglect or gloss over. However, if we are faithful to the true purpose of pastoral formation, the fruit of the process will be much greater, and we will be forming and discipling people not to just become part of the Easter Vigil, but gaining for Mother Church disciples for all eternity!
Long and Short of It…
One of the keys to offering authentic pastoral formation in the RCIA process is determining the length of the process not primarily by the calendar year, or the number of catechetical sessions required to cover all the doctrines of the faith, but to ensure that the conversion of those in RCIA has been sufficiently achieved. Certainly, the reality of the calendar, parish life, and catechetical and liturgical formation each needs to play a part, but given our current post-Christian cultural setting, it is important to take an honest look at whether our current process for RCIA really meets the needs of those who come to us seeking to enter the Church. Put simply: is an eight to nine-month process really sufficient?
It seems that our own bishops here in the United States direct us to the need for a longer process. In the National Statutes for the Catechumenate, the U.S. bishops state, “The period of the catechumenate, beginning at acceptance into the order of catechumens and including both the catechumenate proper and the period of purification and enlightenment after election or enrollment of names, should extend for at least one year of formation, instruction, and probation” (6). Of course, all of this “ideal” needs to correspond to the “real” that is the life and circumstances of each of our parishes, but it does call us to an examination of conscience about whether the RCIA process is driven by our efforts for conversion and not just the parish calendar or number of catechetical classes. With all this said, it might be a prudent practice to initiate a three- to five-year plan to grow and enrich our RCIA process to meet the conversion needs of those who come to us.
Another key area is the crucial importance of the period of postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy. In my experience doing RCIA training in numerous dioceses across the country, approximately 25 percent of parishes do any form of postbaptismal catechesis after Easter. This low percentage is quite problematic, considering that the very name we call our newly baptized, neophytes, means “newly planted.” How absurd would it be for us to do all the work in our gardens of planting seeds, tilling the soil, pulling weeds, etc. until the very first sprouts appeared—and then completely abandoning those seedlings without any care whatsoever? But we do something similar to those in our RCIA process when we provide little or no meaningful postbaptismal catechesis. The rite speaks of the importance of this period when it states, “To strengthen the neophytes as they begin to walk in newness of life, the community of the faithful, their godparents, and their parish priests (pastors) should give them thoughtful and friendly help” (244). Far from winding up the formation process, mystagogy should consist of a doubling down on formation and pastoral care to foster and cultivate the new faith of the neophytes and help them to transition out of the security of the RCIA process into their proper apostolate in the life of the Church and the world. Consider the Parable of the Sower as our marching orders to continue to till the soil of our neophytes’ hearts after their initiation and also be wary of the consequences if we do not—the devil and the world certainly don’t stop working after the Easter Vigil!
Best Supporting Roles
One final area to address in pastoral formation is the crucial and indispensable role of sponsors and godparents. If pastoral formation is about “smelling like the sheep” and accompanying those who journey in the RCIA process, there is no person more important that the sponsor or godparent. They are the most proximate companions and witnesses to those going through the RCIA process, and it is of extreme importance that we have well-formed sponsors and godparents to journey with them, answer questions, and provide an authentic witness to the Christian life.
Given the great responsibility of this role, it would be highly desirable for parishes to make a concerted effort to hand-pick parishioners who would make excellent companions for the journey as sponsors and godparents. The RCIA makes it explicit in the Introduction that the Christian community is to provide sponsors approved by the pastor (see 9 and 10). Even if inquirers invite someone to be a “sponsor” for the celebration of the initiation sacraments, the parish can still provide a well-trained sponsor to accompany them from the beginning of the process to the Rite of Election. The catechumen can then choose someone else, if desired, as a godparent on the journey from election through mystagogy, but the provided sponsor would serve as an initial, qualified, and trained companion through a majority of the RCIA journey.
II. Mind: Catechetical Formation
The catechetical aspect of formation can be described as one’s conversion from one who is seeking faith to one who professes the faith of the Church and who has come into intimacy with Jesus. The catechetical aspect of the RCIA process reveals to the catechumen the Father’s loving plan of salvation accomplished in Christ and inspires each catechumen to respond with the gift of faith. An RCIA process without well-organized catechesis is a heart and soul deprived of the knowledge of Christ who is their source and inspiration.
A Perfect Offering
The catechetical aspect of formation has an important role to play throughout the RCIA process, and it changes in all four periods of the RCIA. It is the period of the catechumenate, however, where catechesis plays a particularly important role in the conversion and faith formation of the catechumens.
In article 75 of the RCIA, it states that in the catechumenate “a suitable catechesis is provided by priests or deacons, or by catechists and others of the faithful that is gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year and…leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts, but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate.” For many years following the re-introduction of the RCIA, the popular practice was that the Lectionary provided the structure and content for catechesis in the catechumenate period. However, the rite does not mention the Lectionary as the source for catechesis for the catechumenate as it does for both the period of purification and enlightenment (Lenten Year A readings) and mystagogy (Easter readings). Here the vision of the RCIA process is to provide the catechumens with a systematic and organic presentation of all that the Church teaches and believes in a manner that allows and inspires them to authentically live out the Christian life. St. John Paul II particularly speaks of the necessity of this complete catechetical formation.
