What kind of catechesis is suitable for RCIA seekers?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAWe have all had this happen. We find ourselves challenged to provide a suitable catechesis for an RCIA group that includes a raw beginner—someone who knows nothing about Christianity and has never lived as a disciple. And then in the same group, we have a mainline Protestant who knows more about Scripture than most Catholics and has been living as a disciple since childhood.

In the middle, we have folks who are somewhat catechized. Either unbaptized or baptized, they know who Jesus is, they pray, they know some of the more famous stories from Scripture, even if they have never read the Bible. But there are big gaps in both the knowledge of the faith and their ability to live as disciples.

What is a suitable catechesis for a group like this?

Something that has really helped me sort things out is to think of two separate but related “tracks.” When anyone comes to us inquiring about the sacraments, we need to discern where they are on each track in order to provide the most suitable catechesis and to honor their ritual status in the Church.

The ritual track

One track is a ritual track that is given to us in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:

  • Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate
  • Rite of Acceptance
  • Period of the Catechumenate, and the rites belonging to this period
  • Rite of Election
  • Period of Purification and Enlightenment and the rites belongs to this period
  • Sacraments of Initiation
  • Period of Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy

All who are validly baptized, even if they are poorly catechized, are somewhere in the final period, the Period of Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy. Neophytes are properly in this period; oldtimers like you and me are ritually always in a postbaptismal period. Once baptized, we can never go backward on this ritual track and pretend we are catechumens again because this track is about one’s order—or role—in the church.

The catechetical track

The other track is a catechetical track, which is outlined by the General Directory for Catechesis, chapter II, where it speaks of three levels of catechesis:

1. Primary proclamation (GDC 61-62):

This is basically the two forms of evangelization described by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, On Evangelization in the Modern World. These forms are:

  • implicit or silent proclamation and
  • explicit proclamation of the Gospel to those who do not yet know Christ

In classic RCIA terms, the silent proclamation of the Christian community followed by the explicit proclamation (the reason for our hope) constitutes the unstructured Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate, which is simply the Christian community living its faith in public and showing its Christian spirit to the inquirer in casual ways through conversation, home visits, and parish gatherings (see RCIA 9.1).

Primary proclamation (evangelization) is also the reason the Church exists. Therefore the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate is always happening. One cannot say that we “begin the precatechumenate” on a specific date, or that we have, for example, “six sessions of the precatechumenate” and call that the entirety of this period.

Whatever structured sessions might take place within this ongoing period is only one part of it. But no formal catechesis can take root until evangelization (silent and explicit) and the inquirer’s response to it (the beginnings of conversion found in RCIA 42) take place.

2. Initiatory catechesis (GDC 64):

This level of catechesis is the catechumenate proper, outlined by RCIA 75, in which a person encounters the living Christ in four principle ways and learns the basic disciplines of the Christian way of life in these four areas:

  • catechesis on the Word that leads to an acquaintance with dogmas and precepts and to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation
  • communal life and the disciplines of sacrifice and self-renunciation
  • worship and prayer within the community
  • apostolic witness and profession of faith in word and deed

This second level is not meant to be the total extent of a disciple’s catechesis; it is simply the kind of catechesis that prepares a person to formally profess their faith and live the Christian life. So the extent of the catechesis is very basic since initiation presumes that one will continue with formation after baptism.

Although the catechumenate is reserved for those who are unbaptized, those who are already baptized but uncatechized will need formation in these four areas of Christian life as well in order for them to live up to the vows of their baptism. This might be a person who was baptized as an infant, but other than that, had no Christian practice, formation, or way of life after their baptism. Yet, even if their formation parallels that of the catechumens, their catechesis is still always postbaptismal in nature because of their place on the ritual track.

Then there are baptized persons who are somewhat catechized. Maybe they went to Catholic school, they may or may not have been confirmed yet, and they’re sharing in the Eucharist on occasion, but they are not fully living out their Christian faith in the four areas listed in RCIA 75. We might call them marginal or cultural Christians.

They will need lots of encouragement and brushing up and perhaps even a bit of first-level evangelization (what has come to be known as “new evangelization”), but they are not, according to the RCIA, participating in the catechumenate (see RCIA 400) since they have had some level of formation after baptism. They need ongoing formation, oftentimes remedial, but their catechetical and ritual status are not the focus of the RCIA. The content of their catechesis will include the four areas of training from the RCIA, but they are not in the RCIA. Rather, they are in whatever adult faith formation opportunities your parish offers.

3. Ongoing formation (GDC 69-70):

All the baptized catechized who are generally living out the faith through the four areas of Christian life belong in this level of catechesis. The GDC lists six forms of this kind of lifelong catechesis:

  • Scripture study
  • Christian reading of current events
  • Liturgical catechesis
  • Occasional catechesis
  • Spiritual formation
  • Systematic theological instruction

This level includes many, if not most, of the people in our parishes. It certainly includes parish leaders and practicing Christians who are active in their faith. It also includes those Catholics who are regularly participating in Sunday Eucharist but, for whatever reason, may have missed being confirmed.

For someone who is properly suited for the third level of ongoing formation, the second level of catechesis would be unsuitable. Yet, I often see and hear the following general invitation given to Christians like these: “If you want to learn more about your faith, come to the RCIA!” Or we put practicing Catholics who just need to be confirmed into the RCIA process along with the catechumens. Then we find our RCIA groups filled mostly with people who are already living the basics of Christian life and are looking for third-level catechesis (because often, RCIA is the only place where adult faith formation is happening in a parish). So, almost by instinct, we bypass the second level of formation for everyone else and move to the third—especially focusing on “systematic theological instruction”—because that’s who we’ve invited to the RCIA.

