Many of us working in initiation ministry have been around the church for a while. Some of us are lifelong Catholics while others of us joined the church through the RCIA process and perhaps never left this ministry. Regardless of how we got to where we are, I think it’s fair to say that we’re comfortable with where we are in our faith and in our relationship with Christ. If I had to choose one word to describe the typical initiation catechist, it’s that we are “mature” in our faith.
But we need to be careful, because that “maturity” can lead us to think of our seekers as “immature,” at least in matters regarding our Catholic faith. And that can be a problem if we’re not conscious of it and give it due consideration as we develop our initiation processes. Put another way, we can tend to think of our seekers as “children” in matters of the Catholic faith. And when we think that way our processes can reflect that more “immature” view, causing us to downshift into “elementary teacher mode” instead of maintaining the mode of an adult discussion facilitator.
While many of our seekers may be “immature” in the ways of the Catholic faith, we need to recognize and respect that they can be very mature in many other ways (and perhaps even in other faith traditions). This being the case, we need to consciously adjust our thinking and our processes to accommodate that adult perspective. In short, we need to make sure we’re treating adults like adults.
Adults and children have different learning styles
This begins by recognizing that adult learning styles differ greatly from those of children or adolescents. Adults need a sense of ownership in the learning process. It needs to fulfill their individual needs and goals in order to remain relevant.
When I first entered this ministry having spent some years in youth catechesis, I discovered I needed a whole new playbook. It’s tempting to fall back on those youth catechetical strategies because it’s not hard to think of an adult seeker’s faith experience being at a similar “immature” level. But that thinking is short-sighted. Not only are their learning styles different, their experience levels vary greatly from person to person. These conditions automatically render a group process obsolete.
That’s not to say you can’t accomplish some effective catechesis in a group setting. The difference here is that your sessions no longer need to focus on highly focused topics, but instead focus on the bigger picture—the seasons, the readings, or on current events.
Early on I would get frustrated when the group would get me “off topic” in our discussions. Some would consider this to be an issue of poor classroom management. But remember, this isn’t a classroom. And this process should never be viewed as a class.
RCIA catechesis, led by the Holy Spirit
Instead I grew to understand that this was the Holy Spirit at work. Catechesis was still happening. I had accidentally stumbled onto what we now refer to as mystagogical model for discussion, where we as catechists can connect those personal questions or moments or experiences to the various teachings, doctrines, and traditions of our Catholic faith. Catechesis is still happening, but now it’s based on their actual needs, not what I perceive they need based on some fixed common schedule.
On a more practical level, we also need to remember that being an adult comes with all the baggage of being an adult. Work, school, children, family, and all those other obligations that fall outside of their spiritual quest. While they need to know that the process will require them to make some adjustments to their personal lives and schedules, we should never let them feel like they must make a choice between their personal obligations and attending a catechetical session. Even I, as a volunteer, may have to miss a session. I remind everyone that we’re all grown-ups here and that we understand that “real life” can sometimes get in the way.
Missing a catechetical session should not be a deal breaker when it comes to their faith journey. Instead we should treat these moments as opportunities for growth, both for them and for us. We learn to be more flexible and accommodating both as catechists and as Church. They learn by finding ways to weave their faith journey into their regular lives, because it’s something they will always have to do even when they are done with the Initiation process.
Spend some time thinking about the precatechumenate
Most importantly, all these issues can be addressed by following good practice during the precatechumenate (as laid out in Nick Wagner’s book Seek the Living God: Five RCIA Inquiry Questions for Making Disciples). It’s their plan that you form together, for which the burden of working through it now becomes theirs. We become facilitators, mentors, coaches and advisors. And instead of trying to keep the group on a fixed timetable, we help the individuals manage their own timetables and goals.
Adult initiation is an individual process that can be facilitated by group catechesis, not the other way around.
What are some of the ways you have facilitated a process that treats adults like adults? What challenges have you run into? What benefits have you seen? Share your thoughts in the comments below.