How many team members do you need for an effective RCIA process?
The answer to that depends on what you mean by “RCIA.” If your RCIA starts in September and ends at Easter Vigil or during the Easter season, then you probably need about five to seven highly committed team members (not including sponsors).
If, on the other hand, you have a year-round process, you can sustain a very effective RCIA process with one or two team members (not including sponsors).
How is that possible? If you add more months to the RCIA process, won’t you need more team members?
Year-round RCIA is easier
The paradox is, a year-round RCIA process is actually much easier to establish and maintain than a school-year program.
When some RCIA teams think about the catechumenate, they think about a teaching schedule. On their parish websites and in their interviews with seekers, the schedule is what is presented as the way to become Catholic.
For example, here is a typical description that a seeker will find in many parishes:
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is a program designed to welcome adult people into our Catholic community as fully initiated members of the Roman Catholic Church. RCIA classes are held Tuesday nights throughout the fall, winter, and early spring, and culminate in catechumens (those not baptized) and candidates (Catholics that have not completed the three sacraments of initiation and people from other Christian denominations who have been validly baptized) being received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. These classes are based on the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and other documents that will assist people in developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and his church.
If I were a brand new seeker, this would tell me that you Catholics have a kind of school that will teach me how to be Catholic. And that school takes place every Tuesday night for about eight or nine months.
School-model RCIA requires lots of experts
A model like this is very dependent upon experts. If your RCIA process has 20 or 30 weekly topic-centered sessions, and you teach some of them, you are the expert. You might not think of yourself as such (maybe you just became Catholic last year!), but the seekers certainly do. You are the Catholic who knows stuff, and your job is to teach me, the uneducated seeker, how to be Catholic.
Now unless someone (like the pastor) has a degree in theology, it is really hard to be an expert on 30 different topics of Catholic doctrine. So what many parishes do is form RCIA teams—a team of experts. So, for example, my parish might have a team of five experts. We divide up the topics so that we each have about five or six topics to teach. And then, perhaps, we bring in some guest speakers, like the pastor or a seminarian, to cover some of the more difficult topics.
Adult education is not RCIA
A lot of parishes operate on this model, and a lot of them do a really good job at it. And this model is even helpful to some people. But it is not the RCIA. If a classroom model is working for you to form lifelong disciples—people who actually stick around after Easter and who “take up this missionary impulse…to go forth to everyone without exception…above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked” (Pope Francis), then you should certainly keep doing what you are doing. You are doing a great job at adult faith formation and forming missionary disciples. But you are not doing RCIA.
“We’ve always done it this way” is not a strategy
However, most parishes have not been successful at creating missionary disciples by using a classroom model. The number-one complaint of RCIA teams across North America is that neophytes and the newly received candidates do not return after Easter. If what we are doing is not working, it’s time to try something different.
Pope Francis teaches us:
Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.” I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. (Joy of the Gospel, 33, 35)
If the pope is teaching us that we have to stop obsessing over transmitting doctrine and that we have to stop doing things the way we are doing them just because “we have always done it this way,” what then are we supposed to learn about establishing and maintaining an effective RCIA process?
Seekers are initiated into Christ, not Catholicism
The first thing to learn is that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is not about initiation into the Catholic Church. If it were, the title would be Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults. The RCIA is about initiation into Christ. If you grew up Catholic, like I did, those two ideas seem to be the same. But there is an important distinction.
The Catholic Church, as much as we love and believe in it, is a human institution. We find the fullness of Christ in Catholic Church, but the church is not Christ. When we evangelize, we proclaim Christ. When we baptize, we baptize not in the name of the church, but in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The goal is of the RCIA, then, is not to welcome people into the Catholic Church, even though many of our parish websites say that it is. No, the goal of the RCIA “is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity” (Pope Saint John Paul II, On Catechesis, 5).
The parish is the means of initiation
The second thing to learn is that the church, especially as it is manifested in the local parish, is the means of putting people in communion and intimacy with Christ. This is the answer to those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit because we are all made in the image of God. For any human to say “I’m spiritual” is redundant. But in order to be in intimate communion with Christ, we need the church.
So how does the parish put seekers in intimate communion with Jesus?
We don’t need experts to introduce seekers to Jesus
This leads to the third thing we need to learn, which is that we don’t need experts to put seekers in intimate communion with Jesus. We need the parish. And this is exactly why an RCIA process that happens every day of the year is much easier than trying to train and maintain a team of experts whose purpose is to transmit doctrine.
Because Jesus-events are happening every day in our parishes, as soon as we encounter a seeker, we can immediately start introducing him or her to Jesus. We don’t need to wait until September when classes start. And since we don’t need experts, we only need one or two “team members” who can coordinate finding parish companions or sponsors for the seekers who will help integrate the seekers into parish life. The life of the parish, then, becomes the vehicle for introducing the seekers to Jesus and putting them into intimacy and communion.
What about the doctrine?
But what about the doctrine? Isn’t that important? Absolutely. But doctrine is a fancy word for “what we believe about Jesus.” There are lots of ways to communicate doctrine. A classroom, especially for new seekers, is probably the least effective way. Click here to read an article about a more effective method of teaching adults.
As Pope Francis teaches, we have to rethink how we teach in “bold and creative” ways. Using the life of the parish as the “school” for seekers instead of a team of experts is going to convert the seekers into the lifelong missionary disciples the church so desperately needs right now. And it will be less work for you than what you are currently doing.