Imagine a catechumen named Penelope who is in the care of a dedicated group of RCIA team members at St. Peregrinus Parish in Pittston, PA. Penelope became a catechumen, along with two other inquirers, in October. It is now February, and the St. Peregrinus team is starting to think about the Rite of Election and what they need to do to get the catechumens ready.
At a planning meeting, one of the newer team members asks Pauline Piotrowski, the team coordinator, if she thinks Penelope is really ready for the Rite of Election. Pauline smiles gently and says, “We can’t keep her from the Rite of Election. Otherwise she couldn’t get baptized. And then she’d feel left out.”
Pauline has a kind heart, and that is one of her strengths as the RCIA team coordinator. However, in this instance, she is doing Penelope no favor. Someone who is not ready for the Rite of Election is not ready for baptism. And someone who is baptized before they are ready is not likely to fully live out their baptism after the Easter Vigil.
But it’s next to impossible to know if someone is ready, isn’t it? Well, no. It turns out, it’s pretty easy. Easy in this sense. The RCIA gives us a clear plan for a conversion process. All we have to do is implement the plan and look for signs of change—like looking for new shoots in the garden. The difficult part is being disciplined (being disciples) about implementing the plan and looking for the signs.
Conversion opportunities—all year long
If we are going to good discerners of conversion, the first step is to provide opportunities for conversion. If we are not regularly giving the catechumens opportunities to turn toward Christ and away from their former life, how can we possibly “know” if they are growing in faith? The most systematic and effective conversion process the church has is the celebration of the liturgical year. In the example above, poor Penelope has celebrated only about five months of Sundays—barely more than a third of the liturgical cycle. Unless she’s had some miraculous revelation the team is unaware of, it doesn’t seem likely that she’s had nearly enough time to give her heart and soul completely to Christ. And even if she has, the team has not had time to provide the full formation in the Christian life that the RCIA calls for.
So how much time does Penelope need? You can find the answer in the RCIA. Turn to paragraph 76:
The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God and on various circumstances…. 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….
Ack! Several years? Are they crazy?
Well it might seem that way at first. But let’s ask ourselves what’s at stake here. This is not a program of instruction in the facts of the faith. It is a radical change in lifestyle. The Christian way of life is very comfortable and familiar to you and me. But it is brand new to the catechumens. They will need practice, practice, and more practice until living the way of faith becomes natural to them as well.
The Christian way of life is very comfortable and familiar to you and me. But it is brand new to the catechumens. They will need practice, practice, and more practice until living the way of faith becomes natural to them as well.
A complete formation
The rite goes on to tell us what a conversion program looks like. If you are doing all of these things throughout the liturgical year, you will begin to see a change in the catechumens. Or if not, then they probably aren’t ready, and you’ll need to be honest with them about that. So here’s what you do (still reading paragraph 76):
- By their formation in the entire Christian life
- and a sufficiently prolonged probation
- the catechumens are properly initiated into the mysteries of salvation
- and the practice of an evangelical way of life.
- By means of sacred rites celebrated at successive times
- they are led into the life of faith,
- and charity belonging to the people of God.
I added in the numbers to make it a little clearer that there are actual steps that the RCIA gives us. As you can see, there is nothing in those eight steps that is all that difficult. But to do all the steps on a consistent basis and to regularly assess how the catechumens are doing at mastering them—that takes some discipline.