The problem with RCIA formation

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAParker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, asked teachers to name the biggest obstacle to good teaching. The answer he almost always got was “my students.” If we asked a similar question of RCIA catechists about the biggest obstacle to their formation efforts, I wonder if the answer would be “the catechumens and candidates.”

I don’t know if it would be the first answer, but it would be high on the list. I often hear complaints about seekers who won’t talk, won’t show up, and won’t come to Mass. They have little knowledge of the Catholic Church or Christian living and do not seem sufficiently motivated to learn. They’re bored and passive.

I also hear diagnoses about why this is so. It is the fault of the culture and the way seekers were raised. They have a sense of entitlement, as though the world owes them something just for showing up. Or the ills have to do with broken families, overt violence and sexuality in the media, and a lack of standards in schools.

Jesus didn’t heal healthy people

Whenever I hear language like this, I feel the need to go to confession. Because some of it is language I have used in the past. And it isn’t true. Or if some of it is true, it’s not relevant. The only relevant question is, how am I failing or succeeding in forming the seekers in faith? Palmer says talking this way is similar to a doctor complaining that the patients are sick. If only healthy people would come to the hospital, life would be so much easier!

Palmer says about teaching: “The way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer. And the dominant diagnosis in teaching is that the ‘patients’ are brain-dead.”

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RCIA on life-support

There is some evidence that we make a similar diagnosis of our catechumens and candidates. Palmer says that if we assume the students are brain-dead, we will employ brain-dead pedagogies that deaden their brains. It’s a vicious circle. And if we assume our catechumens and candidates are similarly catatonic, we will provide a catatonic formation process.

Palmer’s key insight about seemingly sullen, unresponsive students is that they are not brain-dead. They are full of fear. And this insight is what stirs up my guilt. I didn’t always recognize that the unresponsive catechumen or candidate was scared silly to even show up at a Catholic church — much less have me “inquire” about why he was there and what he knew about God or Jesus or the pope. Palmer says:

Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard…. What does it mean to listen to a voice before it is spoken? It means making space for the other, being aware of the other, paying attention to the other honoring the other. (The Courage to Teach, 47)

An RCIA team challenge

At the 2013 World Youth Day, Pope Francis issued a challenge to the Brazilian bishops that we could also accept as RCIA teams.

We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus….

It is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, one which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity. (Emphasis added.)

I don’t know if Pope Francis was consulting his copy of the RCIA when he wrote that talk, but RCIA 75 says that we have to provide a suitable catechesis for our seekers. If we have diagnosed them as “brain-dead,” the catechesis we provide will be deadening. But if we take up the pope’s challenge of accompaniment, we will accompany our seekers on a journey that teaches them how to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness.”

Let’s figure out how to do that!

Your turn

What is your best brainstorm for providing a catechesis that teaches seekers how to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness”?

Click to reserve your free chapter of Nick Wagner's newest RCIA resource

See also these related articles:

  1. The problem with RCIA formation
  2. Why is it important to tell your dying and rising story?
  3. Episode 84: The core message RCIA inquirers need to hear
  4. Six amazing things every RCIA inquirer has to learn
  5. Six signs of readiness for the Rite of Acceptance

“Bored” by Gregg O’Connell | Flickr


  1. I just spent the weekend at a Life in the Spirit seminar…renewal of the charismatic movement. The “assumption” by the team was that EVERYONE there would have the gifts of the Holy Spirit not only stirred up, but whirled into fire. There was a gentleness, but a persistence in the teaching:You have these gifts, now set your hearts on fire with a loving passion for Jesus/God/Spirit. You won’t burn up, but you might help ignite some other hearts. By the end of the weekend our backsides were tired of sitting but we were in awe and wonder at what was happening. On the best days at RCIA gatherings we have seen this happen. If we are persistent in staying on the journey WITH each catechumen rather than insisting on them joining us on our journey we will experience the fullness of God in them and share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit waiting to be all stirred up in them. Pretty exciting place to be called to be?

