US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The rite way to welcome new Catholics

By Tim Unsworth | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is conceptually akin to the building of a church. Further, it reminds one of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Fueled largely by the personal experiences of faith of all involved, it multiplies graces and fills baskets with the leftovers of the experience of what it really means to be Catholic.

Mary Wash's father's family was Catholic, but the vaccination didn't quite take and Mary was raised a Baptist without any formal baptism. Eleven years ago, her marriage to her Catholic husband, Ed, got her in touch with the Catholic faith, but the connection was thin at best.

A few years ago, Mary informed Ed that she was going to attend Mass at the parish church of St. George, a mega-parish of over 4,000 families in Tinley Park, Illinois. The experience opened a path to the parish's RCIA program where, in Mary's words, "I found a home."

Mary and Ed renewed their vows in the Catholic tradition and both have become active members of the parish. "I have an awful lot to learn," she says. "I'm still at a loss at a funeral, for example. Cradle Catholics don't realize how much there is to their faith. The RCIA process isn't long enough, but I've enjoyed it very much."

Though she adds, "You have to go through it with your heart as well as your head."

Wash's faith experience is echoed by U.S. Catholic diocesan coordinators, pastors, RCIA parish directors, team members, sponsors, and those who have been through the process, around the country. What emerges in spite of some reservations is a consistent pattern of success. What results, in the words of Sister Marilyn Barnett, C.S.J., associate director of the Office of Divine Worship in Chicago, is "a sharing of a person's story which becomes part of a larger story of grace in action."

In a very real sense, RCIA participants don't simply receive a sacrament; they become one. "It is a story that starts with however God speaks in a person's heart," Barnett says. "It is sharing their story with the bigger story. It is taking someone on a journey in which they discover their relationship with God and the community. They discover what their faith means, and we help them to live that faith out in their lives."

Barnett sums it up in a newly minted word: "On-fireness."

"The process is multilayered," says Sister Diane Boutet, OP, pastoral associate at St. Clement's Church in Chicago. "The entire parish is pulled up. The process extends to the whole parish community, deepening all kinds of relationships.

"I've learned so much myself that I don't think I could ever give this work up."

The genius of the administrative and political success of the process appears to be the emphasis on local control. The RCIA process is brought to the sanctuary on a pillow, not in an institutionally driven all-terrain vehicle. It is offered, not mandated. Throughout the process, catechesis and liturgy are so intertwined that they are virtually inseparable. While some dioceses place an emphasis on catechesis, insisting that candidates wade through the most of the 2,865 paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Wanderer Press, 1994), most prefer the gentler process through the three major steps of the Rite-acceptance, election, and celebration. Candidates progress from evangelization and precatechumenate to postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy (a Greek word signifying a deepening of faith). The Catechism itself recommends: "The instruction that the catechumens receive . . . should be of a kind that, while presenting Catholic teaching in its entirety, also enlightens faith, directs the heart toward God, fosters participation in the liturgy, inspires apostolic activity, and nurtures a life completely in accord with Christ."

Laity not tied to authority structures form the vast majority of the local teams that implement the process. Since 1972, the RCIA has been the most effective way to introduce laity to both the mystery and the joy of bringing others into the riches of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. It has been a quantum leap from collecting seating fees and ironing purificators-roles generally assigned to laity.

RCIA has rapidly become the "I" beam of the church. According to Benedictine monk and liturgy professor Aidan Kavanagh, its genius is that while "it represents a demanding discipline of both catechumen and church, it never gives way to the temptations of an arrogant religious enthusiasm or a rarefied elitism of the saved."

With rare exceptions, RCIA tiptoes into a diocese or parish. It consciously tries not to produce baptized lemmings whose faith has been doled out piecemeal by an ordained aristocracy. Instead it begins in the tortuous coils of a human being touched by grace.

"Grace has already called these people," says C.J. Franklin, pastoral associate at Ascension Church in Oak Park, Illinois. "We're not doing the shaping. These candidates have found the feast and invited you to it."

C.J. Franklin completed her undergraduate degree in theology and pursued a career in advertising before coming into ministry. She has been in parish work for seven years and, like others interviewed, still maintains an enthusiasm which appears to be nourished by the very people she is called to evangelize.

"This is not a program," she says with joyful determination. "It's a process. It cannot be controlled from downtown.

"In fact," she adds, "while there's a certain amount of pastoral clumsiness around the process, downtown (the archdiocesan Pastoral Center) bends over backwards to accommodate us."

Franklin's observation is echoed elsewhere. While some bishops have reservations regarding the language of the rite (inclusive vs. traditional), one typical diocese reported that RCIA was in use in 98 percent of its parishes.

