RCIA’s crucial three-step communication system

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAGraphic designer Alan Fletcher once wrote:

Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modeled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space.” Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note—silences which give the form”… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission. (The Art of Looking Sideways, p. 370)

There is a similar idea in Scripture.

[The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Is your RCIA catechesis all wind and fire?

In our catechesis, I think we are often too noisy. We mistake content for communication. But God is in the silence. This is a frustrating and counterintuitive idea for us catechists. We have all this stuff we have to communicate and precious little time to do it. How, for heaven’s sake, are we going to get it all in? We will have to schedule more classes, extend our meeting times from 60 minutes to 90 minutes, cut out the social time, and get down to business. More wind. More fire. More stuff. That’s what will get the message across, right?

However, as important as it is to get all the stuff in, we cannot mistake content for communication. The General Directory for Catechesis says the number one priority in the formation of catechists is “to enable catechists to transmit the Gospel…. The purpose of formation, therefore, is to make the catechists capable of communicating: ‘The summit and center of catechetical formation lies in an aptitude and ability to communicate the Gospel message. [Pope John Paul II, Catechesis In Our Time, 5c]’” (GDC 235).

Communication requires three things:

  1. Content (an idea, concept, feeling, information, or doctrine in the mind of the sender)
  2. Encoding (turning the content into words or symbols and sending to the receiver)
  3. Decoding (translation of the words or symbols by the receiver in a way the receiver understands)

Don’t forget step 3

As RCIA catechists, we tend to focus on steps one and two: picking a doctrine and talking about it. We often assume that step 3 happens—that the catechumens and candidates understand what we are sending—but we don’t really know. Or more likely, we do know. We know in our gut they are not getting it. The solution a lot of us reach for in this communication problem is to say more. We repeat, we add content, we stir up more wind and fire in order to create an impact.

But God is not in the words. God is in the sheer silence. Silences give the form, as Isaac Stern said in the quote above.

I know this is hard. You’re thinking, how are we ever going to communicate the doctrine if we just sit there in silence? Think about that question for a minute. Is it really our job to communicate the doctrine? Doctrine is step 2, encoding. The content, step 1, is Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II said:

At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth…. The primary and essential object of catechesis is… “the mystery of Christ.” Catechizing is in a way to lead a person to study this mystery in all its dimensions (Catechesis in Our Time)

The content we are to communicate is a person. More than that, it is the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. How in the world do you communicate the mystery of a person?

What are the RCIA seekers listening for?

Let’s imagine this. Imagine you went away to college, and that is where you met your future spouse. You came home on Christmas break, and you said to your parents, “I met a girl. I think she might be the one.” And then you proceeded to talk nonstop about her for the rest of your time at home. But your parents weren’t really listening. If you are from a certain time and a certain culture, your parents might have been listening for three essentials. Is she Catholic? Is she from our culture? Is she good enough for our child?

Now you might not really have cared about those questions. That was not the information you wanted to communicate. But at that moment, that is all your parents could hear. And until you went through all three steps of communication so that they could “decode” the essentials about this new woman, they wouldn’t be ready to hear what you thought was important about your beloved.

The point is that as catechists we do not have to sit in silence and wait for the Holy Spirit to magically infuse the seekers with knowledge. But we do have to quiet down a little. We have to focus first on saying only what is essential. We have to allow time for those essentials to sink in. And we have to remember that our first job is not about communicating doctrine. Doctrine is important, but it is a tool for communicating a person. And to communicate a person, we have to invite people into relationship.

In the example of the college student, the only way his parents were really going to know how special his beloved was is to meet her and get to know her personally. And even then, it might take years before they fully accept her.

Focus first on the essentials

The young man’s job is not to tell his parents everything he knows and loves about his beloved. It is to tell them the essentials, to bring them into relationship with his beloved, and to quiet down a bit as they, as a family, explore all the dimensions of the mystery of that love relationship.

The only way the seekers in our RCIA process will come to know Jesus is if we communicate in similar way.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Storytelling in the RCIA—Teach Like Jesus.” Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:
  1. A blueprint for RCIA formation
  2. A Jewish screenwriter’s tips for RCIA catechesis
  3. Episode 90: Using storytelling in RCIA catechesis
  4. RCIA’s crucial three-step communication system

“Light filtering through bomb holes” by butterbeeee | Flickr

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  1. Nick
    Modern cultures, particularly western culture doesn’t like silence. For example, think about the “noise” in our normal daily activities. With our fast life and work cycles, driven by media noise to keep us moving on to the next thing, we have conditioned ourselves to avoid silence. When was the last time you allowed a 30 second silent pause in conversation to absorb the ideas and concepts being discussed? (30 seconds will feel like an eternity – try it!)

    However in our own spiritual experiences, we know that it is often in the silence of our reflecting and discerning on something that we have heard or experienced about Jesus that the Spirit enlightens us to the next step/episode in the mystery of following Christ.

    So too will it be for our inquirers, catechumens and candidates. Whenever we communicate a message or enable an experience, then they will need time (and silence from us) to decode the content, discern a response, and act.

    It is also useful to think of our role in communicating as catechists within a standard communication model. The step after the receiver has decoded the message is “feedback”. It is the feedback that the receiver gives to the sender that enables the sender to discern the understanding of and the next response to the message that was sent.

    Our model for feedback is Christ himself; look at the number of times he had to “repackage” the same message about himself to the disciples when the feedback he was receiving showed they didn’t get it. Consider also at the number of times Christ used time-out, silence, lonely places, boat trips and mountain tops to give the disciples the time, space and distance from “noise of the day” to enable the disciples to discern his message. At other times he used meals (and presumably the local custom of wine with it) to create the time, space and atmosphere for the host and guests to get to know him and his message.

    I also imagine that the walks with the disciples from one village to the next, the times with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the meals with the tax-collectors and Zacchaeus, the discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well, and so on, would not have involved Jesus giving long or constant catechetical instruction; rather, what I imagine is periods of long silence as the discussion is absorbed, discerned and clarified. What do you imagine it would have been like?

    Perhaps we could incorporate more of Jesus’ models into our models for catechesis.

  2. I once read an article about how liturgical ministers work at inserting moments of silence into the planned liturgy when the focus should have been on prayerfully inserting noise and movement into the silence where God is.
    I cannot imagine an Inquiry session without words. I know that is what we humans use for communication of our thoughts. Words and facial expressions and gestures are all important. But there are valuable moments of silence while Inquirers are absorbing, thinking, deciding, which I should not be interrupting with words.

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