Fiona and George were putting away the coffee pot and folding up the chairs after their mystagogical reflection session on the Easter Vigil. As they switched off the lights, Fiona said, “I wonder where Carmen was. She told me she would be here.”
Carmen, one of the neophytes, didn’t come to that session or any other sessions during mystagogy. In fact, Fiona and George only saw her at Mass twice during the Easter season. And then she seemed to disappear.
Neophytes not returning for mystagogy
This is one of the biggest complaints for many RCIA teams. There is no simple solution to the problem of neophytes not returning for mystagogy. It is what is known as a “wicked problem.” It’s not wicked in the sense of “bad.” What makes the problem wicked is that it is difficult—probably impossible—to solve. The reason it is difficult or impossible to solve is that once you begin to implement a potential solution, you discover that there are other underlying problems that must be solved before your presenting problem can be fixed.
With wicked problems, there is no “right or wrong” solution. We will probably never solve the problem of getting neophytes to participate in the mystagogical period. Wicked problems can only become “better or worse.” With the mystagogy problem, we have to look at several strategies that will make the situation better instead of worse.
Let’s first take a look at the underlying problems that make this problem wicked.
The entire parish needs to be involved in the RCIA process
The introduction to the RCIA says that initiation
is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ. Hence, the entire community must help the candidates and the catechumens throughout the process of initiation. (RCIA 9)
See what I mean about this being a “wicked problem”? In many parishes, getting the entire community involved is entirely different and significantly more complex problem than getting the neophytes to come back for mystagogy. But nevertheless, there it is. If the community does not see itself as responsible for the initiation process, your chances of neophytes remaining active in parish life are significantly diminished.
The neophytes have to have experienced true conversion in the RCIA process
This is another example of the complexity or wickedness of the problem. Many catechumenate processes are simply not designed to foster conversion. I came across a parish website the other day that had this at the top of their RCIA page: “RCIA sessions start in October, and the initiation sacraments will be celebrated at the following Easter Vigil.” And then lower on the page was a list of topics that would be covered during each week from October until Lent.
This is not a conversion process. It is a study program. RCIA teams that are committed to study programs tell me that their candidates and catechumens do experience conversion in their programs. And I believe that’s true. But the conversion usually isn’t deep and usually does not result in a lasting change of lifestyle. Study needs to be supplemented with a vast array of other catechetical process so that true conversion to Jesus Christ takes place in the candidates and catechumens. Our driving question has to shift. Instead of asking, “What do they need to know?” we should be asking, “How will we know when they have surrendered their hearts to Christ?”
Converted Christians don’t belong in the RCIA
Last year in my parish, every single person in our RCIA process was a baptized Christian. We had Catholics who were going to church most Sundays but had never been confirmed. We had a Methodist who had been raised in the faith and stopped going to church as a teenager. He was planning to marry a Catholic and wanted to be Catholic for the wedding. We had one Catholic who had celebrated first Communion as a child and then had dropped out. Now he wanted to become active in his faith. All of these people believed in Jesus already. They were already converted before we met them. So why were they in our RCIA process?
Because we don’t have anywhere else to send them. Ideally, we would have a thriving adult formation program that would meet the needs of Christians who need to go deeper in their faith. But we don’t yet have that, so the RCIA team becomes the de facto adult formation team.
In the RCIA, the period of mystagogy is all about Sunday Mass
Sometimes we misunderstand what the period of mystagogy is supposed to look like. “It’s main setting is the so-called Masses for the neophytes, that is, the Sunday Masses of the Easter season” (RCIA 247). If that’s the case, then we have two questions to ask ourselves.
First question: Is Mass a priority for the neophytes and godparents?
Are the neophytes continuing to coming to Mass? If not, are the godparents being helpful in following up with the neophytes to assure their participation in the liturgies of the Easter season?
You might see the deeper “wickedness” of this problem. Oftentimes, some of the neophytes who are baptized at the Easter Vigil had been spotty about coming to Mass during the catechumenate. They are, nevertheless, sent to the Rite of Election and initiated at the Easter Vigil. But if they haven’t made a commitment to Sunday liturgy before baptism, what hope do we have they will be be committed to worship after baptism?
In addition, many godparents are godparents in name only. We meet them on Holy Saturday, and they are on a plane back to their homes on Easter Monday. Even if the godparents are dedicated, faithful Christians, they cannot fulfill their duties from afar.
Second question: Is Mass a priority for the parish?
This may seem to have an obvious answer, but think about it. Is the preaching throughout the Sundays of Easter as powerful as it was during Lent? Is the music as full and as well-planned and led as it was during Lent? Is the liturgical environment as well cared for? Do the parishioners show up in the same numbers and with the same enthusiasm as during Lent? Is the focus of the eight Sundays of Easter on the formation of the neophytes, or do we get distracted by Mothers’ Day, Scout Sunday, Memorial Day, and the youth group car wash?
So what’s the solution?
As I said, this is a wicked problem, and wicked problems have no solution. We can only make things better or worse. I’ll tell you what I’m suggesting to the RCIA team in my parish. And I’d love to hear what your strategies are as well.
I asked our RCIA team to focus on a few small steps in the coming year.
Step 1: In order to get the community more involved in the initiation process, we are asking parishioners to invite the candidates and catechumens over for dinner. This is actually recommended in the introduction to the RCIA (see 9.1).
Step 2: In order to lead the candidates and catechumens through a true conversion process, we have implemented a process that extends for at least on full liturgical year (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 6), and we are applying the criteria in paragraphs 42 and 120 before they can celebrate the Rite of Acceptance or the Rite of Election.
Step 3: We still accept converted Christians into our process because there is nowhere else to send them in our parish. However, we are very clear among team members that these folks are not “in the RCIA.” They are in an adult formation process, not an initiation process. The methodology, content, and criteria are different for converted Christians.
Step 4: Our immediate goal is to make Sunday Mass a priority for the candidates and catechumens during their formation process. We do not feel it is fair to them to initiate them (or celebrate confirmation and Eucharist with them) if they haven’t yet understood the priority of regular participation in the Sunday Eucharist.
We don’t expect that these strategies will solve the problem of folks not returning for mystagogy. But we do have great hope that they will make the situation better.
What are your strategies?
Okay, now it’s your turn. What strategies have you implemented? Have your strategies made the situation better? We’d love to hear your story.
Check out this webinar recording: “RCIA’s most vexing problems—and some creative solutions.”Click here for more information.