The 565-paragraph official document that covers every aspect of the process from the valid baptism of children to what to do in danger of death is remarkable for its insistence on local control, especially at the parish level. "Paragraph 35 states that the rite must be adapted to local circumstances," says Jerry Galipeau, director of music and liturgy at St. Marcelline's Church in Schaumburg, Illinois. Galipeau, a candidate for a doctorate in ministry at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union and a member of the Board of Directors of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, has given some 70 workshops in the United States, Canada, and Germany. He has spoken with many bishops. His doctoral dissertation will examine the long-term effectiveness of the RCIA. "The bishops see new people in their churches," Galipeau says. "They can't help but be excited. This rite has such a human face that it seems to say: 'I want to be a part of you.'"

The RCIA is the liturgical and formational process of Christian initiation. It was revised and restored in 1972 in accordance with the actions of the Second Vatican Council and by decree of Pope Paul VI. The U.S. statutes were approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986 and mandated for use in 1988. It is still in its infancy but is now considered "official."

Although in formal use for only eight years, the trace marks of RCIA can be found as early as the second century. Initially, according to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, one had only to express faith in Jesus Christ and in God as Father, together with a conversion of lifestyle and signs of concern for the needy.

Some observers feel that it should still be that way. They complain that the present process is too complicated, too elite, too demanding. They are particularly put off by the "kindly dismissal" of catechumens before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins. "That's not mandatory," says Sister Boutet of St. Clement's Church. "And in most places it's done only a few times during the first few steps." The rite itself suggests a preparation period that can extend upwards of three years. It wants to avoid "champagne" conversions that simply pop up and fizz out. A six-month preparation period may involve barely 18 formal sessions.

Around the first century, some elementary theology and moral instructions were imposed. The educational process began to take its first steps.

By the third century the process of initiation was formalized. Two stages of preparation were introduced, the first called the "catechumenate" or hearing stage, and the second was called "initiation." The second stage was reserved for those considered by the community as worthy of the sacrament.

Local customs varied but the early process got more complicated. The roles of catechists and sponsors became clearly defined. In the final stages, candidates entered a more intense period of preparation, usually coinciding with Lent, a period of intense prayer, fasting, and study.

Candidates were presented to the bishop and given new names. The candidates were given a copy of the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed together with gospel stories selected to strengthen their faith.

In the early part of the third century, the vigil of Easter was identified as the most appropriate time for Baptism. It was marked by the renunciation of Satan, recitation of the Creed, donning of white garments, and a pre-baptismal anointing. Finally, the newly baptized were invited to the eucharistic table.

Throughout the process, there was a strong link between liturgy and teaching. The rites were matched with the candidates' faith development. And some things-especially Eucharist-were not shared until full initiation. Following Baptism, the faith community took on the obligation of deepening the formation of the newly baptized.

When the number of converts began to increase, the process was shortened. Requirements were relaxed and unverified conversions became common. A lot of "hatched, matched, and dispatched" converts got in over the transom.

The introduction of infant Baptism in the fifth century together with mass conversions of conquered barbarians virtually drove adult preparation out of existence. From the sixth through the ninth centuries, parents of infants to be baptized were invited to take part in the catechumenal process, but by the 16 century religious orders were attempting to reintroduce the adult process. Most efforts failed but by the 20th century, missionary congregations, who had to develop the faith from the grassroots in what are now called Third World countries, attracted the attention of countries such as France, which had large numbers of nonpracticing Catholics. The revival was the basis of Vatican II's reinstatement of the RCIA.

The introduction of the RCIA process restored a vision of Christian community embraced by the early church. The church recognized again that faith cannot be artificially induced, that motives must be questioned and evaluated, and that the whole community needs to be renewed. The instruction stated that the initiation must be "a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful." It simply was not intended for the converts of convenience or the emotionally driven.

The resurrected rite reclaimed the roles of catechists, sponsors, godparents, the pastor, and the whole faith community. It also underscored the re-entry of the entire Christian community into the process, just at a time when the laity were slowly regaining their roles within what had become a highly clericalized and juridically bound church.

The reintroduction of an adult program also served to change the theology back to a more Catholic one. RCIA makes no claim that sacraments confer grace by their own power, but rather that the faith of the recipient plays a vital part. As theologian Richard P. McBrien states in his Catholicism (Harper San Francisco, 1994): "One is not simply handed a membership card."

 Under RCIA, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are considered part of a single process of initiation. These sacraments are to be seen not as private devotions but rather as empowerment "to carry out the mission of the entire people of God in the Church and in the world."

The seemingly complex process is limited only to those who have not been introduced to the Catholic tradition through some other branch of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians need only make a simple profession. Protestants are no longer required to renounce heresy. Even conditional Baptism is no longer required unless there is reasonable doubt about the validity of the earlier baptism-and this is generally done privately.

