Jess Panlener is on the Discipleship Team at St. Charles in Hartland, WI, outside of Milwaukee, where she is the RCIA (Becoming Fully Catholic) director, baptism coordinator, and adult and family minister. She holds a master’s degree in historical theology from Marquette University, but she is a Wisconsin Badger through and through. Jess and her husband Mike have two children.
Does your parish have a year-round RCIA process? Do you have a story you’d like to share? If so, please send about 1,000 words to Nick Wagner, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am blessed to be in the position of directing the RCIA at St. Charles in Hartland, WI, just outside of Milwaukee. Over the last two years we have worked diligently at making our RCIA a truly year-round movement, because we believe that people should be able to obey the Lord’s promptings and enter the church when Jesus calls them. His timing is perfect.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering why a year-round RCIA is a good and necessary idea. Is it worth it? I’d ask you to take into account my friend Nadine’s story. Nadine is an elect awaiting baptism in a few weeks. In January 2019, she reached out to me and began coming to our Becoming Fully Catholic gatherings.
The RCIA welcomes seekers where they are
Nadine had had a radical conversion experience, in which the Holy Spirit moved her heart, very suddenly and at her desk, to be baptized. She had, up until this point, dug her heels in very stubbornly against everything Christian, even trying to keep her husband home from Mass on Sundays! She sent me an email within the hour and I met her the next day. On my heart the entire time we were together were the words of the Ethiopian: “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Nothing! Because we run a year-round RCIA, we were able to integrate Nadine into our community immediately. She was meeting with a parish mentor the next week and went through the Rite of Acceptance that spring, after joyfully celebrating with those who were ready to receive the sacraments at Easter. We were able to grab hold of the momentum of that moment of conversion and vulnerability, praise God, and step into the role of Christ who said, “Come.”
Nadine is a faithful example to all who know her. She hungers for Jesus in his Word and in the Eucharist, inspiring all of us around her to look at the faith with wonder, and love each other with hearts of flesh. On a purely practical level, integrating her in this way also helped us with her annulment and that of her husband, followed by convalidation. These steps would never have been completed in time for baptism had she waited until the fall to begin the process.
Being as eager as Christ to welcome seekers
In Nadine’s particular case, I firmly believe that God would have carried her through to a September start date. But why on Earth would any of us have wanted to turn away such a fervent desire for Christ? And what if she hadn’t been so deeply convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church? I shudder to think of all the questioning, seeking souls whom Catholics have lost by telling them to come back later. The church must be as open and eager to receive those souls as Christ himself.
I was received into full communion in 2013. Jesus moved my heart to his people and his presence in the Eucharist over a year prior, in February, 2012. When I returned to the parish and asked to become a Catholic, I was told that RCIA started in September. Then, I heard nothing. Praise God, he so moved me that I took myself to Mass, joined small groups, and even joined a ministry team and Mass music ministry—anything to be closer to Jesus—until I could start lessons that fall. I was so involved that people were surprised to learn I wasn’t actually a Catholic!
It turns out that, having been baptized as an infant, I was already one with the body of Christ- it was only after joining St. Charles, reading the RCIA, and taking TeamRCIA courses, that I was surprised to learn how “off” my experience had been, and that I should have been properly received long before Easter. It has become my personal apostolate to ensure that no one—especially those who are just beginning to seek Truth—no one who comes to St. Charles is sent away. They immediately start meeting with me, a mentor, or one of our priests, and helped to find their home in the church. We pray with them, we invite them to spend time with us, and we show them Christ in our community and teach them through example.
What is the RCIA model?
The RCIA is very clear on the model we are to follow in our parishes.
The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults that varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place. (RCIA 5, emphasis added)
Nowhere in the introduction to the rite does the church mention any sort of schedule or calendar, beyond Initiation properly taking place at Easter. This was a huge revelation to me when I read it, as was paragraph 9: “The initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized.”
At St. Charles, we interpret this paragraph that the RCIA is a community driven movement. Our parishioners know our catechumens and candidates. They take joy in the rites at Mass and introduce the seekers to ministries where they can develop their gifts and talents.
Our catechumens have a home in the parish community outside of RCIA so that when they are initiated, they already have strong Christian relationships. There ought to be this symbiotic relationship between catechumens and the greater parish community. Just picture it: catechumens evangelizing Catholics by setting a higher standard of devotion to Christ and his church, and infusing a sense of wonder into the faith. Parishioners evangelizing catechumens (and themselves!) by apprenticing catechumens, through word and example, how to be a Catholic.
A year-round RCIA isn’t easy, but it can be done!
You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, transitioning to a year-round RCIA is too much work. We don’t have the time, the staff, or the volunteers. We’d have to start all over. What we have is fine. Change is too complicated.
But I want to encourage you; it can be done; and it should be done. On a practical level, it takes a huge amount of stress off of your RCIA ministers. Meeting once or twice a month, without the pressure of a strict lesson plan, and with the primary catechesis coming from the Sunday lectionary and rite itself, allows the Holy Spirit to move—and your ministers to relax! What is far more important than an understanding of the schism of the eleventh century is the first proclamation, “ringing out over and over: Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium, 164). All other truths flow from this. Unless this is alive in the hearts of your catechumens, the rest of your catechesis will land on bad soil.
This is how the apostles brought people into the church. This is how it was done in the oldest days, when the faith spread like wildfire. The primary and most effective catechesis is learning through doing- apprenticeship by the community, the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. The method is given to us in Scripture itself.
We need to make room for people to enter the church when Jesus calls them. His timing is perfect.
Has your parish RCIA been able to welcome in new seekers as quickly as Nadine? How are you fostering a process that “is suited to the spiritual journey of adults” in your parish? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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1 thought on “Jesus’s timing is perfect—one parish’s experience of year-round RCIA”
I just became the coordinator for our RCIA after 2 years as a helper. I admit, I found our classes dry and didn’t really understand the intent of RCIA. Now, having taken some online classes and read the Rite a little more closely, I find I am more on fire and passionate about what we are doing. We’re not exactly at year-round thinking/paradigm yet, but we are accepting people as they come and trying to meet their needs which range from coming from other faiths, needing only Confirmation, needing Eucharist & Confirmation, to brand-new unbaptized. The Lord is blessing me by with a team slowly seeing that we are doing something different, more focus on evangelization, building relationships. Also, blessing us with a few people coming at a time and Zooming so we can get our feet wet with this new way of thinking. God is good all the time.