Pastoral principles for children in the RCIA

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAI once overheard a pastoral minister say that she was working with a family who wanted to have their child baptized. The child was six-and-a-half years old.

“We got her in just under the wire,” the pastoral worker said — meaning the child was under seven years old and therefore baptized as an infant. She did not have to go through RCIA. The pastoral worker said it like it was a sort of victory.

When we encounter children who wish to be initiated (or whose families wish it for them), sometimes our pastoral thinking gets a little skewed. We may find ourselves thinking it is pastorally beneficial to slip children in “under the wire” so they won’t be burdened with a full catechumenal process. In addition, for children who do go through the catechumenate, sometimes we make a pastoral decision to delay confirmation in spite of the fact that baptism, confirmation, and eucharist are all three required for those who have reached catechetical age.

If the pastoral benefit of the children and their families is our first concern, then let’s examine how we can best care for them. Our pastoral goal is to make disciples. The church teaches:

Thus the three sacraments of Christian initiation closely combine to bring us, the faithful of Christ, to his full stature and to enable us to carry out the mission of the entire people of God in the Church and in the world. (Vatican II, “The Constitution on the Church,” 31)

So when a child comes to us or is presented for initiation, the driving pastoral imperative is, how will we best prepare this child and his family to carry out the mission? Here are some principles to consider.

Understand what we mean by “catechetical age”

An adapted form of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is intended for use with children who have reached “catechetical age.” This is a new term that first appeared when the RCIA was issued in 1972. Catechetical age is the age at which children have attained the use of reason and when they are capable of growing personally in faith and recognizing moral choices (see RCIA 252). The RCIA does not specify a specific age at which this happens. It’s not like driving or voting or being able to buy beer, all of which happen at ages prescribed by civil law. There is no prescribed age for when someone is able to grow in faith or make moral choices. Theological opinion identifies the age at which children attain the use of reason as about the age of seven, but it always varies with each individual.

For the maximum pastoral benefit of the child, we must always discern if he or she has attained the use of reason. For any individual, that might happen earlier or later than the age of seven.

Catechumenal-style formation is required for all of the initiation sacraments

If the driving pastoral imperative is preparation for mission, the baptismal catechumenate is the most complete preparation process the church has for that mission. Those who are baptized as infants cannot, obviously, become catechumens. However, the church teaches that once those who were baptized as infants attain the use of reason, they are to undergo a preparation process remarkably similar to that of the catechumens in preparation for first communion (see Directory for Masses with Children, 9-12).

This usually does not happen, of course. In most cases, first communion is almost a graduation ceremony for having completed one or two years of academic study. Nevertheless, a complete catechesis, such as that envisioned in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, is what is required if we are going to ask children to be missionary disciples.

For the maximum pastoral benefit of the child, we would either initiate him or her through the catechumenate or through a sacramental preparation process very similar to the catechumenate.

Confirmation is not the culmination of initiation

There is a correct order for the celebration of the initiation sacraments, which is baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. However, since the bishop is the ordinary minister of confirmation, it is not always possible for him to be available to confirm children before they celebrate their first communion. (Still, at least ten dioceses in the United States have found a way to make it work.)

Historically, that meant confirmation was often delayed until well after children had been admitted to the eucharist. Nevertheless, delaying confirmation does not change what happens at eucharist. Christian initiation “reaches its culmination in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ” (Rite of Confirmation, 13).

For the maximum pastoral benefit of the child, we should always catechize correctly that it is in celebrating eucharist that children make an “adult” commitment to the faith and exercise their full vocation as members of the royal priesthood.

Confirmation is never to be delayed beyond what is necessary

Unbaptized children who have attained the use of reason are to be confirmed when they are baptized. Children who have been validly baptized into another Christian tradition are to be confirmed at the same time they are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. When confirmed, the candidate receives “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety. . . the spirit of fear [wonder and awe] of the Lord.” How can we ever justify that delaying such powerful gifts that are the candidates’ inheritance is in any way pastoral?

For the maximum pastoral benefit of the child, we should always provide the maximum sacramental and spiritual benefit to which they are entitled. We cannot claim we are being pastoral by simply choosing a seemingly easier, more socially acceptable path.

The church is not an institution of outdated rubrics. It is a manifestation of the Person of Jesus Christ. As we encounter children and their families who are seeking a deeper relationship with Christ, we will give them the wrong impression of who Jesus is if we treat our formation processes as rules to be skirted and procedures to be avoided. Rather, we will bring them into intimacy and communion with Christ if, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we accompany them on their unique journeys of faith.

Share your thoughts

What are you hearing from families that want to initiate their children of “catechetical age” into the church? How are you responding when such moments come up? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Photo by Emily Reider | Unsplash

See also these related articles:

  1. Q&A: How do RCIA teams discern the readiness of children for becoming catechumens?
  2. RCIA shifts and corrects our understanding of confirmation
  3. Why children in the RCIA need a community, not a classroom
  4. Pastoral principles for children in the RCIA
  5. RCIA with children—five examples from Jesus

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    My grandson had not been baptized as an infant. Later he was enrolled in a Catholic parochial school. In second grade, when he was eight years old, he was scheduled to be baptized in order that he join his classmates for First Communion. Prior to his baptism I talked to his mother about him being confirmed too, and I wrote to the parish priest, reminding him of the proper order for the sacraments of initiation. The priest ignored my letter. He treated my eight-year-old grandson like an infant with a “private” baptism

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