Expanding yourself for a continuous RCIA process

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAOne of the reasons often given for doing only a partial RCIA process is a lack of volunteers. So let’s look closely at how you can redeploy your current volunteers more efficiently. I’m going to imagine you have a team of three people, plus sponsors or godparents as needed. You may have fewer than that, but these principles will still work. Certainly if you have more than that, they will work.

Limit the inquiry process to true seekers

Let’s look at inquiry. What is the inquiry period in the first place? Flip open your RCIA text to paragraph 36 and underline this sentence:

It is a time of evangelization. Thus those who are not yet Christians, their hearts opened by the Holy Spirit, may believe and be freely converted to the Lord.

So inquiry is not a place for Christians. Usually. It is sometimes the case that a person baptized as a child was never raised in the faith and has never “freely converted to the Lord.” That Christian could be in inquiry. But the faithful Protestants who are married to Catholics, who believe in Jesus and go to church, do not belong in inquiry. Where do they belong? That’s a subject for another post, but the short answer is, if they believe in Jesus and they are going to church, they are not our first concern.

To see what I mean, flip open another book, if you have it: the General Directory for Catechesis. (You can also read it online.) Turn to paragraph 46:

The Church “exists in order to evangelize” that is “the carrying forth of the Good News to every sector of the human race so that by its strength it may enter into the hearts of men and renew the human race”.

The period of inquiry is for those who have never heard the Good News, or who have only recently heard it, and have felt something stir in their hearts.

In many places, if you start dealing with only the unconverted in the inquiry stage, you will be dealing with many fewer people. If you are used to having something like a six week “precatechumenate,” and you go from perhaps 20 “inquirers” to three or four true seekers, the psychic workload is less. But you still have those six weeks to cover. And I’m sitting here urging you to turn that into 52 weeks. How is that going to work?

Two steps to a continuous inquiry

Let me suggest two steps. First, take your six meetings and spread them out evenly over the course of a year. If you can manage to meet once a month, great! But if not, stick with every other month for now.

Next, go round up all those folks you would have gotten anyway to be sponsors for the Protestants. Ask them each to take a week of the year to invite the inquirers to dinner, or coffee, or their kid’s soccer game. They don’t have to do any teaching. They just have to “be Catholic” in front of the inquirers. Get them to commit to as many weeks as you need to fill the year. If you would have had 20 sponsors, they would each need to commit to three or four weeks out of the year. Ten would-have-been sponsors means each of them picking up eight weeks. Not doing anything extra except setting out more plates. If you can’t get enough help to cover all the weeks of the year, cover two or three weeks out of each month.

The great part of this is, inquirers can start at anytime of the year. Someone shows up in July, you send them to Shirley’s house for dinner. Someone comes in October, they go with Joe’s family to pick out pumpkins. Meantime, you are holding your monthly or semi-monthly sessions with the inquirers to discover what their questions are and what they are learning about Catholics.

Obviously, this is all going to be a lot easier with more help. So don’t settle for this plan; use it as a starting place. Always be asking folks to help you and to take on more responsibility. Eventually, the Spirit will lead you to future team members. But for now, you can take your current workload and redistribute your energy into a continuous inquiry process.

In a future post, I’ll discuss how you might try a similar method with catechetical sessions for the catechumens. In the meantime, chime in on the comments and let me know why you think this will or won’t work in your particular setting.

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  1. Nick, you’ve argued the issue of principle concerning evangelization, and argued for excluding most of the baptized potential-candidates from inquiry on the basis of that principle. If the problem is too many people, this is one way to make it more manageable.

    In my pastoral setting, however, I have to say that the ongoing pre-catechumenate has worked very well with a kind of open-ended style that allows for a free flow of people, without a lot of clarity about who’s evangelized and who’s not. I’d like you to comment on this type of scenario.

    My experience may reflect the urban setting, where we typically don’t know the inquirers and we need some forum in which we can listen to them and get to know them at a deeper level than the initial interview affords.

