“When do your classes start?” If you’re an RCIA coordinator you probably hear this question on a regular basis. Most times you hear it from seekers, but I’ve also heard it from our own parish staff.
I have two problems with this question. First is the use of the word “classes.” Second is with the word “start.” The word “classes” assumes that the Catholic faith is something that can be taught in a classroom. It can’t. And the word “start” assumes a common point of entry, of which there is not.
Academic language has its place
For too many years the RCIA, and all catechetical formation, has been steeped in the use of academic language. And to be fair, it made sense at the time, especially when you consider that catechetical formation was an extension of what our Catholic schools were providing, often by those same priests, sisters, brothers, and teachers who ran our parochial schools. But now in the 21st century we’ve come to realize that this use of academic language has clouded our perception of what it takes to become a Catholic. Our faith is much more than an academic exercise… it is a way of life. Our faith is not a series of abstract notions of a creator, but rather a relationship with the living Christ and his church.
So to clarify what we do as RCIA catechists, we need to be conscious and deliberate in our use of catechetical language for everything we do.
We should never use the word “teacher” or “instructor.” Instead use “catechist” or “facilitator.”
We should never use the word “class.” Instead use the word “session” or “meeting” or “gathering.” And related to that, never refer to the collective group as a “class.” The word “class” infers that everyone is on a common path with a defined conclusion. Instead use the word “group,” which has a certain flexibility that allows each individual to be on their own path even though we may gather together as a group for catechesis.
Learners, not students
We should never refer to seekers as “students.” This is an academic term that doesn’t fully encompass a catechumen’s or candidate’s position within the church. Yes, as a catechumen, they officially become a “learner” within the church, but I would argue there’s a difference between being a “student” and being a “learner.” The word “student” evokes an academic endeavor whereas the word “learner” evokes something more personal. A student “studies” their topic… there’s an inherent detachment in the endeavor. A learner, on the other hand, is “apprenticed” to a “vocation.” Their lives become what they do. And isn’t that what we want from those going through the RCIA? We don’t want students who study Catholicism, we want learners who apprentice themselves to the ways of Christ and his church. Becoming a Catholic is a vocation, not just a course of study.
And when it comes to our scheduling of sessions, we should avoid using the words “start” or “finish” as they relate to our calendar. There is no beginning or end in a year-round RCIA process. That being said, I do recognize that even in a year-round process you may not be running catechetical sessions every week. In those cases sessions don’t “end.” Instead you’re taking a “break” or a “hiatus” from regular weekly sessions, after which time regular sessions will “resume.” The RCIA is not something that starts and ends on a schedule. Rather it is a continual and ongoing process where members enter and exit according to their needs and goals.
Time to shake up some of our habits
Now some would argue that all this “politically correct” language is much ado about nothing. But I disagree. The words and the language we use both create and reflect our understanding, so we need to be conscious of the words we’re using and change our habits accordingly. And not only that, we need to catechize our fellow catechists, parish staff, and parish leaders on the importance of using the right language, especially when addressing seekers.
Words are serious business in our faith tradition. When God uses a word, it becomes.
• Genesis 1:3 “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.
• Isaiah 55:11 “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.
• John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
• John 1:14a “And the Word became flesh and made his welling among us,”
Words have power. Words shape our perceptions. As catechists, our words and our actions are the tools we use to evangelize and spread the gospel. So it stands to reason that we should be very careful with the words we use when engaging in catechesis. So the next time someone asks “when do your classes start?” my answer is “right now.”
How have you transitioned your RCIA program away from the classroom/student/teacher model? What have been the benefits? How has it challenged your parish’s understanding of the RCIA? Share your thoughts in the comments below.