A challenge for established RCIA teams

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I have a challenge for you and your team—especially if you have been together for a while and have mastered the basics. (If you are a new or reconstituting team, you can find some help with the basics here.)

My challenge is for your and your team to take a next step in your efforts at evangelization. My sense is that many teams think of themselves more as “catechists” than “evangelists.” (Drop a note in the comments box if I’m wrong about that.) I think the emphasis needs to be switched. Ideally, we would be evangelists first and worry about catechesis after we had spent a fair amount of time out in the field doing some harvesting.

Here is what I mean. It is not unusual for me to encounter teams that have been together for five years or more. They are functioning well, and they have a very smooth process. Everything looks very good. And then I start asking some questions.

Who is really in the catechumenate?

After a little bit of conversation, I find out their precatechumenate “starts” in September. Their catechumenate period starts in December—often on the First Sunday of Advent—and ends when the following Lent begins. Almost all of the people who are in the catechumenate are baptized Christians. And almost all of those folks are married to or associated with Catholics. They’ve been coming to Mass for years and were pretty active as children and teens in their original faith tradition. Or they are Catholics who dropped out in high school or college and are now returning and need to be confirmed.

Often times, rites are celebrated with these folks that are meant for catechumens. If I suggest they not celebrate catechumenal rites with baptized people, the response is always, “But then the parish would miss out on these wonderful rituals!” Liturgist Kathleen Hughes supposedly replied to such responses by suggesting that if nobody had died in your parish this year, you might celebrate a funeral liturgy anyway for the benefit of the parish.

What is the purpose of the catechumenate?

Her point, and mine, is this. The catechumenate is about bringing people to faith. If they already have faith, the catechumenate has no purpose for them. If they require deeper faith, or an update in faith, or a course in Catholic faith, or they just need to “catch up” on their sacraments, the catechumenate is not for them. Yes, of course, they need a loving, supportive, faith-based, conversion-centered process to provide them with whatever it is they do need. And if teams want to do that ministry, I think that’s terrific. It is a real need in parishes. But it is not the catechumenate.

In the same way, the catechumenate is not a parish renewal program. Yes, parishes need stimulating, life-giving, participative liturgy. And the rites of the catechumenate can certainly provide that. But the rites are meant to be part of an entire parish process of effective, converting, making-Christ-present liturgy. They cannot renew parish liturgy on their own, and they should not be used that way.

Are you ready for the next step?

So my challenge to is this. Spend some time looking at what your team does, mostly. Are you mostly teaching Catholic doctrine to baptized people? Or are you mostly creating opportunities for evangelization and conversion? Doing the latter is more difficult and will require a next-level of commitment for some people. If you are ready to take that next step, we’ll look at some strategies in future posts.


Read all the posts in this series on evangelization:

  1. A challenge for established RCIA teams
  2. Evangelization vs. reevangelization in an RCIA process
  3. If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?
  4. Set the stage for effective evangelization
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Comments

  1. I agree that Evangelization takes a deeper commitment to the process of transformation/conversion in our catechumantes. And that it begins first with our own ongoing transformations/journeys. It is very difficult to share what we ourselves are not convinced/convicted of. I am reminded of how Jesus chose His disciples seemingly randomly. Simple, rough, poor, scholastically uneducated and sinful and am uplifted in hope, in that is exactly why they were chosen, and why He continues to chose the likes of us, to share His Life in the sharing of His story so we can all know and love Him more intimately.

    All this takes ongoing prayerful discernment,and committed envolvement to be moved through this gracefilled work of His. Then they move on, one by one, hopefully committed. Hello, goodby, we “Let go and let God”. In evangelization and conversion, we lay claim to nothing other then we are called to serve, it is our God who feeds.

    Can I do this? I ask this each day. Some days I get a response most days are profoundly silent.

    Pat

  2. if the catechumenate has “no purpose” for those with faith why does the Rites Book make the distinction between catechumen and candidate, Rite of Acceptance and Rite of Welcoming and Rite of Election and Call to continuing Conversion and why does it categorize unbaptized, baptized non catholic and uncatechised catholic and provide rites for these categories?

  3. Hi Walt. Great question! If you look at the very beginning of the rites for the the baptized, uncatechized, it says the rites you mention are provided for those were baptized as infants “but did not receive further catechetical formation” (RCIA 400). The same section, in the next paragraph, goes on to say that these uncatechized adults “have not heard the message of the mystery of Christ.” So the optional pastoral rites you list are intended to be used with those who have no faith or very little faith.

    The National Statutes reinforce this by telling us, “Those who have already been baptized in another church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens…” (30).

    And: “Those baptized persons who have lived as Christians and need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate” (31).

    Certainly there are Christians whose faith is weak or whose catechesis is deficient, but it is not absent. They have heard the mystery of Christ. They have had some further formation after baptism. They need lots of pastoral care and ongoing, lifelong formation. But the regular formation processes and liturgical life of the baptized community is where those folks belong. The catechumenate has a different purpose.

  4. Hi Nick
    “So the optional pastoral rites you list are intended to be used with those who have no faith or very little faith.”

    I can see the point you are making here and I think it rather stringent, a real carrying out of “the letter of the law”. Give me a working definition of faith as you are using it here. Also, which is it, no faith or very little faith. Many baptized non catholic and baptized uncatechized catholic fit the “very little faith” category. Also, I would say that the RCIA process is indeed part of the Liturgical life of the baptized community RCIA #4. I am in complete agreement with you on the baptized practicing non catholic.

  5. Hi Walt. Gosh, I sure don’t mean to be stringent. I guess trying to talk about principles instead of actual people may make it appear that way. Of course everything is negotiable or changeable when dealing with an actual person. But I think we have to have some kind of guidelines or principles to use as a starting point.

    It seems to me the spirit of the RCIA–not just the letter–is intent on making a clear distinction between the unbaptized and the baptized.

    And, yes, the RCIA is part of the liturgical life of the baptized community. And we would expect to see the baptized, from whatever tradition, participating as the baptized and not as pseudo-catechumens.

    The optional rites for the baptized-but-uncatechized would apply to some folks, but not nearly the majority of those who wind up in parish RCIA programs. (Again, I’m speaking in general principles here. Your specific catechumenate may be comprised of completely of uncatechized folks.)

    So the distinction comes down to what do we mean by “uncatechized”? As a starting point, I would rely on RCIA 400–those who “did not receive further catechetical formation” after infant baptism.

    That would indicate that anyone who has celebrated first communion–even in a Protestant tradition–would have had *some* further catechetical formation. Assuming the person stopped receiving any further formation after first communion, we would expect that their current level of catechesis is seriously deficient for living an adult Christian life. But it is not *absent.* They have heard and believed “the message of the mystery of Christ.”

    Could we put this person be in the catechumenate and would it be fruitful for him? Sure. I’ve done that and most RCIA leaders have done that. But it is not the ideal. When the majority of the catechumenate is made up of folks who have already met Jesus, we lose the focus–the spirit–of the RCIA, which is the conversion of those who have not yet met Jesus.

    In this post, my challenge for well-established teams–who are more likely to have the resources to multi-task than new teams–is to move toward an RCIA process that is truly focused on the evangelization of those who have never heard the good news and to tend to baptized-catechized folks outside of the catechumenate-proper.

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