Why your candidates might not belong in the RCIA

Confirmation/Communion-a-looza 2009 by packetrat [Flickr]

What would you say if I told you that most people who are in the RCIA do not belong there? I’ve had this feeling for a while, and it just keeps getting stronger. For most of us, the majority of the people in our catechumenate processes are either Protestants who want to become Catholic or Catholics who missed confirmation or first Communion as a child.

The catechumenate is not right for everyone who wants to become Catholic

Regarding the Protestants, the United States National Statutes for the Catechumenate state:

Those who have already been baptized in another Church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens or so designated…. 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 (30-31).

The same thinking applies to Catholics who are living a Catholic lifestyle. If they missed a sacrament but are nevertheless living and practicing as a Catholic, they do not belong in the catechumenate.

But what about baptized people who are not living a Christian life? Before we can discern the best path for them, we have to ask, have they ever lived as a Christian—even as a child? If they have, they probably do not belong in the catechumenate.

The catechumenate is a conversion process for those who have never known Jesus and do not know what it means to live as a Christian. The name of the rite itself tells us this. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a process of initiation. Initiation, of course, comes from the word initial. The RCIA is a conversion process to bring those who have no faith to the point of initial or first faith. The RCIA is not a process for developing second faith (reconciliation) or for deepening an ongoing faith (adult faith formation).

Who will we have left to go through RCIA?

I said all this to a catechumenate team recently, and someone replied, “Well if we followed the traditional model, we wouldn’t have anyone in our RCIA.”

That’s telling isn’t it? Is it really the case that there is no one who needs to hear the good news for the first time? Has everyone in our neighborhoods and workplaces met Jesus and now our primary ministry has shifted from evangelization to ongoing formation?

None of us believe that, of course, but that is what our ministerial practice says. We have converted RCIA from a process of initial conversion into a process for reconciling lapsed Christians or updating faithful Christians.

These are not bad things to do. Personally, I love doing these things. But the thing we cannot do is treat Christians as catechumens. Christians (with few exceptions) would not participate in a period of evangelization. They would not normally celebrate a Rite of Welcome nor participate in a catechumenate period. They would certainly participate in the lenten period, but they would do so as members of the Body of Christ—just like the rest of us. We would strongly encourage them to participate in the Easter Triduum, but they would not celebrate their sacraments or be received into full communion at the Vigil. They would participate as members of the faithful. Their formation would be mystagogical in the sense that the ongoing formation for all of the faithful is post-baptismal. But we would not identify the 50 days of Easter for them in the same way we do for the neophytes.

So when would the Protestants be received into full communion? The National Statutes tell us the appropriate time is a Sunday Mass in the parish (see 32). When would Catholics celebrate their confirmation? Ideally, at a liturgy at which the bishop presides. This could be a diocesan-wide event at the cathedral or the annual parish celebration of confirmation.

Is there really a difference between RCIA and adult faith formation?

Of course almost everyone currently in our catechumenate processes needs formation. Some of them need a whole lot of formation. Someone who dropped out of Christian living after celebrating first Communion is not prepared to live an adult life of faith. Somebody has to prepare them, and that “somebody” is going to be us. What we have to realize, however, is that even though we are the “RCIA team,” most of the Christians we are forming are not “in the RCIA.” They are in adult faith formation.

This might seem like merely a semantic distinction, but I think it’s important. When we put baptized people into “the RCIA,” we tend to treat them like catechumens. We use processes and language that indicates the catechumens and the Christians are in the same “class” and they all “graduate” together. If the Christians are ready to move on sooner (or even later) than the catechumens, we or they resist the call of the Spirit to move them in order to keep the group together.

The mission is evangelization

Even more importantly, however, putting Christians into the RCIA dampens the fire of evangelization in many of our parishes. Evangelization becomes reduced to making Catholics or making better Catholics. If everyone in our neighborhoods and workplaces truly has heard that initial proclamation of the good news, then we no longer need an initiation process. In that case, we should indeed focus on reconciliation and ongoing formation. But until that day, we need to refocus our RCIA ministry on bringing good news to those who have never heard it before.

Share your thoughts

What is your experience? Are most of your folks in the catechumenate unbaptized? Truly uncatechized? Or are they somewhat catechized or even well catechized? Do you have a distinct process for the catechized? Let us know what happens in your parish.

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  1. Donna says

    thank you for this post. Most of what we see in our parish is the baptized but uncatechized, most somewhat. After reading all the material you have provided, we are not treating them as catechumens. I do have a question. I have candidates comes to you wanting to come into full communion, attends faith formation classes when scheduled but does not attend Mass. Even though we have talked about attending and how important it is and the why, they still have excuses. Do we keep having special faith formation classes with them or hold off until they are ready to make the commitment? thanks for your response.

