Conversion and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIA“Lead with the beautiful.”  That’s what theologian Robert Barron told a roomful of catechists at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference earlier this year. He insisted that our Catholic tradition is imbued with breathtaking beauty from our art, our music, our devotional practices, our care for the poor, and most of all our love for Jesus Christ who suffered, died, rose again and who opened the gates of heaven to all believers for all eternity. Doctrine and moral teaching will come, but first we must capture hearts!  Capture hearts!

Focus on conversion in the RCIA

All of us worry about neophytes who don’t return after initiation. Some critics say this is because the RCIA process fails to teach enough doctrine. Indeed, the RCIA does say that we must teach the dogma of the church in its entirety (RCIA 75). But has that trumped the primary concern of the rite that “the whole initiation must bear a markedly paschal character since the initiation of Christ is the first sacramental sharing in Christ’s dying and rising” (RCIA 8)? What the rite is telling us is that the most important element of initiatory formation is conversion of believers and incorporation into the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

Neophytes are not leaving because we have not given them enough Catholic doctrine.  They are leaving because we have not made them into committed disciples of the Lord.  Conversion has yet to happen. We are not helping people enter into communion with Jesus Christ.

This is true not just for new Catholics, but lifelong Catholics as well. Based on the findings of the Pew Poll, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” of 2008, only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing their faith.

If we have any hope of our new Catholics not becoming one of those statistics, then we must make conversion our first priority when ministering to inquirers, catechumens, and candidates.  Catholic doctrine is a pearl of great price, but it is meaningless without evangelized souls to embrace it and make it a lived reality in their lives.

Conversion-centered questions

The heart of formation in every session, every gathering of candidates from the time they knock on our doors until they are fully incorporated in the eucharistic community is conversion to Christ. We must consistently ask:

  • Who is Jesus for you?
  • In what way has Jesus been present in your life this week?
  • When you consider your life, in what way has God been guiding and leading you into his loving and merciful kingdom?
  • In what way are you living in intimate communion with God in Christ?
  • In what way is God calling you to embrace his Son’s dying and rising in your own life this week?
  • In what way is God calling you to incorporate and live what we have shared here today with others?
  • In what way is Jesus inviting you this week to follow his example in the Gospel?
  • In what way have you reflected this week on the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ who is leading your life?
  • In what way is God calling you to witness your faith in Jesus with others?

Seekers will come, and they will stay if we lead with the beautiful. We do that by telling stories of God’s work in our own lives. We do that by telling stories of God’s work in the history of the church. And we do that by telling stories of God’s work in the history of the world.

This is what God has called us to—to witness to God’s love to all who are lost in a world that each day becomes more secularized. We have done a great work in our ministry to candidates for initiation. But these are urgent times.  The Body of Christ is hemorrhaging.  You have the tools to put a plug in the dike.  Godspeed, good and faithful servants of the Lord.

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

See also these related articles:

  1. Move your RCIA process just three feet
  2. The RCIA in a digital world
  3. Journey to the source: Five things you need to know about the RCIA
  4. RCIA as a little black Fiat ministry
  5. Reasons to stop doing RCIA the way you’ve always done it

“El David de Miguel Ángel” by Jorge Castro | Flickr

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  1. Great article Nick. I agree, the main cause of recitivism is that candidates are not evangelized during the inquirery/Precat period. #42 in the Ritual speaks of “evidence of first faith” and “initial conversion and intention to change…”. That is why this period has no time limit. Unfortunately, candidates are moved along without meeting these requirements. We have to ask why are they not evangelized? The main problem I believe resides in the Catechist. The Catechist must be “converted”, a disciple, a living witness to the faith they proclaim. In team training we say you can’t give what you don’t have. The conversion centered questions must be asked and answered by the Catechist first before they can pass them on to candidates.

  2. I’m glad you liked the article Walt, but I can’t take credit for it. It was written by Mary Birmingham. Our new web design could do a better job of highlighting author names, but if you look right above the post title, you’ll see the byline.


  3. Mary, a great article that provokes a couple of comments:
    Firstly, about the rite: When spending time reading and reflecting on the rite it becomes very clear that there are only a couple of references to knowing doctrine, mostly in #75 and briefly in section 5 “Reception of baptized candidates into full communion of the Catholic church” (rite # numbers will vary depending on national version – US, Canada, AU or GB). Outside these couple of clauses, the direct and inferred intent of the rite is totally focused on conversion to Christ.

    As practitioners of the RCIA, perhaps we could spend more time reflecting on and implementing the intent of RCIA # 105, 106, and 107 (AU numbers but are probably same for US) by using Mary’s conversion-centred questions before moving a catechumen to the rite of election. The same applies to baptized candidates in deciding if they are ready for reception into full communion. These RCIA clauses clearly and firmly require that WE (catechists, sponsors, community) declare that the person has “undergone a conversion in mind and action” to Christ. This places enormous responsibility on us to lead a catechumen or baptized candidate on a journey of conversion to Christ. As Walt points out, this starts from the beginning of the precatechumenate and inquiry period. We can only do this by being constant practitioners of our conversion – I can only pass on what I have experienced myself.

    Second: your comment that the Body of Christ is haemorrhaging should be something that all of us respond to with the urgency we would if it was our own body or the body of someone we love dearly that was haemorrhaging. One way to respond is to become a Christian mentor. I will be a mentor in my wider parish community, not just to a RCIA catechumen or candidate. To be a mentor means I have gone through a process of learning about, understanding, applying, gaining the expertise and experience with my own conversion that I can now share that joyful experience with others to help them do the same.

    Mary, your conversion questions are a useful way to help us become a mentor to others. Perhaps we should be asking: Who could I ask in my parish community to be a mentor to me, and, who could I be a mentor to in the community? Maybe this will help stop the haemorrhaging.

  4. After reading your article I looked at the Pew forum here : According to them, if you look at the conclusion, 4 in 10 who become former Catholics that are now unaffiliated ” indicated they just do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions (42%). ”

    On the other hand, those who leave to become part of a Protestant group –” When asked why they joined their Protestant denomination, former Catholics most commonly cite enjoying the religious services and the style of worship of their new faith, with fully eight-in-ten (81%) expressing this point of view. Feeling called by God to join their current faith was also mentioned by a majority (62%) of those raised Catholic who have since become Protestant. Those who now belong to evangelical denominations are especially likely (74%) to say this was an important factor in their conversion, compared with just 31% who switched to a mainline Protestant faith. Three-in-ten former Catholics who have become Protestant say they were attracted by a particular minister or pastor, and the same proportion say they joined their new religion because a member invited them.

    More than one-quarter of former Catholics who are now Protestant (28%) say they joined their current faith because they married a member of their current religion.”

    Theses statements would suggests that conversion , history and doctrine including the moral teaching are all very important for avoiding attrition. Many former Catholics I have met had no depth of understanding of the sacraments , of how the Church began and continued, the importance of Apostolic succession, why Tradition is necessary, and so forth. It is vital to teach that there is truth and why truth is important and how it is to be found. This I think is of prime importance—this then lays the foundation for the beauty you speak about and the foundation for conversion and remaining in the Catholic faith. One has to see the importance of truth and how to know it.

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