RCIA: Program or process? And does it matter?

This is a guest post from Father Robert Duggan. It’s one of the longer posts we’ve featured on the site, but it is well worth your time.

Father Bob is a presbyter of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, and a frequent speaker and author on topics related to Christian initiation and liturgical and sacramental renewal.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIA

You’ve probably heard people say the RCIA is a “process, not a program.” But what does that really mean?

Implementation suffered from pastoral exhaustion

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is an extremely provocative document. The pastoral efforts to implement the RCIA in the United States were undertaken by a grassroots movement of pastoral workers and theologians who were left to their own resources. There was no national leadership, in the beginning, to guide them. Without this grassroots movement, the RCIA might easily have been ignored as a text “meant for missionary lands.”

Recall that this document came from Rome as one of the last revised texts developed in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal. By the time the RCIA was issued and translated into vernacular languages, the “reform the reform” folks in the Roman Curia and elsewhere were already attempting to blunt the spirit of liturgical renewal that had so inspired an entire generation. There was a fatigue abroad in the land, a pastoral exhaustion, after having tried to assimilate so many liturgical changes in such a short time. The bishops didn’t have the stomach to expend any more energy taking this obscure document in hand and helping the church entrusted to their care to implement what to them seemed like a marginal document at best.

RCIA embodies a renewed ecclesiology

However, a few theologians and pastoral leaders understood the significance of the RCIA and saw it as a providential instrument of the Spirit—a way to further implement a Vatican II ecclesiology that was rapidly being shut down by post-conciliar, reactionary forces. Those who understood the significance of the rite include people like Aidan Kavanagh, Christiane Brusselmans, Mark Searle, and Jim Dunning.

These prophetic voices insisted that the faith of the church is shaped by the church at prayer and that pastoral structures, Canon Law, etc., should take their inspiration from the church’s distinctive experience of God that is centered in our liturgy. They discerned in the rite a renewed ecclesiology, a renewed pastoral agenda. They discerned, in short, an operative version of the renewal that Vatican II had called for. At the core of this vision of church was an understanding that the intentional faith nurtured in the catechumenate is the norm that should be followed by all Catholics. It was a radical attempt to articulate an alternative to the cultural Catholicism that has defined membership since Constantine’s embrace of Christianity as the state religion (I exaggerate, I know!).

Essential to the integrity of this vision is an understanding of conversion that is multifaceted, progressive, and lifelong—conversion that is experienced and nurtured in the formative dimensions of the catechumenate spelled out in paragraph 75 of the RCIA.

RCIA hindered by pragmatism

I number myself among those who found these prophetic figures convincing and who saw in the implementation of the RCIA an opportunity to continue to work for the vision of Vatican II’s renewal that has been increasingly under siege. The North American Forum on the Catechumenate provided a structure around which like-minded people gathered and worked to implement the RCIA. Many of us who appear(ed) “purists” were/are convinced that implementing the RCIA faithfully is an important way to insure that the leaven of renewal remains deeply embedded in the church at the local level.

However, what we found over the past three decades of doing workshops and other training around the country is that American pragmatism wants to take a very complex and demanding pastoral challenge (i.e., implementing the rite properly) and figure out ways to do it more easily and quickly.

The dominant mindset among religious educators, not surprisingly, operates out of an academic paradigm.

  • Parishes speak of the new year beginning in September, not in Advent or January 1.
  • Parish life that has revolved around the programs of religious education in Catholic schools and CCD is not easily going to undergo a radical change.
  • Relatively (and increasingly) unskilled parish staff and volunteers are ill equipped to implement things with creative imagination and skillful adaptation.

Many parishes just want to do it by the book, to take a packaged program and feel good that they have accomplished something. They teach catechumens (about) the faith from a series of lesson plans, and feel good at Easter baptisms (or receptions) all the while settling for a very shallow version of conversion.

My pastoral experience and theological understandings have convinced me that academic year catechumenates (the dominant experience as the statistics indicate) betray the RCIA’s radical call for a conversion that is profoundly transformative. It tends to be about membership more than faith, about joining a new sociological demographic more than wrestling at a deep level with the demands of the Gospel and discipleship.

The addiction of academic resources

What I have seen is that RCIA teams are hungry, even desperate, for resources that make their job easier and more manageable. (Who can blame them?) Giving them resources that allow them to continue to follow a nine-month catechumenate model (actually, it’s really more like three to five months) is like giving an addict a supply of the addictive substance. It feels better, softens the sense of helplessness, and masks the deeper challenge that I believe a careful reading of the rite offers. People that supply these resources are not evil. They are creating tools that they believe meet the current pastoral reality.

But what if they are just giving surgeons better tools to continue doing a procedure that isn’t really what will lead to full health? Wouldn’t it be better to say: “Stop doing that procedure! Here is what you should be doing to help people get really healthy!”

The current reality of the RCIA in the United States is, in my view, a case study in cultural blindness and pastoral malpractice. We are so formed by an experience of American pragmatism and cultural Catholicism where deep conversion to the Gospel is rarely the aim of pastoral activity, that it seems “normal” and harmless to have parishes everywhere marching people through “quickie” conversion courses—heavily didactic, classroom-style instructions.

Meanwhile most parishes ignore the many other demands of the rite that say authentic spiritual formation involves powerfully celebrated rituals, active involvement in the process by the community at large, and apostolic engagement.

Precatechumenate suffers most of all

The precatechumenate is the least structured stage of the RCIA, and so it suffers most from the attempts to overlay an academic program on top of it. There are (or can be) all sorts of ways that the work of evangelization (welcoming, calling to initial conversion, sharing some of the basics of Christian faith) might be carried on in a parish—apart from minimalistic weekly “sessions” that invariably smack of a classroom setting. Pastoral teams would do better to learn how to pick and choose from the multiple resources available as well as relying on their own creativity. Inquirers who are at different stages of their journey and different levels of sophistication need different strategies.

  • Some folks  would need a more intellectual approach to learning about our wonderful doctrinal synthesis
  • Others would just need someone to hold them close as they heal old wounds in the arms of a loving and accepting community
  • Some folks would do best in a one-on-one with a mentor
  • Others will flourish in a small group of faith-sharers
  • Some will explore our Catholic life of the Gospel by joining the social justice ministry
  • Others will immediately be drawn to the mysticism of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament

One size will clearly not fit all, and there would be no thought of a single precatechumenate “program” that lasts a set number of weeks and that everyone attends together.

But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that one in a hundred parishes see the precatechumenate in this enlightened way. Rather, most are trying to plug inquirers into a “program” that they call the precatechumenate. We all need to have the courage to say outright that the way the RCIA is being implemented in most parishes is just plain wrong and a perversion/betrayal of the vision of this prophetic ritual.

Hope for a prophetic future?

Those of us who have worked with publishers willing to develop materials that respect the radical call of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults have seen that prophetic approaches don’t help to sell products very well. So publishers who must meet bottom lines “adapt” to the marketplace. I’d love to see publishers move in a different direction and undertake the challenge of developing a range of materials that will help parishes do precatechumenate in creative ways.

That is probably too much to hope for, but we are all on a journey of hope.

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  1. What a challenge. I am taking on his challenge to bust out of the classoom-dominant model, not only with RCIA but also Confirmation Prep. People know school, but conversion isn’t education. This article fits nicely with the awesome book “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell.
    Does anyone have resources that they can share?
    Especially any tips/tools for discerning the best approach for any individual.


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