“In order that the sacrificial offering of his or her faith should be perfect,” writes Pope John Paul, “the person who becomes a disciple of Christ has the right to receive ‘the word of faith’ not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor. Unfaithfulness on some point to the integrity of the message means a dangerous weakening of catechesis and putting at risk the results that Christ and the ecclesial community have a right to expect from it…. Thus, no true catechist can lawfully, on his own initiative, make a selection of what he considers important in the deposit of faith as opposed to what he considers unimportant, so as to teach the one and reject the other” (CT, 30).
Therefore, it is of crucial importance that the catechumens receive a complete and systematic presentation of the faith as outlined and exemplified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which not only teaches all that the Church professes and believes, but inspires conversion of heart and authentic Christian living. This catechesis ought to be driven by scripture and the story of salvation, connected to the liturgy, and presented in a way that is related to life experiences so that catechumens can fully assimilate the teachings of Christ into their lives and “learn more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to” (CT, 20).
The National Directory for Catechesis further informs us of the nature of catechesis in the catechumenate when it states that catechesis in this period “presents a comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith so that the catechumen or candidate can enter deeply into the mystery of Christ” (36, A). Failure to provide such a comprehensive and systematic catechesis is a failure to insert the catechumen or candidate into the mystery of Christ and to fully prepare each to “believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God” (RCIA, 491) which is proper to a catechumen’s or candidate’s Christian initiation.
III. Soul: Liturgical Formation
Last but certainly not least, we turn our attention to the liturgical aspect of formation in the RCIA process. The liturgical aspect of formation can be described as one’s conversion from a recipient of the liturgical action of the Church (receiving the sign of the Cross) to an active, conscious participant in the liturgy (full Eucharistic communion). There are two important areas that need to be considered in this aspect of formation.
Forming a Priestly People
First, liturgical formation in the RCIA from the beginning needs to have as its focus the formation of the catechumens and candidates to fully embrace their sharing in the mission of Christ’s priesthood that is given to the faithful through baptism for their proper understanding of the liturgy and their true participation in it. The RCIA process should train them to understand worship in the liturgy as sacrificial worship—and one that is transformative. Without this true understanding of the liturgy, their participation in it can become hollow ritualism and fail to bear fruit in their lives. In fact, it is this sacrificial understanding of the liturgy and sacraments that is at the heart of their mission as laypeople when “together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (Lumen Gentium, 34).
Minor Rites—Major Grace
Secondly, since RCIA is a liturgical rite of the Church, a catechumen’s liturgical formation in the process is driven by the liturgy itself through all of the liturgical rites provided by Mother Church. These rites lavish grace upon the catechumens as they journey into full communion with the Church. Perhaps RCIA leaders are tempted to forgo or neglect many or most of the minor rites provided in both the periods of the catechumenate and purification and enlightenment. Although these are properly called “minor rites” to distinguish them from the rites which provided the major liturgical steps in the process, these minor rites are packed with major grace to sustain the catechumens throughout their long and often difficult journey through the RCIA.
As an example of such grace-filled opportunities in the RCIA, consider the language describing Minor Exorcisms: “They draw the attention of the catechumens to the real nature of Christian life, the struggle between flesh and spirit, the importance of self-denial for reaching the blessedness of God’s kingdom, and the unending need for God’s help” (RCIA, 90). What an exquisitely beautiful and powerful rite! It not only gives the catechumens the grace of the Church, but powerfully informs the catechumens of the nature of the Christian life and struggle for holiness. The examples available from the other minor rites are numerous in the same fashion, but the lesson here is to deploy lavishly all the liturgical rites of the RCIA process to sustain and nourish the catechumens in their journey.
Onward to Joy and Consolation!
So, as we move forward in the implementation of the RCIA during this time of the New Evangelization, what are our marching orders?
First and foremost, all of us who engage in the RCIA need to be willing to reflect upon how we are implementing the RCIA process in our parishes, and to make an honest examination of conscience to determine if the process is being done as the Church desires and is meeting the pastoral needs of those who seek entrance into the Church. The RCIA process is never static—it is always evolving and adapting to the needs of the times. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, there is always a balance between the “ideal” and the “real” and the process needs to be incarnated into the reality of our parishes, communities, and resources at hand. The more we “smell like the sheep,” the more we can discern the signs of the times, and open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, the more effective the RCIA process will become in creating life-long disciples of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, we need to see the RCIA as more of a process and not so much as a program—a process that fully incorporates all three aspects of formation—pastoral, catechetical, and liturgical. We must also insure that our RCIA leaders implement all four periods of the process—Precatechumenate, Catechumenate, Purification and enlightenment, and Mystagogy—and invest in the selection and formation of the key players in the process such as sponsors, godparents, catechists and team members. These preliminary steps will require real and patient effort and will demand more of us as leaders, more of our sponsors and godparents, and more of our Christian communities. It may be quite advantageous to implement a three- to five-year plan for making any changes and adjustments to the RCIA process, as positive change is not going to happen overnight and may take time, discernment, and prayer to build a stronger and even more fruitful process. But if we patiently put in the effort and trust in the Lord, then, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “you can be sure that if catechesis is done well in your local Churches, everything else will be easier to do…and it will much more often win for you the joy and consolation of seeing your Churches flourishing because catechesis is given in them as the Lord wishes” (CT, 63).