Six things that are probably wrong with your RCIA — and how to fix them

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIASometimes I fantasize about being the RCIA Czar. I don’t really want to be a czar. I just wish parishes could get closer to the vision of what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it called for the restoration of the catechumenate.

Now you might be wondering how I know what the Council had in mind. After all, I was only eight years old when they wrapped up their final session. Well, I know because they told us. In one of their final documents, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, the Council fathers wrote:

The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period for the whole Christian life. It is an apprenticeship of appropriate length, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher.

In most parishes (not readers of TeamRCIA of course!), it seems to me that the catechumenate is mostly “a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts.” There is, as far as I can see, little or no “apprenticeship ” taking place. And because of that, we are mostly turning out nominal Catholics instead of “disciples [who] are joined to Christ their Teacher.”

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Strengths Based Leadership for RCIA Teams.” Click here for more information.


So what can we do about this? How can we get closer to the Council’s vision of an apprenticeship that makes catechumens into true disciples of Christ? Here are six essential changes we would have to make in most parishes.

1. Read the RCIA and master its six principles

My first act as czar would be to require every RCIA team member to actually read the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and to master its six fundamental principles. I regularly encounter team members who don’t even know there is a ritual book. This is not their fault. Whoever volunteered them for the team is responsible for training them.

For more on why it is important to read the RCIA, start here: 6 reasons you need to read the RCIA

2. Stop putting baptized people in the catechumenate

Alright, there is some wiggle room here. You can put some baptized people in the catechumenate. But most of them do not belong there. The U.S Bishops told us this 25 years ago. It’s time to start paying attention:

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 (National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 31).

For more on this, see: Why your candidates might not belong in the RCIA

3. Stop using PowerPoint slides

And stop using handouts, videos, textbooks, and “guest speakers.” Because I am a friendly czar, I want to grant a little wiggle room here also. But I am afraid to do so because RCIA teams almost always use these kinds of props to shield themselves from sharing their own faith. If we stop putting baptized people into the catechumenate, we are left with people at the very beginning stages of faith. They do not need college-level or even high-school level catechesis. They need what the General Directory for Catechesis calls “initiatory catechesis.” Or, they may still be in need of the prior step: evangelization. The General Directory for Catechesis identifies three levels of catechesis: evangelization, initiatory catechesis, and ongoing formation. If we ever use a textbook or videos in catechesis, it is usually only during the third and most advanced level, ongoing formation. The first two levels of catechesis are about developing a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, not with Father So-and-So who sounds smart on TV.

For more on the three levels of catechesis, see: RCIA training level one: evangelization

4. Stop talking

One of the biggest mistakes we make as RCIA catechists is that we talk too much. Initiatory catechesis is mostly mystagogical. That means it is a recalling and exploring of the experience of Jesus Christ that the inquirers or catechumens have had in the past week. In order to explore that experience, we have to actively listen to what the inquires or catechumens experienced. It’s hard work. It’s difficult. It’s also absolutely necessary.

For more on active listening, read this: Five reasons to stop talking to catechumens

5. Stop kidding around

Most RCIA teams I’ve encountered teach adults as though they were kids. Adults learn differently than children. The pedagogy we use for children just simply won’t work with adults. If we are going to be serious about RCIA catechesis, we have to get serious about learning how adults learn.

For some principles on adult learning, read this: What research says about teaching adults in the RCIA

6. Put on your big-girl shoes

Or your big-boy shoes. Most of us are waiting for the perfect leader to come along to show us what we are supposed to be doing, to find us more catechumens for us, to recruit more team members for us, to make decisions about the future. The fact is, you are that leader. I know you aren’t perfect; who is? I know you might not want to be a leader; neither does the pope. The Holy Spirit gave you the gifts you need and chose you to be a leader in your parish. You have two choices: say “no thank you, Holy Spirit” or become a better leader.

For more on leadership in the RCIA, check out this article:  Start changing your RCIA process now—before it’s too late!

I know all of that seems like a lot. But think of it as a year-long plan. Make a schedule for yourself to improve just one thing in your RCIA process this month. Work on that for 30 days. Then choose another thing to improve, and work on that for 30 days. And so on for 12 months. If you do that, you will be amazed at how much you have grown by this time next year.

You can do it. You have the gifts, and you have the talent. And we’re always here to help.