In a fast-paced and highly mobile society, RCIA's norms can be a stumbling block. The 6 to 18-month preparation period can dislocate the wedding plans of the most sincere couples, although many dioceses permit the as yet non-Catholic partner to receive the Eucharist as part of the Nuptial Mass. When annulments are involved, the local marriage tribunals often require more time to review the petitions, thus drawing out the process even more.

Just as simple a problem as location can be a barrier to an RCIA inspired marriage. Couples from one diocese where they plan to be married may discover that the mandated marriage preparation period must be tacked on to the RCIA preparation for the non-Catholic partner. In such cases, the usual advice is to defer the RCIA preparation until after the wedding. Sister Boutet has observed that "getting married and experiencing the RCIA process can be too much. It's better to take them one at a time," she says.

Because of its length, together with staffing and sponsorship problems, many parishes have only one enrollment period each year-generally from near the beginning of Advent until the close of Lent, a period of less than 16 weeks. Still other pastors complain of cultural adjustments among ethnic groups as well as age considerations when, for example, a partner in a longtime mixed marriage decides to enter the church but is uncomfortable with a preparation program composed of much younger people. These problems are generally resolved by prudent pastoral decisions at the local level or by cooperation among parishes with an ongoing RCIA process.

According to Maureen A. Kelly, associate director of The North American Forum on the Catechumenate, the cultural issue is a complex one. Writing in Catechumenate, a journal of Christian initiation, she says that the cultural adaptation must recognize that RCIA is working out of a western European model that may not always be an ideal fit. One pastor of a heavily Polish parish in Michigan says that while he has no quarrel with the process, "it doesn't always fit the needs of the new waves of immigrant Poles coming to his parish." Another pastor had to shelve the process in his parish in order to concentrate on a 12-step program to combat the drugs and alcohol that severely hobbles some 80 percent of his families. In fact, the Rite itself strongly suggests that local coordinators "take into account existing circumstances and other needs."

Steven M. Lanza, pastor of Notre Dame Parish in Chicago, has been involved in the RCIA since his ordination in 1981. Another active member of the Forum, he gives workshops around the country and is closely involved in two programs-Spanish and English-in his downtown parish. "The community has something of everything," he says. "There are homes that sell for half a million, and there is public housing. There are blacks, whites, and Hispanics. But they worship together in part because the RCIA process permits variations for just such circumstances.

"The process doesn't rely on handouts from an office," Lanza continues. "The material is there, of course, but the catechetical part is so linked to the liturgical part that it's just as though the candidates were born Catholic."

Father Kenneth Simpson, chaplain at Northwestern University's Sheil Center, in Evanston, Illinois, says that the ripple effect is immediate. "It renews the Catholic as well as the non-Catholic person being introduced to the church. It is also ideal for the Catholics who may have finished their early catechesis too early."

At Northwestern, attendance at Sunday Mass by non-Catholic students is commonplace. "College is a time for searching," Simpson says. "And the whole RCIA process starts experientially. It leads to a period of reflection during which they are often drawn in by the ritual experience."

Northwestern, in common with most parishes, has a year-round update and inquiry program that presents basic Catholic teaching and much faith sharing. At St. Clement's, Sister Boutet says that as many as 75 percent come into RCIA because they're in a relationship with a Catholic.

"We try to get them to make a decision independent of the relationship," she says. "We don't even allow potential spouses to be sponsors. And we've been successful in this. They are good people who sincerely want to face life together with a common faith.

Boutet continues,"Occasionally we detect some pressure, but we really try to reduce this. In fact, after a period of reflection, some decide not to become Catholic."

St. Clement's Church often has as many as 40 candidates in the process, which generally runs from September through May. "Not enough time," the coordinators complain. "Too much time," some candidates respond.

"It really isn't too much time," Boutet says. Most involved in the process, though, wish that it could be longer.

"It's a courtship, culminating in a wedding," Sister Barnett adds. "Then, like a wedding, you live it out. It shouldn't be hurried."

Dorothy Connor has been a sponsor to several candidates. A native of Dublin, Ireland, she was raised in the Church of Ireland, the official church of Protestant Ireland. In 1945, before coming to the United States, she was received into the Roman Catholic tradition. "I was received alone in a dark Dublin church without much preparation," she recalls. As an RCIA sponsor, she found the experience rather wearing.

"I went to all the meetings and then to the RCIA staff meetings," she says. "But the experience gave me the kind of preparation that I never got in the first place, and I'm glad of that.

Dorothy still keeps in touch with her last RCIA candidate.

"Being available is part of the process," Connor says. "My candidate has done a lot of exploring. But it has been worth it for the two of us."

Father Lanza, of Notre Dame Parish, best summed up the RCIA process when he said: "There is so much richness in the process that you can't miss. Even in places where it is done poorly it succeeds. It just shouts 'Use me!'"