A Bishop’s RCIA “Cheat Sheet”

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIADear (Arch)Bishop,

We know that these days have been hard for all of us in the Church and that you have many urgent tasks before you. We also know that you care deeply about the ongoing mission of Christ that all the baptized share, and we have seen many of you and your brother bishops continue to urge one another and all the faithful, especially in these times, to be credible witnesses to the Gospel.

With profound respect for you and for the episcopal office, we write to you about an issue we know is of great importance to you and to your diocese. That is the making of missionary disciples. We have seen many national and local efforts to encourage all the baptized to become more passionate about their discipleship, and these initiatives are certainly necessary. However, we believe that the normative and most successful discipleship formation process that the Church has is in danger of being neglected.

In the United States Catholic Bishops’ plan for adult faith formation, our bishops said: “Although the task [of effective, lifelong faith formation] may seem daunting, we need look back no further than the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults twenty years ago to find a model for success” (Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, 4). That document was written in 1999, and our Church’s understanding and practice of the conversion process of the RCIA has only improved since then.

As chief shepherd, you have a lot to concern yourself with beyond the proper implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. And for many of us, even for those ordained, the RCIA is still a relatively new and unfamiliar rite. Perhaps you may have had the joy of directly working with the catechumenate process in your ministry before becoming a bishop. Or maybe most of your experience with catechumens has been only through presiding at the Rite of Election and the Easter Vigil at your Cathedral. Nonetheless, your priests and the faithful of your diocese look to you as the one who “sets up, regulates, and promotes the program of pastoral formation for catechumens” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 406).

To assist you in that critical task, we have compiled the following summary of RCIA facts. You might call it a bishop’s “cheat sheet” of sorts. Some points may already be familiar, and others might come as a surprise. Some might affirm your current diocesan practice, while others may invite you to take another look at the rite. In any case, we hope this list can be helpful to you, your seminarians and other leaders in formation, and to those you have delegated to steward and oversee the initiation process in your parishes, schools, and communities.

Please know that every day we pray for you and for those who work with you to proclaim the Gospel so that all may find life in Christ. We are grateful for the good you do for your diocese that often goes unnoticed, and we recognize the burdens you carry that often go unseen. We want to be of service and support to you in whatever way we can. You are not alone in this mission.

In joy and hope,

Nick Wagner and Diana Macalintal

1. The RCIA works. CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown), in their blog Nineteen Sixty-Four, notes that “there is no current and credible source” for the gloomy statistics that we lose anywhere from 50% to 90% of new Catholics after initiation. In fact, just the opposite is the case. CARA estimates an 84% retention rate for those who go through the RCIA process. Click here to read more: http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2016/02/how-many-catholic-converts-stay-quick.html.

2. The RCIA is for the unbaptized. Baptized catechized candidates for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church or those practicing Catholics preparing only for Confirmation are not supposed to take part in the rituals or the full formation process designated for catechumens. “Those who have been baptized but have received relatively little Christian upbringing,” however, “may participate in the elements of catechumenal formation so far as necessary and appropriate.” Their baptismal status must always be honored. (See USCCB National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 30-31.)

3. The RCIA is a ritual process. That may seem obvious to say, but often our practice and policies treat the catechumenate more as a form of adult CCD that has occasional rituals. Catechesis is an important element of the process, but the RCIA is first of all a rite of the Church. Those who have oversight of the catechumenate in your diocese will want to help catechists and liturgists fully understand Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching that the “liturgy can be called the permanent catechesis of the Church, the inexhaustible source of catechesis” (62nd Italian Liturgical Week, 2011). Click here to read more: http://teamrcia.com/2011/11/the-right-way-and-the-wrong-way-to-do-a-teaching-massaccording-to-the-pope/.

4. All of the major rites of the RCIA are required for initiation. The major rites are Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens; Election or Enrollment of Names; the three scrutinies; and the three sacraments of initiation. The three scrutinies are so important that if a catechumen must be absent from one of them, a dispensation from the bishop is required (RCIA 20). Baptized candidates do not celebrate the scrutinies but pray with the faithful for the elect.

5. The high-point of the Election or Enrollment of Names is the act of election. The Church teaches that “the election…is the focal point of the Church’s concern for the catechumens.” Often however, the Election rite is structured in such a way that meeting and shaking hands with the bishop seem to be the primary actions of the liturgy. Some dioceses also ask the bishop to sign the book of the elect. When these extra-liturgical elements are added into the official rite, they tend to detract from the primary significance of the act of election itself. (See RCIA 121 and 133.) Click here to read more: https://paulturner.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Rite-of-Election-2-Questions.pdf.

6. Baptized candidates do not sign the book of the elect. The enrollment of names in the Rite of Election is only for the unbaptized. This enrollment, often signified by the signing of one’s name into a book of the elect, represents the bishop’s promise that these persons will be initiated at the next Easter Vigil. Baptized candidates, by their baptism, are already initiated into Christ and therefore are given no such promise. Rather their desire to complete their initiation or to join into the full communion of the Catholic Church is recognized (RCIA 454). Also, the optional Rite of Calling the Candidate to Continuing Conversion is a parish celebration when there are no catechumens (RCIA 447-448). Only when it is combined with the Rite of Election is it celebrated at the Cathedral with the bishop (RCIA 449).

7. The entire mystery of Christ unfolds throughout the liturgical year. Because the celebration of the liturgical year is central to the formation of the catechumens (see RCIA 75.1), the U.S. bishops established a minimum of one year of formation “from at least the Easter season of one year until the next” (USCCB National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 6). Even this may not be enough time for a full training in Christian life, however. The Church teaches: “The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God” and that “nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori.” For some, the catechumenate might last “several years if necessary” (RCIA 76). For others who are well-formed in the four areas of Christian life (see RCIA 75), their catechumenate may be shorter.

8. Children receive all three sacraments of initiation within the same celebration. Once children have attained the use of reason, they are no longer candidates for the Rite of Baptism used with infants. They are candidates for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. As such, they celebrate all three sacraments of initiation, usually at the Easter Vigil. Their confirmation cannot be delayed, except for grave reason, and even in that case may only be delayed until near the end of the Easter season. (See RCIA 24; USCCB National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 14 and 18; also Canons 842:2 and 866.) Click here to read more: https://review.catechetics.com/confirmation-initiation-not-completion.

9. Conditional baptism is rare. In some instances, pastoral leaders are not aware how serious the doubt about valid baptism must be in order to require a conditional baptism. Many times, if the doubt of validity is strong and prudent, it is best to treat the seeker as any other unbaptized inquirer and offer him or her the full benefit of the catechumenate and the initiation rites, accommodating the length of their formation according to their level of catechesis and their practice in the four areas of discipleship (see RCIA 75). If there is doubt simply because of difficulty locating a baptismal certificate, it will help parish leaders to know about the diocesan tribunal process for accepting an affidavit of baptism. In any case, there should always be serious investigation before resorting to a conditional baptism. Click here to read more: http://teamrcia.com/2019/02/conditional-baptism-is-like-being-struck-by-lightning-what-rcia-teams-need-to-know/.

See also these related articles:

  1. FAQ: Everything you need to know about the new translation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
  2. How do we foster conversion in the seekers, according the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults?
  3. Why conversion is so important in the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults
  4. Sponsors and godparents in the Christian initiation process
  5. What to say instead of “OCIA”

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  1. This is wonderful!!! I think it is a great, not only for our Bishops, but for our Initiation Coordinators (many of whom are untrained), as well as our priests, who are the ones often giving false information!

    Thank you!!!

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