What do you struggle with?

Please take a moment to share with the rest of us the first thing you are going to tackle and how you are going to do it.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Strengths Based Leadership for RCIA Teams.” Click here for more information.


See also these related articles:
  1. Start changing your RCIA process now—before it’s too late!
  2. Can your RCIA team recognize these 6 deadly barriers to conversion?
  3. 5 ways RCIA leaders can overcome “the way we’ve always done it”
  4. Make the shift from “RCIA team” to “coalition for change”
  5. Get an RCIA vision for your parish (angelic visitation optional)

“In Mommy’s Shoes 2/366” by Michelle Peters – Jones | Flickr

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  1. your ideas and suggestions are ideal and call for a perfect RCIA process. I would like that also, However we live in a real world and some of what you suggest is difficult. depends a lot on committed team and sponsors. this is my goal for this year, more training/discussions for team and sponsors.
    we are beginning to have a near year round process and 2 years for catechumens, especially those from other faith communities.
    thanks for all you do, God Bless you. Margaret

  2. Hi Margaret. Wow, that sounds like a terrific goal. And congratulations on beginning to move toward a year-round process. I agree that some of the steps I suggested are difficult. I also know that all of them are doable, and most teams have the talent and commitment to accomplish them. The secret is to start small and go slow. It sounds like that is exactly what you are doing, and I’m very excited for you and your team. Thanks for chiming in. –Nick

  3. Nick, these are good points about typical things done wrong in the RCIA.
    1. I read the linked article to support the reading of the RCIA manual! I’m totally with you on this principle of getting to the source first and not be content with intermediary sources! As director of our diocesan Pastoral Institute, I apply this principle to our faith formation courses in that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the text and lecture for them, etc. Our ministry formation course on the RCIA is based on the RCIA text! The whole book (RCIA study edition) is to be covered and explained throughout the course with the help and guide of the instructor.
    2. I know, but somebody else has this call.
    3. Is this so as to get media out of the way of preaching the gospel, a heart to heart communication of Jesus and his message of salvation, why you refer to evangelization on this point? I still believe media gets in the way as secondary sources from say, the Bible, when it comes to proclaiming and sharing about God, Jesus, etc.
    4. So, this is about intentional inquiry and intent listening?
    5. So how adults learn is initially by experience, but eventually by hearing and reading? Faith does come by hearing the gospel preached. Would that be an experience in itself? The Emmaus experience (Lk 24) tells us that in order to recognize the Risen Christ they had already learned what the Scriptures prophesied, etc. What about the conversion of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-) who was reading the Scriptures but converted because he was helped by Phillip to understand and come to faith. I don’t know… this point with its linked article seems inconclusive (the last March 2012 comment by Jay was not responded to) as to how adults really learn “based on research”. Instead of bringing back the 70’s methods, I’d rather look at Scripture as to how God teaches and how people come to faith. I do see a first approach to get the attention of the person, like with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4), but I also see teaching the message (doctrine) in the process and in its objective to bring people to faith. The linked article to this point implies that adult learning is about experiencing the Risen Christ, but we cannot elicit or provoke that other than by “preaching” or teaching the Word of God the message or “doctrine”. If faith truly comes by hearing what is preached, then the doctrinal message can help experience the Risen Christ. Doesn’t the faith act need a faith content, namely Jesus, to believe? Presenting or teaching about God and Jesus, is already teaching “doctrine”, yet it seems this is not what you are saying, or what you are actually wanting to say?
    6. So, the point is to take responsibility and be up to the challenge of leadership and get to work in finding out or making sure you know what you are supposed to be doing, find more catechumens, recruit more team members, and start to make decisions about the future, or rather how to insure some future for the ministry. Is this correct?

  4. Hi Rey. Wow, thanks for such a detailed response! Let me just deal with the point about adult learning. Learning Christianity is an apprenticeship process. Like learning to cook, play baseball, or dance, you don’t need to go to school to get the basics. If you want to be a master chef or a pro ballplayer, you will need more in-depth training. In the RCIA, however, we are dealing with beginners in the faith. They learn by doing. This is scriptural, and it is the way Jesus taught. He had the disciples out doing the work of discipleship. Pope John Paul II told us the primary content of the faith is the person of Jesus Christ. So, especially for inquirers and catechumens, our primary task is to introduce them to Jesus and help them develop a relationship with Jesus. According to the RCIA, we do that through four cornerstone lifestyle conversions: a conversion to Jesus as the living Word of God, a conversion to Jesus as found in the gathered community (the Body of Christ), a conversion to Jesus as sacramental celebration, and a conversion to Jesus manifest in the poor (see RCIA 75).

