When I first leaned about the RCIA in the 1980s, it was a brand new rite in the church. What caught my attention right away was the dismissal of the catechumens.
I didn’t know anything about the theology of the dismissal or even much about catechumens. But I did know about Catholics. Right away, I imagined that if church-going Catholics saw a group of seekers being dismissed from Mass every Sunday, it would cause them to question. Question who those people were leaving church, question why they were leaving, and question their own reasons for not leaving.
I was overly optimistic. Parish renewal, as a result of the RCIA, has not happened on a wide scale. But I still think if we do RCIA well, it can be the spiritual source of renewal for our parishes. So why hasn’t that happened in many places? Perhaps it is because we are letting other things get in the way of implementing the RCIA the way the Second Vatican Council intended. Here are some possible roadblocks to parish renewal.
Making Lutherans Catholic
My first year of fulltime ministry was in a parish that had a thriving RCIA process. Or so I thought. There were about a dozen people in the process every year. But none of them were catechumens. They were all Lutherans who were either married to Catholics or about to be married to Catholics. While making that shift is often a very significant step for the Lutherans involved, there isn’t much evangelization that is required on the part of us Catholics. When Hank, who has been coming to Mass for fourteen years with his Catholic wife, finally decides to “make it official,” no one in the pews is surprised.
Contrast that with a young single mom who has never heard the gospel and who has very little hope in her life. She finds a glimmer of inspiration in Pope Francis or a Catholic social worker and decides to check out your parish next Sunday. A parishioner sees her slip in after Mass has started and realizes she doesn’t “fit.” That parishioner is now confronted with a faith question. Is he going to reach out to her or ignore her? Either decision will impact his faith.
Hiding the catechumens in a classroom
Somewhere along the way, the dismissal of the catechumens changed from a courageous faith-statement by seekers of Christ to a practical way to get the students to class. The RCIA is often tamed into a series of lectures on doctrine instead of an apprenticeship in radical discipleship. If the parishioners never see the catechumens, they will never have an opportunity to explore and renew their own faith as part of the initiation process.
Contrast the lecture series with an immersion process whereby we put catechumens directly into the lives of parishioners. Imagine catechumens coming to parish meetings, sitting with parishioners at potlucks and family dinners, helping the teens wash cars for their fundraiser, flipping pancakes with the Knights, and showing up for choir rehearsal. Imagine them joining parishioners for adoration, the hunger walk, Stations of the Cross, Christmas clothing drives, Meals on Wheels, and Communion to the sick. Parishioners who have to welcome and teach these newcomers to the faith will be renewed in their own faith.
I’ve heard a dozen excuses for shortening the initiation process to a set of meetings that begin in the fall and end four or five months later at the Easter Vigil. For the Lutheran-who-is-becoming-Catholic, there may be no harm in this. In fact, he could become Catholic before Christmas.
But what about that young single mom who has never heard the gospel? She has questions like: What does it mean to believe in God? Is God mad at me? How can I ever measure up? What will happen to my baby? In response, we sit her down for a syllabus of classes that include things like church history, moral precepts, the meaning of the Mass, and the social teaching of the church. We cram the equivalent of a four-year high school or college theology program into four months and wonder why she doesn’t come back after Easter.
Contrast that with matching the single mom with parishioners with excellent listening skills who can truly empathize. As she starts to feel safe, comfortable, and even loved, parishioners start to see in the seeker the initial signs of faith (see RCIA 42). At the time when she is ready (which is very likely not in the fall) the parish is thrilled to participate in the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens with her. Then, as she continues to learn how to live as a Catholic, throughout at least one full liturgical year of worshiping with and ministering with parishioners, skilled catechists connect her experiences in the parish with the tradition of the church. As parishioners witness the seeker making these connections, their own “aha” lights click on as they remember why we do what we do.
Parish renewal can be a very powerful byproduct of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But only if we do the RCIA as it is designed and envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.
What is your experience with RCIA causing or not causing parish renewal? What are your roadblocks? What are your successes?