How to reduce hoop jumping in the RCIA

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAWe have all experienced hoop jumpers. A hoop jumper is someone who is present in body only, putting in the bare minimum required in order to “get baptized” (or become Catholic, or whatever their goal is). Sometimes these folks undergo actual conversion and move from hoop jumping to discipleship. But usually, they just jump through the hoops.

There is only one effective way to counter hoop jumping. We have to stop providing hoops.

Of course, none of us think of the formation we provide as “hoops.” But that is how hoop jumpers see what we do. Explaining to them the importance of the “hoops” won’t change their perception. So our only option is to stop asking them to do things that they perceive as hoops.

Discover each seeker’s story

Usually, a hoop jumper is someone who has a good goal (baptism, for example) but thinks of the requirements to achieve the goal as trivial or unnecessary. Our challenge is to create a customized formation path that the seeker sees as helpful and meaningful for his or her life.

This insight is actually embedded in the vision of the RCIA. The RCIA tells us that the faith journey for each seeker varies. The journeys vary for several reasons:

  • the many forms of God’s grace
  • the free cooperation of the individual seeker
  • the action of the Church
  • the circumstances of time and place (RCIA 5)

If we take each of the variables seriously, we will have as many different formation processes as we have seekers. And that idea stops most of us. We can’t possibly create a customized formation plan for every seeker. There are three big reasons we tell ourselves that this is not possible.

There isn’t enough time

The first objection we have is that if we took time to go into each seeker’s personal story and adapt our program for each one, we wouldn’t have time to get everything in. This objection is usually raised when we tell ourselves that the catechumenate runs on a set schedule–perhaps fall to Easter Vigil. In fact, the rite says just the opposite:

The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God and on various circumstances, such as the program of instruction for the catechumenate, the number of catechists, deacons, and priests, the cooperation of the individual catechumens, the means necessary for them to come to the site of the catechumenate and spend time there, the help of the local community. Nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori.

The time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough–several years if necessary–for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong. (RCIA 76, emphasis added)

We have to take as much time as we need for each individual. If we are attentive and obedient to God’s will, the time frame will be determined by the Holy Spirit and not an arbitrary schedule that we set.

We don’t have enough team members

Teams sometimes worry that adapting a faith formation process for each seeker would overwhelm the limited resources of the team. We can free ourselves from this concern if we realize the RCIA makes no mention of an RCIA team. The vision of the rite, the whole thing, is intended to be carried out without a team. That sounds a little shocking, but it’s true. Instead of a separate RCIA team, the rite intends for initiation to be “the responsibility of all the baptized” (RCIA 9).

Click for your FREE copy of: “Five ways to make the RCIA the responsibility of the whole parish”

That insight raises a further objection that it is difficult to get the parish involved in the initiation process. That may be true, but it doesn’t change the goal. The solution to apathetic parishioners is not to create a team of six to twelve specialists who relieve the parish community of their “apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ” (RCIA 9).

Instead, the role of the RCIA team is primarily to find ways to coach the parish community to enthusiastically engage in their vocation. If we start to think of the entire parish as the “RCIA team,” then we suddenly have plenty of help with shaping an individual faith journey for each seeker.

We have to cover all the doctrine

This is perhaps the most strenuous objection. If we do not provide a systematic, syllabus-driven series of instruction in Catholic teaching, we are not fulfilling our proper duty. This kind of teaching often takes the form of preparing the seekers to intellectually explain or defend the theological truths of revelation as set down for us by the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church).

That is a good goal to have for a fully-formed Catholic, but it is not the primary goal of the initiation process. There are three levels of catechesis: initial proclamation, initiatory catechesis, and ongoing catechesis. The RCIA is primarily focused on the first two levels. Once the seekers enter into the catechumenate, the proper formation for them is initiatory catechesis, which is described in paragraph 75 of the RCIA. Here are some of the characteristics of initiatory catechesis. It is:

  • An extended period
  • A suitable pastoral formation
  • A training in Christian life (which includes four manifestations: word, community, worship, witness)
  • Complete in its coverage
  • Accommodated to the liturgical year
  • An appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts
  • A participation in the profound mystery of salvation

Doctrine (“dogmas and precepts”) is accounted for in that list, but there is so much more to a catechesis that is “complete in its coverage” than “a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts” (Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, 14). In order to qualify for initiation, the catechumens require only “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts.” Appropriate for what? Appropriate for living a missionary life in the four manifestations of word, community, worship, and witness.

