Why you should stop trying to solve the mystagogy problem

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAFiona and George were putting away the coffee pot and folding up the chairs after their mystagogical reflection session on the Easter Vigil. As they switched off the lights, Fiona said, “I wonder where Carmen was. She told me she would be here.”

Carmen, one of the neophytes, didn’t come to that session or any other sessions during mystagogy. In fact, Fiona and George only saw her at Mass twice during the Easter season. And then she seemed to disappear.

Neophytes not returning for mystagogy

This is one of the biggest complaints for many RCIA teams. There is no simple solution to the problem of neophytes not returning for mystagogy. It is what is known as a “wicked problem.” It’s not wicked in the sense of “bad.” What makes the problem wicked is that it is difficult—probably impossible—to solve. The reason it is difficult or impossible to solve is that once you begin to implement a potential solution, you discover that there are other underlying problems that must be solved before your presenting problem can be fixed.

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With wicked problems, there is no “right or wrong” solution. We will probably never solve the problem of getting neophytes to participate in the mystagogical period. Wicked problems can only become “better or worse.” With the mystagogy problem, we have to look at several strategies that will make the situation better instead of worse.

Let’s first take a look at the underlying problems that make this problem wicked.

The entire parish needs to be involved in the RCIA process

The introduction to the RCIA says that initiation

is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ. Hence, the entire community must help the candidates and the catechumens throughout the process of initiation. (RCIA 9)

See what I mean about this being a “wicked problem”? In many parishes, getting the entire community involved is entirely different and significantly more complex problem than getting the neophytes to come back for mystagogy. But nevertheless, there it is. If the community does not see itself as responsible for the initiation process, your chances of neophytes remaining active in parish life are significantly diminished.

The neophytes have to have experienced true conversion in the RCIA process

This is another example of the complexity or wickedness of the problem. Many catechumenate processes are simply not designed to foster conversion. I came across a parish website the other day that had this at the top of their RCIA page: “RCIA sessions start in October, and the initiation sacraments will be celebrated at the following Easter Vigil.” And then lower on the page was a list of topics that would be covered during each week from October until Lent.

This is not a conversion process. It is a study program. RCIA teams that are committed to study programs tell me that their candidates and catechumens do experience conversion in their programs. And I believe that’s true. But the conversion usually isn’t deep and usually does not result in a lasting change of lifestyle. Study needs to be supplemented with a vast array of other catechetical process so that true conversion to Jesus Christ takes place in the candidates and catechumens. Our driving question has to shift. Instead of asking, “What do they need to know?” we should be asking, “How will we know when they have surrendered their hearts to Christ?”

Converted Christians don’t belong in the RCIA

Last year in my parish, every single person in our RCIA process was a baptized Christian. We had Catholics who were going to church most Sundays but had never been confirmed. We had a Methodist who had been raised in the faith and stopped going to church as a teenager. He was planning to marry a Catholic and wanted to be Catholic for the wedding. We had one Catholic who had celebrated first Communion as a child and then had dropped out. Now he wanted to become active in his faith. All of these people believed in Jesus already. They were already converted before we met them. So why were they in our RCIA process?

Because we don’t have anywhere else to send them. Ideally, we would have a thriving adult formation program that would meet the needs of Christians who need to go deeper in their faith. But we don’t yet have that, so the RCIA team becomes the de facto adult formation team.

In the RCIA, the period of mystagogy is all about Sunday Mass

Sometimes we misunderstand what the period of mystagogy is supposed to look like. “It’s main setting is the so-called Masses for the neophytes, that is, the Sunday Masses of the Easter season” (RCIA 247). If that’s the case, then we have two questions to ask ourselves.

First question: Is Mass a priority for the neophytes and godparents?

Are the neophytes continuing to coming to Mass? If not, are the godparents being helpful in following up with the neophytes to assure their participation in the liturgies of the Easter season?

You might see the deeper “wickedness” of this problem. Oftentimes, some of the neophytes who are baptized at the Easter Vigil had been spotty about coming to Mass during the catechumenate. They are, nevertheless, sent to the Rite of Election and initiated at the Easter Vigil. But if they haven’t made a commitment to Sunday liturgy before baptism, what hope do we have they will be be committed to worship after baptism?