    • Michael J says

      I realize that there is a big difference in a candidate and a catechumen. And at least half of the people that go through the RCIA process are Christians from another faith.But their understanding of the Catholic Church and their relationship with Jesus is poor at best. That is true of the sponsors also. So to be a “good” Catholic is it not wise to teach them what is required of a Catholic and to be aware of Catholic doctrine and practices? You can call that adult formation but they too are forming a relationship with Jesus that they did not have.

  2. Nick says

    Hi Donna. Great question! I think if folks are not ready to make commitment to regular participation in the Sunday liturgy, they are not ready to be received into full communion. I would continue to provide faith formation for them as long as they wanted, but they would have to indicate their readiness for reception by living a Catholic lifestyle–which must include gathering with the Sunday assembly.

    I don’t know that I would provide “special” faith formation sessions for them. I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. Every parish, however, is supposed to have ongoing adult faith formation. I would invite the candidates for reception into the regular parish formation process.

  3. Gladys Whitehouse says

    Thank you for this informative article. Our tendency is to treat catechumens and candidates very much the same. Nonethless, since the process is ongoing throughout the year, we do offer candidates the opportunity to enter into full communion in the fall as well as Easter Sunday (but not at the vigil). A candidate recently came to us who is unable to attend our catechesis because of his work schedule and after some discernment, it was decided to allow him to participate in another adult faith formation program which fits into his schedule. Your article affirmed this decision. Any other suggestions? Thanks so much!

    • Nick says

      Hi Gladys. I think you are right on track. I like that you discerned another path for the person who couldn’t fit into your usual process. Keep up the good work.

  4. George says

    Another great article, Nick! Very thought provoking and inspiring as well. You do make a valid point as to what the process of RCIA is about and for who.

    I’ve been involved with RCIA for almost 26 years mostly within the military community. In almost every case, we get a bit of both–unbaptized; baptized but uncatechized; and baptized (catholic & christian) catechized and needing completion of a sacrament. There have been times that we’ve separated and categorized the participants based exactly with what you stated in your article and then there’s been times that we’ve lumped them all together.

    Here’s my point: Does anyone in the congregation really know or would be able to tell the difference? I gather not. I work very closely with the catholic chaplains and often times they agree to just lump everyone but at the same, we use only the applicable and correct rites.

    It has been my experience that even for those baptized and “catechized” catholics/christians, their faith formation journey has never been formalized since they were kids/teens. Most just kinda go with the flow and pick up bits and pieces of faith formation from wherever.

    I don’t see any harm into incorporating them into a formal faith formation journey. The learning process goes both ways and what an experience it can be.

    Thanks and always enjoy the great articles from your awesome website!!

    • Nick says

      Hi George. I guess I think the fact that people in the assembly can’t really tell the difference between the baptized and the unbaptized is exactly the problem we need to work toward solving. The RCIA is very clear that there is a significant difference between the two.

      However, if I implied the baptized do not need a formal faith formation journey, that’s not what I meant. What I hoped to convey was that their faith formation journey is different from that of the unbaptized. Different but still necessary–just as it is for all of us.

      Thanks for your support and all the great work you are doing.

  5. Sandy Gallegos says

    I must say that virtually all of the people we see, whether baptized or not, have very little, if any, catechesis. They may have been baptized Catholic or in another Christian tradition, but have not had catechesis or attended much church of any kind, or none at all. Often a person has met a Catholic and begun to go to mass with him or her, and then feels drawn to begin to ask questions. When we begin to talk to them, they have very little, or no,actual knowledge. Occasionally we have someone come who does seem to have some understanding, and these people generally move through at a much faster pace, and receive sacraments at various times during the year, when they are ready. We have a year round process, which allows for this to happen. Most still do end up at the Easter Vigil, though, for a number of multiple, compelling reasons that would make it very difficult at this time to receive the baptized at another mass. We presently have a middle aged man who told us he was baptized when he arrived, but had grown up with no faith formation and no church attendance. He met his wife (married Sept 3) and began to go to mass with her last year. He signed up, brought his baptismal certificate later, and lo and behold, he was baptized – and confirmed! – in the Armenian church. He hadn’t even known he was confirmed. So of course now we have someone who really only needs formal reception and Eucharist. It’s always interesting!

  6. KarenElissa says

    We are lucky in my parish in that we have three separate groups, RCIA for the unbaptized (Sept – May), Profession of Faith for the baptized (12 weeks), and Adult Confirmation (8 weeks). The Profession of Faith and Adult Confirmation groups are offered twice a year, one ending right before Advent and the other at the Easter Vigil.

    I do think it is easier in a larger parish to sort people out more. If you have a small parish and it would be 2 or 3 people in three classes vs. 10 people in one class it is easier to have one group.