    Knowing the doctrines of the faith is necessary but not sufficient. If all we do is deliver doctrine, we are missing the primary content of the faith–the person of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict said so in his apostolic letter on the Year of Faith. I wrote about it here:

    I hope that clarifies some. Thanks again for chiming in.


  5. Thanks, Nick. I read your 2012 commentary about content not being sufficient. I think I get you and do not disagree with you in essence, though that “WE are the content” may be confusing. I think it’s dangerous to blur the distinction between the end and the means, as if between the Master and the disciple, the Gospel Message and the gospel messenger. Wouldn’t this make the catechist a criteria of faith unto him or herself. This may form catechumens into cafeteria Catholics that pick and choose, etc. I didn’t get to read the comments below that article, so I may be jumping on an obvious question that was already responded to.

    But back to your recent response here, you know that the “heart” in Hebrew biblical terms is not mindless nor blind but rather includes the mind (a Greek concept) with its openness to the beauty of Truth, the Truth of Jesus and His Gospel, that leads to Jesus as our Way of Life in following and imitating Him, as a way of living the Truth and living in the Truth of Jesus.

    I think we catechists should stop giving the term “doctrine” and “dogma” such a bad wrap and reputation, as if it was bad news. Hello! This is the Good News! And this Good News should not be shared and taught in a heartless or mindless way as if not inspired by the Word God and as if the Word of God itself was not inspiring- and life changing! This disconnected way of presenting doctrine with no link or relation to the mysterious reality of God and his grace does not form but rather deform in discipleship.

    I think we should stop this false dichotomy between heart and mind, between loving and knowing Jesus, between experience and understanding, etc. There is distinction but not separation in the teaching and learning dynamic of discipleship.

    RCIA 75 states that the candidates are to be “given suitable pastoral formation and guidance” to train them in the Christian life and bring them up to maturity. The first way, it says, is a “suitable catechesis” that is “gradual and complete” that leads to “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate”.

    As I read it, catechetical formation is key to what follows: community life, liturgical life, and evangelization. Your reference to the poor is only an implication of a part of this fourth point that I see rather as part of community life in line with what Acts 2:44-45 depicts of the first community. But actually, RCIA 75.4 says catechumens are to “spread the Gospel and build up the Church” by witnessing and professing their faith. This is not just about doing community service hours! It is about evangelizing by word and deed. Besides, we know that faith grows when it is lived and shared with others. But there must be a faith to live and share in the first place.

    My point is that deep faith formation can give the candidates the interpretative keys, the Christian lenses, the eyes of faith, to believe and “perceive” that Jesus is truly and really present in His Church, His sacraments and in our Christ-given mission to make disciples. Recall that after sending us to “make disciples”, He assures us, “I am with you always” (cf., Mt 28:19-20)!

    Without sound faith content the other experiences may lack true Christian significance. Faith formation must be “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts” that leads to appreciate the “profound sense of the mystery of salvation”! Without this faith content, community life is just a being part of a “family” of nice people or “friends”; liturgical participation would be just going through the motions of religious rites with these nice people (Oh! And they get to shake hands at one point!); evangelization is replaced with social work and just doing nice things for other because that is what nice people at church do.

    I think that without an obedient faith to the Content of Faith (God and Jesus, and His saving message revealed in words and deeds), there cannot be a meaningful love experience (Charity) of Christ’s sacred, loving and life-changing presence in community, liturgy and mission.

    Even if we start by going through the motions of community life, liturgical rites and missionary practice, in order to lead to a deeper comprehension and theologically meaningful experience of the mystery of Christian life, we must inevitably form in the faith as mentioned above.

    Wouldn’t this be mystagogy? It seems to me that mystagogy pervades everything before, throughout and beyond the process.

    It is exciting to be in touch with people that are passionate about making disciples. Please be patient with me as I’m just coming in and joining the conversations. I appreciate whatever reference links you can give me of what was said before.

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