In addition, many godparents are godparents in name only. We meet them on Holy Saturday, and they are on a plane back to their homes on Easter Monday. Even if the godparents are dedicated, faithful Christians, they cannot fulfill their duties from afar.

Second question: Is Mass a priority for the parish?

This may seem to have an obvious answer, but think about it. Is the preaching throughout the Sundays of Easter as powerful as it was during Lent? Is the music as full and as well-planned and led as it was during Lent? Is the liturgical environment as well cared for? Do the parishioners show up in the same numbers and with the same enthusiasm as during Lent? Is the focus of the eight Sundays of Easter on the formation of the neophytes, or do we get distracted by Mothers’ Day, Scout Sunday, Memorial Day, and the youth group car wash?

So what’s the solution?

As I said, this is a wicked problem, and wicked problems have no solution. We can only make things better or worse. I’ll tell you what I’m suggesting to the RCIA team in my parish. And I’d love to hear what your strategies are as well.

I asked our RCIA team to focus on a few small steps in the coming year.

Step 1:  In order to get the community more involved in the initiation process, we are asking parishioners to invite the candidates and catechumens over for dinner. This is actually recommended in the introduction to the RCIA (see 9.1).

Step 2: In order to lead the candidates and catechumens through a true conversion process, we have implemented a process that extends for at least on full liturgical year (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 6), and we are applying the criteria in paragraphs 42 and 120 before they can celebrate the Rite of Acceptance or the Rite of Election.

Step 3: We still accept converted Christians into our process because there is nowhere else to send them in our parish. However, we are very clear among team members that these folks are not “in the RCIA.” They are in an adult formation process, not an initiation process. The methodology, content, and criteria are different for converted Christians.

Step 4: Our immediate goal is to make Sunday Mass a priority for the candidates and catechumens during their formation process. We do not feel it is fair to them to initiate them (or celebrate confirmation and Eucharist with them) if they haven’t yet understood the priority of regular participation in the Sunday Eucharist.

We don’t expect that these strategies will solve the problem of folks not returning for mystagogy. But we do have great hope that they will make the situation better.

What are your strategies?

Okay, now it’s your turn. What strategies have you implemented? Have your strategies made the situation better? We’d love to hear your story.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “RCIA’s most vexing problems—and some creative solutions.”Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:
  1. Annulment do’s and don’ts in the RCIA
  2. Why you should stop trying to solve the mystagogy problem
  3. Four ways the RCIA dismissal teaches faith

Photo courtesy of marin | FreeDigitalPhoto.net

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  1. We also struggle with mystagogy, but until this year we have not had someone who could devote themselves to the program but this year we have a Brother who is in charge of it. That said, we do have a great retention in people staying in the Church and actually participating in different ministries even if they have to form the ministry themselves. Our secret is all you have mentioned. Our program is the whole year starting right after Easter. While we do teach the teachings of the Church each meeting starts out with God moments and them some time discussing Sunday’s gospel which includes the homily. Yes we make it clear that they are to go to Church every Sunday. We have an awesome overnight retreat that makes the group bond even more than just meeting once a week. But we also have the parish involved. After the Easter Vigil, we have the newly Catholics (both the neophytes and the others) write about how RCIA and coming into the Church has changed their lives and it is put into the bulletin with their picture. But the Church knows these people because starting in Lent we have a poster at the entrance to the Church saying please pray for these people as the come to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil and we have their picture with name on the poster. It works as many of the Elect and candidates tell me how different people in the parish have approached them to encourage and welcome them.

  2. “In the RCIA, the period of mystagogy is all about Sunday Mass”

    I used to teach RCIA back around 1999-2002 with my wife. We had no trouble getting both Catholics and neophytes back into class after Easter Sunday. I think one reason is that we did not consider Easter a demarcation point in the learning process. Every class had a “see ya next week, read the handout and be ready to discuss” attitude, including the last class before the Vigil. Our pitch: ok y’all become Catholic next week, getchaself fired up by the Holy Spirit and tell us about it next class.” And we never used the word “mystagogy.” I mean, I love NT Greek and teach some to 6th graders now, but even I find that particular term (along with kerygma) unlovely and alienating.

