What would you say if I told you that most people who are in the RCIA do not belong there? I’ve had this feeling for a while, and it just keeps getting stronger. For most of us, the majority of the people in our catechumenate processes are either Protestants who want to become Catholic or Catholics who missed confirmation or first Communion as a child.
The catechumenate is not right for everyone who wants to become Catholic
Regarding the Protestants, the United States National Statutes for the Catechumenate state:
Those who have already been baptized in another Church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens or so designated…. Those baptized persons who have lived as Christians and need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate (30-31).
The same thinking applies to Catholics who are living a Catholic lifestyle. If they missed a sacrament but are nevertheless living and practicing as a Catholic, they do not belong in the catechumenate.
But what about baptized people who are not living a Christian life? Before we can discern the best path for them, we have to ask, have they ever lived as a Christian—even as a child? If they have, they probably do not belong in the catechumenate.
The catechumenate is a conversion process for those who have never known Jesus and do not know what it means to live as a Christian. The name of the rite itself tells us this. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a process of initiation. Initiation, of course, comes from the word initial. The RCIA is a conversion process to bring those who have no faith to the point of initial or first faith. The RCIA is not a process for developing second faith (reconciliation) or for deepening an ongoing faith (adult faith formation).
Who will we have left to go through RCIA?
I said all this to a catechumenate team recently, and someone replied, “Well if we followed the traditional model, we wouldn’t have anyone in our RCIA.”
That’s telling isn’t it? Is it really the case that there is no one who needs to hear the good news for the first time? Has everyone in our neighborhoods and workplaces met Jesus and now our primary ministry has shifted from evangelization to ongoing formation?
None of us believe that, of course, but that is what our ministerial practice says. We have converted RCIA from a process of initial conversion into a process for reconciling lapsed Christians or updating faithful Christians.
These are not bad things to do. Personally, I love doing these things. But the thing we cannot do is treat Christians as catechumens. Christians (with few exceptions) would not participate in a period of evangelization. They would not normally celebrate a Rite of Welcome nor participate in a catechumenate period. They would certainly participate in the lenten period, but they would do so as members of the Body of Christ—just like the rest of us. We would strongly encourage them to participate in the Easter Triduum, but they would not celebrate their sacraments or be received into full communion at the Vigil. They would participate as members of the faithful. Their formation would be mystagogical in the sense that the ongoing formation for all of the faithful is post-baptismal. But we would not identify the 50 days of Easter for them in the same way we do for the neophytes.
So when would the Protestants be received into full communion? The National Statutes tell us the appropriate time is a Sunday Mass in the parish (see 32). When would Catholics celebrate their confirmation? Ideally, at a liturgy at which the bishop presides. This could be a diocesan-wide event at the cathedral or the annual parish celebration of confirmation.
Is there really a difference between RCIA and adult faith formation?
Of course almost everyone currently in our catechumenate processes needs formation. Some of them need a whole lot of formation. Someone who dropped out of Christian living after celebrating first Communion is not prepared to live an adult life of faith. Somebody has to prepare them, and that “somebody” is going to be us. What we have to realize, however, is that even though we are the “RCIA team,” most of the Christians we are forming are not “in the RCIA.” They are in adult faith formation.
This might seem like merely a semantic distinction, but I think it’s important. When we put baptized people into “the RCIA,” we tend to treat them like catechumens. We use processes and language that indicates the catechumens and the Christians are in the same “class” and they all “graduate” together. If the Christians are ready to move on sooner (or even later) than the catechumens, we or they resist the call of the Spirit to move them in order to keep the group together.
The mission is evangelization
Even more importantly, however, putting Christians into the RCIA dampens the fire of evangelization in many of our parishes. Evangelization becomes reduced to making Catholics or making better Catholics. If everyone in our neighborhoods and workplaces truly has heard that initial proclamation of the good news, then we no longer need an initiation process. In that case, we should indeed focus on reconciliation and ongoing formation. But until that day, we need to refocus our RCIA ministry on bringing good news to those who have never heard it before.
Share your thoughts
What is your experience? Are most of your folks in the catechumenate unbaptized? Truly uncatechized? Or are they somewhat catechized or even well catechized? Do you have a distinct process for the catechized? Let us know what happens in your parish.