However, this third level of catechesis is unsuitable for those seekers in the catechumenate who really need the basics in second level initiatory catechesis.

The challenge for all our parishes is to develop an effective adult faith formation process for all those for whom the third level of catechesis—ongoing formation—would be suitable. This formation would take place outside of the RCIA process. This is, in fact, what the Unites States bishops tell us is the ideal (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 30).

Keep the RCIA focused on the unbaptized

If we keep the RCIA just for the unbaptized, we can more properly focus on their needs in both their ritual and catechetical journey. Those baptized Christians who have not received a meaningful catechesis since their baptism and who were not raised to live a Christian life may participate in some elements of the initiatory catechesis we provide for the catechumens. Even so, their catechesis is always postbaptismal (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 30.)

So the next time you are challenged by trying to provide a suitable catechesis for a broad range of people in your RCIA process, consider focusing on the unbaptized and baptized uncatechized and move those who need a higher level of catechesis into a separate adult faith formation process.

What do you think?

Have you already moved seekers who are living a Christian life into a separate process? How did you do that? If you haven’t done so yet, what is a small next-step you could take?

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Find out if your RCIA catechesis is ‘suitable’ for catechumens” Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:
  1. What kind of catechesis is suitable for RCIA seekers?
  2. What RCIA teams struggle with most
  3. Six RCIA actions that guarantee intimacy with Christ
  4. Can an art docent help RCIA teams learn to catechize better?
  5. Six “best practices” for every RCIA catechist

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  1. You say that all who are validly baptized belong in the Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy category. I disagree. Many many people (even those already in our pews) have been validly baptized, but never evangelized. They don’t know the basics, the kerygma. They need to know who Christ is and appropriate to some degree into their life, the salvation Jesus has bought for them on the Cross.

  2. Hi Dick. Thanks for sharing you comment. As Diana pointed out in her post, there is both a ritual track and a catechetical track. On the ritual track, everyone who is validly baptized would, by definition, be in the stage of postbaptistmal catechesis. Their catechesis cannot be prebaptismal because they are already baptized.If we treat them as though the are unbaptized, we are denying the efficacy of God’s action at their baptism.

    However, on the catechetical track, there are three levels of catechesis. Some people who are baptized are still at either the level of primary proclamation or initiatory catechesis. Those who don’t know Jesus would be at the level of primary proclamation and those who know Jesus but don’t know the basics of living as a disciple would be at the level of initiatory catechesis.

  3. I think there is an issue brought out by Dick Birmingham that is not adequately addressed. In our parish there is an issue of inadequate resources to have different classes for the unbaptised, those who have been baptised (but don’t know anything beyond the customs of their folks; some of which have no customs beyond having their kids baptised!), and the well versed non-Roman Catholic Christians. We have a common class for all and that is not working very well.
    Additionally, follow up after three to five weeks of Mystagogy is haphazard or entirely absent due to the same lack of resources.

  4. Hi Edgar. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Can you say more about what it is you would like to have addressed? I sympathize with not having enough resources. I’ve been there myself. But our lack of resources doesn’t change the the levels of catechesis required by people at different stages of faith development. We have to do the best we can with the resources we have while always striving toward a fuller implementation of each of the levels of catechesis.

  5. We’ve not tried to separate out all the groups, but we do run a two-track RCIA process.
    In the main track, we include the unbaptized (regardless of how formed they are), baptized Catholics who never received first communion, and baptized Christians of other denominations who are poorly formed or who have little connection to church.
    In the “almost Catholic” track (run 2-3 times per year, as candidates emerge), we include well formed baptized Christians (meaning they have a relationship with God, they have a prayer life, they regularly attend church on Sundays, and they value the Christian community life) to learn what is “different” about being Catholic. In this track, we cover Mary, Saints, Catholic view of scripture, Understanding of church hierarchy (who’s who) and church teaching authority, Purpose of sacraments, and then preparation for Reconciliation, Confirmation, and Eucharist. We usually meet for 5 or six sessions (depending on their backgrounds and interest), set up by meeting wizard. There is usually about a month between our last session for discernment, 1st confession, and an interview to see if there are any other issues, and then we receive them at a Sunday mass.
    Last, I handle Catholics who need confirmation only separately on a one-on-one basis.

  6. Thank you for this article, Diana. This idea of identifying and separating these two tracks (the “ritual” and the “catechetical”) I found most helpful. This is something we’ve been developing in our parish’s process, but we’ve never had the words to describe it as well as you have. The RCIA (the ritual) is really a sub-set in the overall mission of Adult Faith Formation (the catechetical). In fact, I sometimes wonder if we’re not doing ourselves a disservice by calling what we do the RCIA, because in actuality, the Rites are only part of what we do for a subset of our seekers. In fact, we’re actually working on a “re-branding” initiative to better reach out to those who are seeking, because let’s be honest, very few know what the “RCIA” is unless you’re in the ministry.

    And for those who think it’s too difficult or don’t have the resources to separate seekers into their respective groups, I would suggest looking at your process and how you structure your sessions. Start with the Liturgy of the Word. Celebrate and unpack the Word for the week with the entire group, then, as needed, separate the different groups of seekers into smaller sessions to focus on their individual needs. Not only does it help to serve the different individual needs, it’s the key to developing a year-round process. Let the Word be your guide.

  7. Hi, John! That’s a great idea on how to use your limited resources while honoring the various needs of each seeker. Yes! Let the Word be our guide. And I really appreciate your insight on “re-branding” what we do as bigger than just the RCIA. That simple shift in perspective I think gives us a clearer sense of how to make our RCIA process *and* our adult faith formation initiatives more effective.

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