  2. Fantastic article, Nick… thanks for sharing this with us! You said it well… We have to be “with” our catechumens and candidates on this journey. In order to do this we have to make time to get to know each of our catechumens and candidates. By learning each of their stories, it helps us to better understand their formation needs and together craft a plan that will lead them toward their goals. Here are some of the things we do in order to better get to know those who are in our process:
    1) Have an in-depth entry interview. I like to leave at least an hour for this, and I prefer to do this prior to them joining our regular weekly sessions. This not only helps you as the catechist get to know them and their needs, but allows you the chance to brief them on the process and on the format of your regular weekly sessions.
    2) When we have new people join our group, have everyone introduce themselves and give a little of their story. Not just the new members, but all the members of the group, including the catechists.
    3) Setup periodic “discernment” interviews with your catechumens and candidates… at least twice a year with everyone (more if needed for those who may need more attention).
    4) Keep an open dialog with your team. Very often our candidates and catechumens will stay after the session for casual conversation, or to talk something over with one of the team members. Catechists must always remember to “stay on” an be open during these times, and if needed, make sure that any issues or questions that arise are shared with the team leader.
    5) Make every effort to avoid treating your candidates and catechumens like a “class” or “cohort.” This helps both catechist and candidate remember that they’re all on an individual journey. Typically we don’t finalize the list of candidates and catechumens moving to the stage of Purification and Enlightenment until we’ve completed the round of discernment interviews just before the beginning of Lent. Individual “readiness” must be based on discernment, not just length of time in the process.

    These are just a few of the things we like to do in order to help us connect with the catechumens and candidates on an individual level. The more we try to step away from traditional “academic” models and language, we become more open to the catechetical model of formation.

  3. Peace be with you. I have been a catechist at my parish for 12 years. I teach RCIA and Faith Formation. I see the ebbs and flows of the parish. I have taught other catechists. Sometimes people come into faith and are on fierce fire. They want to teach, and they feel that others have to be where they are. This does not work. I have had Atheists, Baptists, Lutherans, Santeros and others in my classes. They are there to inquire, I am there to help them fall in love with Christ. Some are on fire, some are not. Too many catechists complain to me, saying they are not ready to receive the sacraments. I say, they may not be ready now, they may not know all the prayers, but there is hope for the future. I received Holy Communion at age 8, was not ready. I received Confirmation at 12, was not ready. It is not us anyway who makes ready or convert. That is the job of the Spirit. Our job is to live the Gospels, so they can see a difference. I teach compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, charity, humility. I do not teach doctrine or dogma. I have an hour a week to teach and hear what they have to say. Doctrine and dogma come later. I teach feeding and clothing the homeless in the streets. Visiting the sick. Too many catechists focus on shoving doctrine and dogma down their throats. They are not ready for that yet. Yes many receive their sacraments on Holy Saturday………and feel they are done. This always happens. We always pray that the foundation has been laid. There is hope for the future. We had a DRE who made life difficult for the community. Very legalistic. Very little compassion and mercy, in that many left the church for other parishes or other faiths. Lots of compassion, mercy and patience are needed when teaching in the ways of Christ.

  4. I was welcomed into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in April 2004. In January 2005 I was asked to be a sponsor and I have been involved in RCIA ever since, having been on the team for the past several years. Last year I stepped back to help with another ministry and to discern where God was calling me to minister – it turns out that I’m back on the RCIA team once again.
    I would agree totally about teaching doctrine and dogma – they won’t mean anything to a person until that person has a relationship with Jesus. That is the goal of RCIA – to be present as the person explores and walks their journey with Jesus. Only if they fall in love with Jesus will they desire to become active in the parish. When a person falls in love with Jesus, everything changes.
    To be honest, not one of us is truly ready for the sacraments – there is always more to learn and more ways in which we can become more godly. We have the privilege of walking with people as they discover what it means to love God and love our neighbour and what it means to experience the mercy of God and to be a conduit for that very same mercy so that others may experience it as well.
    Nick and Diana, thank you for the incredible resources that you continue to provide for those of us who are privileged to be on the front lines with those who are seeking a relationship with our Lord.

  5. Thank you Team RCIA. we enjoy reading about other ideas and people’s experiences as we all journey with our candidates and catechumens. I meet one on one with each inquirer when they call to express an interest in RCIA. this may be at a coffee hours, ice cream bar or a park, wherever they wish. In our parish, we have a team composed that includes several veteran catechists as well as each year one or two of our neophytes ask to come back and be on the team. we have a welcoming dinner when we begin inquiry in August, another meal for the rite of acceptance and a social at Christmas after everyone helps put the food baskets together for Christmas delivery. Our team members also serve as parish sponsors and walk with our candidates and catechumens throughout the process. this helps them get to know the greater community. at least half of our weekly sessions are devoted to prayer and faith sharing and listening to one another share God stories. during the catechumenate period we offer topics they have asked for, but we still take a good portion of our time together to focus on sunday scriptures and faith stories. we have interviews before the Rite of Election done by our pastor (who serves on the team, often presents and attends each session), as well as our coordinator and myself. During the year together we invite past RCIA participants to attend one or two reunions at the parish. Past RCIA are always a part of welcoming the inquirers at the rite of acceptance ceremony. Thank you for your support and prayer.

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