Do you have competing values in your RCIA process?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAOne of my New Year’s resolutions is to lose five pounds. I am not that hopeful. I’ve been trying to lose five pounds for about ten years now. I have an ideal weight in mind. I know I’d feel better and look better if I was at that weight. What is stopping me?

Well, I also like pasta. And wine. And chocolate. My value of an ideal weight clashes with my values for sitting down to sumptuous meals. So far, the value I put on being at an ideal weight is secondary to the value I put on eating foods I like.

Some of us also experience a clash of values in our initiation processes. I often ask RCIA teams to tell me what they think the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults means when it says that “the initiation of catechumens is a gradual process” (RCIA 4). Almost every time, they give me some version of “the Holy Spirit leads someone to faith and discipleship slowly, over time, as the catechumen is ready. There is no rush.”

Then I ask them to describe their process as it actually happens. For the majority, RCIA begins in the fall and ends with Easter.

As you can see, these two realities are at odds. The initiation process cannot be both gradual and rushed. It cannot be both crammed into a school-year schedule and slow.

Here is what is curious. If we believe in the value of initiation as a gradual process, why do we rush it? I think it is because we have other, competing values that are more important—just as eating is more important to me than dieting. Some of us might value not burning out the team with an ongoing process. Or maybe we don’t want to tell a catechumen he is not yet ready for initiation. Perhaps we don’t want to confront the pastor or the DRE who insists that we get this done by Easter. Or we might not have the time or energy to learn how to make the process gradual.

These are all significant values. However, none of them outweigh the value of a gradual process. There are three key reasons a gradual initiation process is important, and any one of these must take priority over other values we might have.

A gradual process is the only way to respect the movement of the Holy Spirit

You know this is true from your own journey of faith. All of us have had significant growth points as disciples. At times, we could feel the gentle urging of the Spirit to change direction or make a decision. But we also knew we were not yet ready. This happened to me years ago when I decided to leave formal ministry and move to California for a career in publishing. It took over a year of prayer, prodding, signs, questioning, deep breathing, and investigating before I finally said “yes” to where the Spirit was leading me. If anyone had told me that I’d have to move “by Easter,” I would have just said no.

A gradual process is the only way to respect the flow of relationships

You also know this is true from your own experience of relationships. Think of your spouse. You might be one of those couples who fell in love instantly and got married months (or weeks!) later. But you also know couples who dated for years and had long engagements before getting married. Everyone is different, and every relationship is different. We have to allow for a gradual growth in the catechumens’ relationship with Jesus and their relationship with the community. Even those who fall in love instantly will need a gradual process of learning what a love-relationship with Jesus entails. It is not a process that can be rushed.

The Mystery of God unfolds gradually

A huge reason I was able to move from the Midwest to California is because I don’t consider either to be my primary residence. I don’t live in California as much as I live in the Mystery. That might sound a little woo woo, but think about it. Where is “home” for you? For a true disciple, home is where the Spirit leads us. You probably get that. But you probably didn’t always get that. I know I didn’t. Even though I was born and raised Catholic, it took me a long time to understand who God is. And I still don’t have a full understanding. God is revealed to me slowly, gradually, as I live more and more into the Mystery.

Now if those of us who are life-long Christians are still discovering what it means to live in the Mystery of God, how can we expect a catechumen to even begin to understand within just few months? Catechumens don’t have to have our level of understanding of course, but they need to at least be introduced to the fullness of the Mystery as best we are able to describe it. And that happens in the celebration of the liturgical year—a full liturgical year. That’s why the U.S. bishops tell us the catechumenate must last for at least one full liturgical year. That’s the bare minimum. It could be longer—several years if necessary (see RCIA 78).

What do you think?

Do you and your team value a gradual initiation process? What are the competing values that get in your way? What steps will you take this year to move to a more gradual RCIA process?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Is your RCIA process slow enough? “ Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:
  1. Discover a simple way to help the whole parish catechize the RCIA way
  2. How to use your parish as your RCIA textbook
  3. How to reduce hoop jumping in the RCIA
  4. Is your RCIA team cooperating with God’s grace?
  5. How to completely transform the way catechumens learn in the RCIA

“You know you want it” by Bryan Ochalla | Flickr

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  1. There is much wisdom in this article. We moved to a gradual process a few years ago and it works very well. People can come into the RCIA at any time during the year; rather than telling someone to wait until September, they begin when the Holy Spirit is prompting them. If they have to wait, they might not come in September. It isn’t as tidy for the team but it is better for the catechumens. One challenge is that the inquirers and sponsors need to be informed up front so that they realize that it could be a commitment of about two years. It is a journey of faith and God speaks to each of us individually so we need to treat each catechumen as an individual. It is an amazing privilege to be involved in RCIA. Thank you for all that you do.

  2. I agree with John Spotorno’s comment. Although all inquirers are individuals and need to be treated as such, it has been my observation that many of the people who come to the RCIA have been on the journey for a while. The “gradual process” for them started long before they came to the RCIA.

  3. My parish is in the fourth year of a year-round catechumenate that includes adults and children. While many adults have been on the gradual process of their faith journey long before they come to us, they haven’t made that formal decision to begin the process in the Catholic Church. And there will be road bumps along the way as they become acquainted with Church teachings and learn to think and act as Catholic Christians. I have yet to hear anyone say that they wish the process were shorter because they already knew everything, they already had a strong faith and relationship with Jesus. Everyone is grateful for the time they spent in the catechumenate to help give them a stronger faith and stable foundation for the next part of the journey, life as a fully initiated Catholic.

  4. @John Spotorno and @Mary, while it is true that the Holy Spirit has been at work in someone before they arrive at your door, and while it is true that the reception of Sacraments should be a beginning, not an ending, the statistics simply do not bear out the conclusion that a short, school-year-model RCIA is working (as in, is actually creating faithful and faith-filled Catholic Christians). The percentages of neophytes who are no longer practicing the faith six months after Easter are embarrassingly high. Linking RCIA to a nine-month school-year only increases a sense that the Sacraments are “graduation,” and thus an ending.

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