  7. Jackie Smart says

    We currently only have children (from migrant families) in our Catechumenate. Most of our adults in Christian Initiation are seeking Full Communion and we bring them into Communion whenever they are ready. Catholic adults join our confirmation program which has as adult component. My question is what to do with children who are unbaptized, but catechized? Do they still need a full year in the Catechumenate? This happens quite often within our migrant community. Due to family circumstances, they weren’t baptized but they have been attending Mass their whole life and know quite a bit about the faith. Often they will not stay in an area for more than a few months and thus are unable to receive the Sacraments.

  8. Rosalind Edman says


    While I agree for the most part – like Sandy Gallegos above, we see a number of people who have been baptized (either as Catholics or in other Christian faiths), but who have no catechesis. At the same time, at this point in our parish, we do not have a viable alternative to RCIA. Would it not be better to go ahead and treat these persons as the candidates that they are – being very careful to distinguish them from the unbaptized – especially in terms of any Rites.

    • Nick says

      Hi Rosalind. I think it’s fine to treat baptized folks as candidates. That was my point, I guess. What more often happens, I think, is we treat them like catechumens. We use the word “candidate,” but the catechetical process and sometimes the rites are almost indistinguishable from the ones we use for the catechumens. If the baptized truly have no catechetical formation, the rite says that they may go through a process that is parallel to the catechumens. I think, however, we often equate insufficient catechesis with no catechesis.

      It is helpful to recall that the General Directory for Catechesis identifies three forms of catechesis:

      1. Primary proclamation
      2. Initiatory catechesis
      3. Ongoing catechesis

      Baptized people who truly have no catechetical formation need the first type: Primary proclamation or evangelization.

      Baptized people who have a first-communion-level of formation need either initiatory catechesis or ongoing catechesis.

      Baptized people who are living a Christian lifestyle need ongoing catechesis.

      As the GDC says, these are not watertight categories. But it does help us understand that not everyone who “joins the RCIA” should be going through the same process.

  9. Jean LeFevre says

    What I very often see, in teaching the children’s catechumenate of the RCIA and requiring a parent to attend along with the child, is a parent who has been educated as a Catholic their entire childhood and taken to Mass regularly as a child, yet never having effectively understood their faith. They are as much a sponge for truth as is their child. Oftentimes, the fact that they’ve never understood their faith is the reason they haven’t been faithful to give the faith of their child the importance it should have, thus their need for RCIA. Whether young or old, catechumen or candidate, I very much appreciate having the opportunity to be sure they understand the basics before they attempt to build on their faith. RCIA, especially a children’s process, has been an ideal way for that to happen.

  10. Joe says

    We usually have our catechumens and candidates in the same formation process. Many adults in the probram have not had any catechesis since the made their First Communion as a child. I almost wish the people in the pews would attend the classes because many of them have not had any formal teaching since they were young children. Some I am afraid to say would not be able to answer questions about their faith as well as their children.

  11. David says

    Ok, so I basically don’t agree with the premise. Non-Catholic Christians who wish to become Catholic require both catechesis and conversion. In fact, we all need conversion, constantly. So to say that some Protestants don’t is wrong; it is the same idea that is the foundation of “once saved always saved.” It has been reported to our diocese that the three year retention rate for people in the U.S. who complete RCIA is 50%. So half the people who go through an RCIA program in this country are no longer practicing Catholics three years out. This does not sound like conversion. Quicky faith formation classes for the baptized is not turning out to be effective and not beneficial to the participants. Good Catechesis is good for all. This can still be done in a year round model that allows for the baptized to be received outside of the Easter season.

    “I was born in the South and I’ve got a big mouth, when I see something that I don’t like, I got say it!” — Lightning McQueen #95

    • Nick says

      Hi David. Just to clarify the 50% figure. That figure is widely cited but completely unsupported. I’m not sure how it got started, but it is repeated often. Every time I see it, I ask the person who used it where they got the figure. So far, no actual source has surfaced.

  12. Rosalind Edman says

    Thanks, Nick. I totally agree with your distinctions. We don’t want to treat candidates as catechumens! I was afraid that you were saying that baptized persons in general should not be in the RCIA – my misunderstanding! This year we are really trying to address each candidate uniquely, based on their unique backgrounds and call. It’s definitely more challenging!

  13. Christina says

    This topic is of great interest to me! I am constantly reminded of the fact that everyone who approaches RCIA has had a different journey that has led them here and has a variety of life experiences and formation! I would love to see more models of what this looks like on the ground – such as Karen’s 12-week process, how to form team members to work with these folks, challenges, issues, etc.

