One of the common misconceptions of our role as catechists is that we are “teachers” of the faith. That it is our job to give seekers (often mistakenly referred to as “students”) knowledge about our faith’s doctrine and traditions. But this view, especially for the RCIA catechist, is, if I may say, a little too parochial. And to their credit, most catechists understand that their role is much more than that of being a teacher, but one who also shares their faith experience, on multiple levels, while also living out that faith within the community. So, knowing that we are called to do more than merely teach the Catholic faith, we also need to reconsider how we present our experience of faith, especially to our adult learners.
Treat adult catechumens like the adults they are
I noted in my last article that we need to focus less on the “what” and more on the “why” of what we believe. That for adults in particular, who already come with a lifetime of knowledge and experience, we need to respect and leverage that knowledge and experience in our catechesis. That we should focus less on giving them “knowledge” and more on providing “understanding.”
To help promote this idea I introduced my concept of the Pyramid of Acceptance/Belief. To recap, in this model, knowledge forms the base of the pyramid. Acceptance or belief forms the peak. This is the peak where we want to lead all our catechumens and candidates. The middle section, the section we need to focus on as adult catechists, is “understanding.” for it is only though this layer of understanding that we can come to true acceptance.
While I was considering this model, I had thought was just for adult learners, observing that children tended to skip the understanding layer. Think about preparing children for first communion. We give them the knowledge that the bread and the wine are in fact changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and that is enough for them to accept or believe.
But after some more study and consideration, I came to realize that they don’t skip over the “understanding” layer, they just go through it with greater ease than most adults. How is that accomplished? With what I term as “trust tunnels.” How is it that a child seem to accept our Catholic beliefs far more readily than someone who is older? Because it is being presented by someone they trust. A parent, a teacher, a catechist, a priest, a deacon, a religious sister, or some other “trusted” emissary in their lives. They accept the message because they accept the messenger.
Developing trusted relationships in your RCIA
But what happens when we mature? These earlier trust tunnels begin to break down because their trust in the messenger begins to breakdown. As they begin to develop their own reasoning skills, critical thinking, logic, and executive functions, they begin to question what they once trusted, and need to find their own understanding. Further, as old trust relationships begin to get tested, new trust relationships develop, and because reasoning and critical thinking come into play, those newer trust relationships face a much different test than those from their childhood.
Even as adults, we still develop certain trust relationships. For example, I trust Nick, Diana, and the other contributors to TeamRCIA. But that trust is also born out of my having read their work, having met some of them personally, and deducing for myself that what they have to say is in fact tried and true, important, impactful, and very useful skills and ideas we can use to implement and improve our RCIA processes. In other words, they earned my trust, which over time allows me to more readily accept what they have to say (even if sometimes I need to think about it for a while and work it through my own mental processes).
Why does understanding take so long?
We face the same challenges every time we meet and work with our seekers, catechumens, and candidates. And while our love and passion for our faith (and for them) can help build that trust, we still need to recognize that they are still putting us and our beliefs to the test. They need to not just know what we believe, but understand why we believe it. This will help build both their trust in us and in what we’re sharing with them. And of course, by visibly practicing what we preach in the community, we enhance that trust.
As catechists we tend to fall back on giving “knowledge” because it is quicker and easier to impart. Helping someone develop “understanding,” however, tends to be a much slower process. Not only do our catechumens and candidates need to chew on this themselves for a while, but everyone processes information and experiences differently. Gratefully the Church fathers and experts who developed the RCIA understood this, which is why paragraph 76 reminds us that, “The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God and on various circumstances.” This timeframe isn’t driven by knowledge, it is driven by understanding, which leads us to acceptance, which leads us all to God.
How are you building trust with your catechumens? With your fellow RCIA team members? With your pastor? How is this helping your catechumens grow in understanding, and not just knowledge? Share your thoughts in the comments below.