After team formation, the next step to moving to a year round process is simple: Throw out your syllabus.
Hear me out on this one… Have you noticed there’s not much out there when it comes to an “off the shelf” program for the RCIA? There’s a reason for that… but more on that in a moment. This lack of a defined program has left most of us to develop our own programs (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Many RCIA teams and leaders (myself included) would gather together and lovingly craft a “course of study” that they feel every good Catholic should know… and crafted it so that all the “important” topics can be covered over the course of the school year (typically 7 or 8 months).
The reality, however, is that regardless of whatever we’ve crafted in the past (with all the best of intentions) just is not and will never be sufficient. What I’ve explained to inquirers over the years also applies here to RCIA leaders and catechists: The RCIA is not a series of “classes” you take in order to “graduate” as a Catholic. Rather, it is a process of conversion to the Christian life.
Weave RCIA into the fabric of parish life
Put another way, the RCIA is not about “learning” Catholicism, it’s about “living” Catholicism. And to help our catechumens and candidates do this, we need to put aside the traditional academic model in favor of a model that weaves them into the fabric of parish life.
Perhaps the hardest part of throwing out our syllabus is changing our own perspectives. When I started in the RCIA ministry 20 years ago, we ran with a traditional academic model, like most parishes at the time. We began our process in September, aligning with the school calendar, and we gathered people into a single group or “cohort,” and following a lecture style presentation based on our carefully crafted syllabus. Everything about our process fell in line with traditional academics. And why not? It seems to work well for kid’s religious education… and what is the RCIA but religious education for adults, right? Wrong.
While this model may be effective for teaching, it’s not very effective for forming people to the faith.
Move past academic goals
To be fair, we don’t want to throw out everything from our academic toolbox. After all, much of our catechetical training has it’s origin and practices in the world of education, and many of our catechists come from academic backgrounds. But we also need to remember that when it comes to forming adults to the Catholic faith, we need to make a conscious effort to move past the academic view (especially when you consider that adults who are not in school or don’t have school age kids don’t follow the academic calendar). That includes embracing a language and a process that has us forming individuals to the faith life of the Church… not teaching classes to a group. Remember, the RCIA is not about “learning” Catholicism, it’s about “living” Catholicism.
And that takes me to one more very important topic: the language we use when dealing with the RCIA and all our Adult Faith Formation. We need to stop using academic terms as they relate to our formation processes. Words have power (as anyone who’s read the opening of John’s Gospel can attest), so if we are to change the narrative with regard to the RCIA process, we also need to change our language. We should never use the word “class” or “classes.” Instead use the word “session” or “meeting” or “gathering.”
Get out of the classroom
We also need to look at where we’re having our sessions. If at all possible, we should avoid using a classroom, or if you have no other choice, at least bring the desks into a circle so everyone can face each other. If at all possible, find a conference room, meeting room, lounge, or other comfortable space. Even a school cafeteria or auditorium would be more preferable to a classroom. Taking sessions out of a classroom only reinforces the idea that participants are not attending a class, but rather are participating in an interactive experience. This works best when everyone in the group can see everyone else, like sitting in a circle or around a conference table. If you have a particularly large group, you may need to setup several tables in a larger space.
So if you throw out the syllabus, what do you do? As I noted earlier, there isn’t much available as far as an “out of the box” RCIA process. That’s because there’s no “one size fits all” model that can be developed for the RCIA. There are just too many variables, both among the catechumens and candidates, and within each parish community. That being said, there are a wealth of tools and experience available that help us to re-craft a process that effectively brings our catechumens and candidates into the active life of the Church, and it all begins with Sunday Mass… but more on that next month.
What happened when you threw out your syllabus? What did you have your catechumens focus on? Did you have to bring in new team members to help think outside the classroom model? Share in the comments below!
Photo by Jay Clark | Unsplash