This is not a high bar. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis tells the story of the Samaritan woman who became a missionary evangelist after a single conversation with Jesus. If she were one of our catechumens and she so completely grasped the mystery of faith and demonstrated how to live it out by evangelizing an entire town, would we deny her baptism because she had not yet completed our course of instruction? Doctrine is important, but it has to be taught appropriately within the entire scope of a complete catechesis. A syllabus should not determine the faith journey and pastoral formation of a seeker. Rather, a discernment of each seeker’s proper initiation “into the mysteries of salvation and the practice of an evangelical way of life” will be our guide (RCIA 76).

If we give in to the temptation to offer a pre-set program for every seeker we encounter, we will see the seekers turn into hoop jumpers instead of disciples. If instead we pay attention to the unique story of each seeker and build on it, we will eliminate hoop jumping and foster true conversion.

What’s your story?

How have you dealt with hoop jumpers? How do you use the many variables of each person’s story to shape your formation process?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Is your RCIA team ready to accept the challenge of God’s grace?” 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

“Hulahoop” by Luzia Lindenbaum | Flickr

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  1. Greetings all

    Let me share my experience of dropping the hoops by moving from a program based system to one that is individually tailored for each catechumen. The catechumenate seems to be the period that has many hoops to jump through, for example, making sure you have covered enough topics to prepare for their initiation or reception into full communion.

    In the catechumenate period many parishes (in the past myself included) appear to have reduced the focus of this period to some form of structured catechesis and consequently believing that they must have a “team” that includes a leader, catechist(s), sponsors and some other additional team members providing support and/or hospitality. Hence the usual response that I can’t get enough team members or I can’t ask the few to do even more.

    This is an issue if the focus is too much on doctrinal catechesis, rather than taking on board the broad requirements of the catechumenate period. However if you move the focus away from team needs and to one that is exclusively focused on the needs of each individual inquirer or catechumen and the role and responsibilities of people in the parish to the catechumen, then the focus moves from the team and their needs to one that focuses on creating opportunities for parishioners to assist in this particular person’s faith journey through RCIA or their reception into full communion.

    By changing this focus I have found that I only need a small team of three or four parishioners who help me plan each individual journey. We become coordinators and facilitators not constant hands on doers.

    Our role has now become one of match-making – matching inquirer/catechumen needs to parishioners who can supply the response to those needs. It may be as simple as spending ½hour having coffee and discussing why Sunday Mass is so critical to that parishioner’s weekly life activities, or, alternatively for another parishioner it may be slightly more complex involving several meetings to explain a particular aspect of the paschal mystery. Most of these parishioners do not see themselves as members of the RCIA team, but rather as just helping out because they were asked to do a task. Most would refuse if they thought they would be classified as formal members of the RCIA team.

    By changing my RCIA thinking and “team language” I have created a much simpler and easier workload for myself and others.

    The key has been asking many people to do small short-term tasks to help an inquirer or catechumen on their faith journey, not expecting and demanding of a few parishioners a workload that burns them out as “RCIA team members”.

    Somewhere in the recent history of RCIA (regardless of the country) we seem to have moved away from the concepts of catechesis on the paschal mystery given to us by the early fathers of the church to something that has become topic based catechesis and hoops that everyone wanting initiation need to jump through before the Easter vigil.

  2. Hi Max. Thanks for this great comment! I loved this insight: “By changing my RCIA thinking and “team language” I have created a much simpler and easier workload for myself and others.”

    Keep up the great work.


  3. Max, I’d welcome a chance to talk through what you’ve done in more detail. I’m excited. Can you email me: standrewcff”at”comcast”dot”net

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