Sometimes talk about the RCIA process falls prey to generalizations based on “well, at my parish” or “everybody says.” It’s a good thing to balance one’s personal experience or hearsay with some objective information.
If you haven’t already read the U.S. Bishops’ study on the implementation of the RCIA, Journey to the Fullness of Life, published in 2001 by the USCCB, I highly recommend that you do so. The study offers hard data and the “big picture” plus a lot of good specific commentary from various departments of the bishops’ conference, as well as survey responses from diocesan directors, bishops and others concerned with implementation.
The RCIA is doing well
So, how’s it going? Well, there is always room for improvement, but the study shows that the RCIA overall is doing well. One item that may be of particular interest is the question of what happens to the folks after the process. Do we “lose them” after initiation? The data show that retention levels (measured by Mass attendance) and involvement levels (measured by engagement in parish ministries and committees) are higher for the RCIA than they are for any other sacramental preparation process in the church today. There are some who fall away, of course, but most stay and become active in their parishes.
Many other issues are discussed too, such as the length of the process, how many parishes use the process with children (here is an area where much improvement is needed), and how to honor ecumenical sensitivities. Every RCIA coordinator could benefit from reading this study.
If you are hungry for some “micro-sociology” on the other hand, you could take a look at a book from Liturgical Press that presents an in-depth view of some specific parish processes. Sociologists David Yamane and Sarah MacMillen, with Kelly Culver, produced a study concerning the implementation of the RCIA in five parishes in Indiana. It was published in 2006, under the title Real Stories of Christian Initiation: Lessons for and from the RCIA.
It’s only five parishes, and yes, they are all in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana (not perhaps your idea of typical), but a lot of common problems and issues come up. The names have been changed of course, but the strength of the study lies in the wealth of specific detail. The researchers spent hundreds of hours listening to what went on in sessions, observing interactions, and talking to the individuals involved.
Hard work matters; money doesn’t
The authors’ conclusions at the end of the book are interesting. The first “lesson” they offer is that “implementation matters.” When faced with all the work that is necessary to do the process fully, people ask: “Is it worth it?” The answer the authors give is an emphatic Yes-not based on sheer idealism, but on what they observed to actually work. In fact, I’d like to see more of the data they referenced in a footnote about correlation between individual spiritual growth and the more fully-implemented communal process.
The second “lesson” was about what they call “human capital.” Money didn’t matter that much. People did. The success of the process is in direct proportion to the number of people involved. Hmmm. Start building that team!
Just a footnote: I was on a panel of readers that responded to the study in a small conference held at Notre Dame University before the book was published. Each of us had to comment on a single parish described in the study. I was assigned to comment on “St. Mark’s” parish. You can read my comments here, if you are interested.