I’ve heard many RCIA team members confess to me that they failed because a catechumen just never “got it.” I’ve felt this too with catechumens who didn’t turn out to be as committed to discipleship as I hoped. I’ve shared war stories with pastors and RCIA directors about the “post-Easter drop-off,” when many newly initiated slowly disappear. I’ve also heard from diocesan leaders and even some bishops the much-repeated lament that “RCIA just doesn’t work” (which is a myth) and the solution is to make it a more rigorous catechetical program.
There are two things I want to say when I think of these conversations. First, to those who feel they have failed, be gentle with yourself. This entire process is not up to us but is truly the Holy Spirit’s work. It is not our job to guarantee conversion. Our proper role is to make our own lives of faith and conversion so visible and attractive that seekers will want to enter into that way of faith and conversion in Christ. Let’s remember that the only person we can change is us.
Second, to those who lament that the RCIA isn’t working, I say that perhaps we simply have not done the RCIA as it was really intended. To borrow from G. K. Chesterton, the RCIA “has not been tried and found wanting.” Perhaps, rather, “it has been found difficult; and left untried.”
In 1977, Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, outlined some of the major challenges the new ritual called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults would present to parishes:
Most clergy regard its implementation as problematic if not impossible. They are right. For what the Roman documents contain are not merely specific changes in liturgical rubrics, but a restored and unified vision of the Church. One might describe it as a concentric ecclesiology locked together by the sacramental discipline of faith shared on all levels…
[O]ne cannot set an adult catechumenate in motion without becoming necessarily involved with renewal in the ways a local church lives its faith from top to bottom. For members of an adult catechumenate must be secured through evangelization; they must be formed to maturity in ecclesial faith through catechesis both prior to baptism and after it; and there must be something to initiate them into that will be correlative to the expectations built up in them through their whole initiatory process. This last means a community of lively faith in Jesus Christ dead, risen, and present actually among his People. In this area, when one change occurs, all changes. (“Christian Initiation in Post-Conciliar Catholicism: A Brief Report,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, 7-8)
If we approach the RCIA as yet one more program to implement and we delegate its implementation to a small group of leaders, then we will have failed even before we begin. Kavanagh’s point was that the adult catechumenate changes everything. It is a paradigm shift that flows from the radical insight recovered from Vatican II that baptism matters. If that’s true, then your baptism matters. It matters most of all to the people who are seeking what baptism gives you: an intimate relationship with the living Christ active in the world. Where we find that living Christ and that relationship is in the community of Christians.
Unfortunately, that community is messy. It is imperfect, made up of imperfect people. It would be much easier, cleaner, and quicker to just leave RCIA to a small group of highly qualified Catholics who meet once a week to transmit the teaching of the church to a receptive, albeit passive, group of seekers. Or maybe we could ensure that the catechumens meet only the best of Catholics among us or attend only the best of our liturgies.
Yet the Body of Christ doesn’t work that way. Only through intimate relationship with the members of Christ’s Body will one touch and hear and see Christ at work in the world. If you want your seekers to learn how to be the Body of Christ, they must be trained by those who are the Body of Christ: the entire Christian community.
In most of our parishes, the reality is that the RCIA is an activity among many other parish activities. It is a small faith-sharing group among many other similar groups. To go through the RCIA essentially means to be part of this group. Operationally, we initiate people not into Christ, not even into the church, but into this group called RCIA.
Every so often, this RCIA group, like many of the other parish groups, will request to do some kind of ritual at Sunday Mass. It gets scheduled on the parish calendar along with the capital campaign announcement, the Mother’s Day blessing, and the commissioning of new Communion ministers. Parishioners who would rather not be bothered will avoid the “RCIA Mass,” and the unwitting ones who didn’t read the bulletin will grumble that those RCIA people keep making the Mass longer.
Many of those “going through the RCIA” have one goal in mind, and it’s usually not lifelong discipleship. It’s “graduation” when they will be done with RCIA classes and get their sacraments. Then they can move on to whatever their real goal was, which was something like marrying their Catholic girlfriend, pleasing their grandmother, or getting the Catholic discount at the Catholic grade school. It’s not really their fault they think this way because the way we operate tells them that RCIA lasts from September to May and they only need to attend the required number of meetings with the RCIA group before they’re done.
This is not the “unified vision of the Church” Kavanagh said changes everything. It’s adult education on Catholicism for some or the carrot we use to try to keep others from leaving. That kind of program is easy to implement, but it rarely changes the hearts of the catechumens, candidates, or parishioners. And if it does, it’s usually because you had extraordinary people ready to be changed by the Spirit.
Now there are indeed communities where the RCIA is thriving and parishioners can’t wait to celebrate the RCIA rites. I was lucky enough to be part of a community like this, and I thought we were doing what the RCIA called for. Yet, quite often in this community I heard a few longtime baptized Catholics say something that made my heart sink: “I wish I had never been baptized as a baby so I could go through the RCIA as an adult.” This was the most distressing sign that what we were doing still was not what the RCIA envisioned.
To these people, I would say you are going through the RCIA as adults! If you have adults preparing for baptism in your parish, you are doing RCIA, because the RCIA can’t happen without you, the baptized community. The RCIA doesn’t happen at a Wednesday night gathering, and it’s not done by the RCIA team or the pastor. All the baptized are responsible for doing the RCIA because the catechumens in your parish are watching and imitating and learning from what you and the parish are doing each day, week after week. That’s how they learn to become Catholic. You are their teachers; you are their models. So you are doing RCIA whether you know it or not.
Turning RCIA upside down
If it’s true that the entire community of the baptized is responsible for the initiation of adults, then we have to stop trying to get the community involved in the RCIA and instead get what we’ve been calling the RCIA involved in the community.
Instead of trying to convince more parishioners to volunteer to be on the RCIA team, relieve yourself of that impossible task. Instead I want to give you practical ways to get your catechumens, candidates, and sponsors to be more involved in the life of the community where they will encounter the Body of Christ. And rather than create a curriculum for formation that you will have to implement, I want to help you see the curriculum that is already within your community just waiting to be tapped that will move a seeker’s heart closer to Christ. These shifts in thinking will make all the difference for seekers, your RCIA team, and your parish.
You might think doing this will require more of you. It will certainly require more of your commitment, patience, creativity, and vision. But it won’t take more of your time or personal resources. In fact, it will be easier and less stressful because it won’t depend all on you or on what your team alone can provide. You will actually have more time and resources because you will be using what your parish is already doing, things that other people are already organizing, and tapping into those aspects of parish life to train catechumens and candidates in the Christian way of life.
By doing RCIA this way, you will not only be forming your catechumens and candidates. You will also be deepening the faith of your parishioners. You will be calling your community members to step up and take their rightful place as the baptized, “fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ” (RCIA 9).
Do your seekers spend most of their time within the RCIA group or out in the larger parish community? What steps could you take to involve them more in the community? What are you already doing that’s working well?
This article was excerpted from Your Parish Is the Curriculum: RCIA in the Midst of the Community by Diana Macalintal. Click here for more information.
Check out this webinar recording: “Is your RCIA team ready to accept the challenge of God’s grace?” Click here for more information.
Photo by Christopher Machicoane-Hurtaud | Unsplash