    I’ve found that one of the things that happens is something like a group-based version of “sorting fish.” You find out things, and the inquirers find out things about themselves. Like the person who went to Sunday School for years, but still doesn’t believe God loves her (she’s churched but not evangelized), or the youth who seemed to blow in off the street with no background, and it turns out he has a deep spirituality and doesn’t need a long initiation process. Once some trust was established, we knew what to do. If we hadn’t had that forum of the inquiry, I don’t know how we would have gotten to the place of clarity that we reached.

    I’ve also found that the open-ended nature of the precatechumenate can be helpful for the baptized person who may be under pressure from a Catholic family member (spouse, fiance, mother-in-law) but is really not sure about it all. How do we allow that person to explore and question, in a safe space? When it’s a situation of that kind, the worst thing to do is rush into it. Those are the people we lose later. But they may not wish to admit this at first. The precatechumenate gave them the time and the ministry they needed to sort things out.

    Finally, the nature of inquiry works in favor of developing an authetic understanding of the faith journey. A lot of people come expecting to “attend a few classes.” The only way I’ve been able to break that assumption is by inviting them to “come and see” through the ongoing precatechumenate, which orients people to the fact that this is really about faith, and really about freedom, and then allows them to move easily from there into whatever is the appropriate vehicle for their further faith development and formation.

    What do you think?

  2. Rita, you make an excellent point, as always. I would agree that if there is a true “sorting of fish” going on in the precatechumenate, then the inquiry process could probably handle all comers. Unfortunately, what I have more often witnessed is a defined period for inquiry (typically, about six weeks), and everyone who wanted to become Catholic had to complete the “course,” regardless of their faith journey.

    When I have tried to point out that the RCIA calls for the open-ended, ongoing inquiry you describe, the response back to me almost always has to do with lack of time and lack of volunteers available to implement such an “ideal.”

    I was hoping to provide a pathway out of that boundary for folks who can’t quite see how to expand their abbreviated precatechumenate into something more like you describe.

    I tend to think, however, the baptized, catechized among us who have been regular church goers, who know Jesus loves them, who raise their children in the faith, don’t really belong in a precatechumenate process. They do need some kind of entryway, a safe place to take a breath and decide for sure that becoming Catholic is what they want to do. But I can’t grasp why that would a function of the precatechumenate. To quote you, quoting Ron Oakham: “Conversion is not to Catholicism; it’s to Christ.”

    Great discussion!

  3. Thanks, Nick, for coaxing our readers to take a step out of the comfort zone of a six-week precatechumenate program. The ongoing precatechumenate is one of the best parts of the whole process, and I hope that everyone who reads this will take heart and give it a try. We have to do more to reach out and do some true evangelization. God bless those who are willing to step forward on this!

  4. Hi Ana,

    If you read a little further down in the post, my thoughts on “how to” are outlined there. Check out the section subtitled “Two steps to a continuous inquiry.” Good luck!

  5. Nick,

    As I read your column on an on-going pre-catechumenate period I was inspired and also a bit perplexed with your suggestion and model for this period. I was glad then to read Rita’s response because I also use a similar model to hers.

    We have been doing a year round process for over the past eight years and have grown in so many ways every year. The first year we started, we only had one catechumen who continued in the process over the summer months to be joined by the Fall inquirers who all thought that that was when we began. Eight years later we now can say that it is not unusual for new people to join us at any time throughout the Liturgical Year. Both our pre-catecumenate and Catechumenate sessions are open for this to happen and people seem very comfortable with it.

    There seems to be peek times throughout the year that we see several people show an interest in the process. So times being: following Christmas, Easter and the Fall. Since April 1 I have interviewed seven new inquirers. They are all at different levels of faith development and will move through the process as individuals entering a faith community.

    I appreciate both yours and Rita’s insight and am always looking for new ways to enhance, inspire and grow with our team in this profound process of RCIA.

  6. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for chiming in. I’m glad to hear it is not unusual for new people to join you at any time throughout the year. It sound like you are doing a great job. Thanks for all your hard work and dedication to the catechumenate.

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