When the bishops of the Second Vatican Council called for a restoration of the catechumenate, they were actually asking us to shift our paradigm of conversion. Conversion would no longer mean “becoming Catholic” (as in, “I used to be Lutheran, but I am a convert to Catholicism.”). Conversion has a much more profound meaning.
The RCIA is basically a conversion machine. An oversimplified way of describing it is to imagine a giant box with an input tube and an output tube. We put unbelievers in one side and they come out the other side as disciples.
We all know it’s not that simple, but it helps to keep in mind that is the overall purpose of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. For example, look at the very first sentence of the RCIA, breaking it down into “input” and “output.”
The rite of Christian initiation presented here is designed for adults who, after hearing the mystery of Christ proclaimed, consciously and freely seek the living God and enter the way of faith and conversion as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts.
By God’s help they will be strengthened spiritually during their preparation and at the proper time will receive the sacraments fruitfully.
Let’s break that apart a little bit just to make it crystal clear.
- Adults who have heard the mystery of Christ proclaimed
- who now consciously seek the living God
- and who enter the way of faith and conversion
- and whose hearts become open to the Holy Spirit
- Spiritually strong disciples
- who are ready to receive the sacraments of initiation
- and whose lives will now be sacramentally fruitful
So what happens inside the box? What do we do so that seekers come out the other side as believing disciples?
In his book, Augustine and the Catechumenate, William Harmless lists eight core things that happen in the catechumenate process that define conversion. (Harmless is actually citing an article by Robert Duggan, “Conversion in the RCIA.”)
1. Radical transformation
Faith is not a whim. It is usually not a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It is more often a slow, transformative struggle to shed our old self and become something completely new. It is a metamorphosis. We cannot be part-time Christians. We cannot serve two masters. To become a catechumen, a seeker needs to show only the beginning signs of conversion (see RCIA 42). However, to be baptized, the seeker must have undergone a radical transformation (see RCIA 120).
Faith is not a whim. It is usually not a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It is more often a slow, transformative struggle to shed our old self and become something completely new.
This conversion process is a journey. It is lifelong journey that begins long before we ever meet the seeker and usually long before the seeker even knows they are seeking something. It is a journey that continues long after initiation as we deepen our conversion through the daily disciplines of faith. It is also a journey of companions (literally, those who break bread together). We cannot ask seekers to enter a journey of faith unless we are a community on a journey of faith.
3. Times and seasons
The conversion journey unfolds over a series of periods and steps. There are four distinct periods in the catechumenate process, and seekers must enter into each as the Spirit draws them. Each period has a unique character that is appropriate for the different stages of conversion a seeker experiences. These periods are not mere formalities to be gotten through as quickly as possible. It is within the periods of the catechumenate that the conversion of the seekers takes root and begins to shape their life of discipleship.
When we read the stories of the great faith of Abraham, who believed in impossible futures in the face of impossible odds, we learn the source of his faith. It was the surety of God’s promise. All the children of Abraham rely on that same covenant that God makes with us. The promises we make, in God’s name, to our seekers may sound wild and crazy to them. But as their conversion deepens, they, too, will grow strong in faith.
The seeker’s conversion is to Christ. It is not to the church, to a set of doctrines, to a beloved pastor or spiritual leader. The catechumens will be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. When they join us at the eucharistic table, it is Christ that will be broken for them and poured out for them. It is Christ that they will be incorporated into. Everything about their conversion journey must be laser-focused on Jesus Christ.
Everything about the conversion journey takes place in the midst of the community. Too often, we shrink this down to mean the dozen or so people directly involved in the particulars of the RCIA (team, sponsors, seekers). The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults imagines a much bigger church. The entire ecclesial community is the field of conversion for the seekers. It is a vast network of relationships that includes sponsors, catechists, priests, deacons, the bishop, and the whole local assembly. And this church-based conversion process is not just for the seekers. The church is also changed in the process.
The rites of the RCIA — including the processions, gestures, signings, blessings, exorcisms, election — are essential to the conversion journey. It is in the sacramental signs and symbols that Christ is most fully revealed. When we diminish or ignore these sacramental moments, we weaken the faith of the seekers and the community. When we celebrate these rites with a noble dignity, we strengthen the faith of the seekers and the community.
What we are looking for in the journey of the seeker is a conversion of the whole person. We will be looking to see if there has been a conversion in both mind and action. We cannot be satisfied with a simple intellectual assent to doctrinal principles. We need to see that the teachings of the church have changed the hearts of our seekers. The seeker must be so completely transformed that those who have not yet heard the good news can recognize Christ in the words and deeds of the seeker.
If we build a “conversion machine” that looks like this and that does these things, we can count on unbelievers coming out the other side as lifelong disciples.
How has your parish RCIA process focused on conversion? What areas of your process can you strengthen to support your catechumens? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This post is part of a series on the paradigm shifts that flow from the Second Vatican Council and the restoration of the catechumenate. Click here to see other posts in the series.