  3. We continue mystagogy sessions after Easter which concludes with a final dinner party several weeks after Easter at which they receive their sacramental certificate.
    This year we will also be starting a “support group” for RCIA “graduates” that we are calling an academy – we will cover many of the same topics we did in RCIA but expand on those topics. In the past we’ve had people who wanted to become team members because they did not want to leave the “safety” of our sessions and our group. They do not need to be team members so we had to come up with an alternative.

  4. The title of the article is terrible. Call it vexing, puzzling but no wicked. Christian’s suggestions are great. So are Bernadette’s. Sally’s ideas are great also. Need to involve the parish in the process. Need an adult faith formation group in the parish, the neophytes would join that. Need to have active involvement with parish activities during the RCIA process, go to adoration, go visit a homebound person with the Eucharist, go to a St. Vincent de Paul activity, etc. Involve, Involve, Involve during RCIA.

  5. Our RCIA core team has incorporated some elements in the program that hopefully will bear fruit after the Easter Vigil. First of all, we required sponsors to attend some of the classes throughout the year and encouraged their input in group sharing of topics. We were lucky this year to have both catechumens and candidates who became a community and who grew very comfortable with one another. We had an awesome retreat day for them, and asked the sponsors to bring lunch in that day. We are planning some service projects for them as a group during mystagogy (such as serving at homeless shelters, visiting a prison, going to visit at convalescent homes). We held Bible seminars for them and encouraged their participation in parish events so that parishioners can meet them. Since we do have quite a few adults seeking confirmation only, we have a separate faith formation program for those people. Pentecost is the last day of the RCIA program for them, so we are planning a BBQ sendoff at one of the team member’s house.

  6. Our RCIA program implemented a post-RCIA team of two last year. They were sponsors during the year as well so they got to know the candidates and catechumens. They are liaisons between RCIA and adult-education. They invite our neophytes to the adult-ed programs and also help them connect to the various commissions that serve the church and community. Last year’s neophytes were asked to specifically pray during lent for this year’s neophytes.
    During our RCIA year, we blend study with conversion as the year progresses. During Lent, we have an evening retreat and an evening of Stations of the Cross. RCIA is always challenging in the fact that you have a classroom of people in various degrees of faith. It is akin to a one room schoolhouse but faith is a journey for all of us and we always learn from one another.

  7. We had the best participation in the mystagogia in my 25 years of work in the RCIA. I believe one key factor was that this year, at my first inquiry session, I talked about how important it is that we look for the “God moments” in our lives. I could hardly believe the depth of sharing at the second session, something that usually took at least a month to six weeks before people started sharing about how God was being revealed to them in their daily experiences. The other factor was strong godparents and sponsors.Seven out of the eight people chose friends who were strong Catholics in our parish. We had no dismissal rites this year because the only catechumen had been coming to Mass every Sunday with his wife and children over the past eleven years, and so we discerned that he did not need the dismissal rite.
    The six neophytes and their sponsors participated in every mystagogia session until Pentecost, and the following week we ended with a picnic! The looking for “God moments” is now spreading to our 50 homebound to help lift their spirits. It has truly been a blessed year as I now move into being liturgist at our motherhouse. Hopefully in a year or two I can get back into RCIA ministry in our parish. Thanks, Nick and Diana, for the countless things I have learned from you! I plan to stay connected with your website. Peace!

  8. Wow, it sounds wonderful Celeste! Great job. You really are a blessing to these folks.


  9. I really enjoyed this particular article. As one that went through the RCIA process last year, and sponsored thie past year, I feel that the RCIA process does not help create a greater awareness of mystagogy throughout the entire process. It almost feels, at times, that there is a process, and if we can just get them through the process we can figure out who is going to be active or not. While I know that I wanted to be active from the start, I don’t see that many of those who went through the process active at all, and it leads me to wonder how we can help instill an understanding of what all each person can do within the Church. While the focus during mystagogy is about helping during the liturgy, I also believe that there are those who can help with those outside ministries that help create a better sense of community involvement from the parish, or even the Diocese. I find it increasingly more important that we are instilling this into those who are younger and getting into the Church, either as children or as young adults.

    Thank you for this blog post. It has helped me to create some ideas that I plan on bringing to the adult faith formation director of my parish.

    God Bless,

    -Nick Pearson

  10. Thanks for your comment Nick! I’m so glad the post was helpful for you. Keep up the great work.


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