    I know the North American Forum on the Catechumenate has an institute concerning the baptized, but the dates and locations have just not worked out for me. I would love to see this as a Team RCIA Webinar Topic!

  14. Elaine says

    We have done a year round process here at our parish for the past 10 years. We do not do the Profession of Faith at the Easter Vigil, it is offered whenever necessary during the year. That is when a baptized, catechized person has discerned their readiness for reception into full communion with the Church. Over the years we have seen the need to separate them from the uncatechized and also from Catechumens. It’s not to say that we never combine them throughout the year, but we are definitly moving in that direction. One case in point: for those discerning Profession of Faith and full communion with the Catholic Church, it is difficult to focus on the Sacrament of Reconciliation when you have Catechumens who are preparing for Baptism. It gets very confusing. We have a large enough team of people working with us that we can easily hold two separate sessions and also look at ways that they can participate in other Faith Formation that we do in the parish that would benefit them. So many possibilities to welcome them into the faith community. We need to let go and let more of the faith community catechize.

  15. Anne Boyce says

    After reading this article, I know I’m not crazy after all. When we get an unbaptized folks (Catechumens) come into the process I get all excited because it doesn’t happen that often. Most of our people are baptized Catholics who need Eucharist and Confirmation. Confirmation alone is not something I take into the process, but there are exceptions and I let them sit in for a while (depending on their background). I definitely separate the Catechumens from the Candidates when it comes to the Rites, but we have our sessions together. Dismissals are done mostly during Lent with Catechumens but I’ve also done them with candidates only as well (which I know is not right, but it is something we all need anyway). We’ve just recently decided NOT to dismiss the group we have now because they regularly attend Mass (no Catechumens) and go up at communion time for a blessing, which is powerful in itself. Anyway, thanks for the article.

  16. Sister Ruth says

    R.C.I.A. process brings people’s relationship to God to a deeper fuller meaning through the receiving of the Sacraments.
    Jesus instituted the Sacraments.
    St. Paul started the R.C.I.A. process which lasted at least three years.

    We should be meeting people where they are and meet their needs at that place.

    Thank you.
    God bless you.
    Sister Ruth

  17. Donna Eschenauer says

    This is very valuable information. It is my sincere hope that many RCIA Team members are reading it, and accepting it.
    I think part of the reason candidates are put into the Catechumenate is because people like to see the big numbers; there are often fewer catechumnes than candidates.It is also hard work to have several things going on at once – but well worth it!

    In our parish, we have made an effort not to confuse the baptized and unbaptized. We never use the combined rites – they are awkward and confusing. I have yet to use the optional Rite of Welcoming the Baptized, and candidates are never part of the dismissal. Candidates join us for the extended catechesis and are welcomed into Full Communion when they are ready. Last year we celebrated this rite three times. The Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates… is a very bad idea; it is saying that candidates can only be welcomed into Full Communion at Easter. And this simply is not true.

    On a final note, baptized Catholics for Confirmation are in an entirely separate process.

    TEAM RCIA is a terrific resource. Thank you all!!

  18. Claudia says

    I am a baptized Protestant who began RCIA last year and had to quit during the Inquiry phase. I am currently in it again. My situation is that I was religious all my life, brought up Lutheran and confirmed in that faith, but have been tinkering with Catholicism for decades. I have watched almost the whole collection of The Journey Home programs, was well catechized in Lutheran catechism, and have done a lot of studying on my own. My struggles were with the Church’s history, for the most part, and some of the current moral issues. My RCIA leader (and sponsor) has worked with me through all of this via texts over the past 1-1/4 hear, during and outside of RCIA sessions. So far, (through no fault of hers) the Inquiry Phase is a painful, anguishing road toward –but not quite reaching–a coma. I realize that not everything is facts but also conversion. And that has been achieved. But, honestly, NONE of that has actually been achieved through the RCIA process. It has been achieved by my telling the director what my issues were and her helping me to understand or read things that addressed those things. The curriculum for RCIA has in no way advanced me on toward either knowledge or conversion. It is FAR too elementary for people who already have grown up with Jesus. I say that as someone who does not have a theological degree, but as someone who has been bothered by certain Protestant teachings and searching out answers for most of my 54 years. What would you feel like if you were my age (or even half that) and had the education that you have had and are asked to spend nine months in what is the equivalent of a kindergarten class? Bible stories or facts or “faith formation” on that level will never be able to answer the deep dilemmas about the Church’s history or other “snags” that might keep people from becoming Catholic. I would wager that the Church has already lost countless seekers because of this unnecessarily long process. Why can’t “candidates” at least enter the program sometime after the Inquiry stage? Why must we endure sitting through classes that are designed to introduce us to Jesus, when we have sometimes had a relationship with Jesus that is longer than those who are teaching us?

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