Q&A: How do RCIA teams discern the readiness of children for becoming catechumens?

Q: How do we “see” the signs of readiness with children and youth for celebrating the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens?

A. This is a great question. Thinking through the process of discernment for children and youth really challenges us to understand why discernment is important in the first place.

In the Rite of Acceptance, the presider says to the inquirer:

You must strive to pattern your life on the teachings of the Gospel and so to love the Lord your God and your neighbor….

Are you ready to accept these teachings of the Gospel? (RCIA 52c)

Careful discernment of readiness for this rite is important because we are asking the inquirers to commit their lives to the way of faith, to live a life patterned on the Gospel. That’s a big ask. Are any of us ever really ready to accept what the gospel calls us to? And if we who have been at this a while are still struggling with our own “yes,” how can we expect children—who are just beginning to know Jesus—to say yes to this demand?


What are the inquirers saying yes to in the Rite of Acceptance?

To be able to say yes to the demands of the gospel, the inquirers have to have first heard the gospel proclaimed. Pope Francis gives us a simple way to state this first proclamation:

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. (Joy of the Gospel, 164)

The first part of your discernment for readiness, then, is to ask yourself if the inquirers have heard this message in a way that has touched their hearts.

If they have not yet heard the first proclamation in a way that makes a real difference in their lives, then they are not yet ready to celebrate the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. You need to continue finding ways, both through your actions and your words, to tell the inquirers about the great love God has for them.

Once you sense that the Holy Spirit has actually moved the heart of the inquirer, you then need to look for signs in their lives that they are, in fact, responding to God’s invitation to a new life.

How do you know the inquirers are responding to the first proclamation?

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults gives us several markers to look for that indicate the inquirers are turning toward God and may be ready to embark on a journey of faith.

The prerequisite for making this first step is that the beginnings of the spiritual life and the fundamentals of Christian teaching have taken root in the candidates. Thus there must be:

  • evidence of the first faith that was conceived during the period of evangelization and precatechumenate
  • and of an initial conversion
  • and intention to change their lives
  • and to enter into a relationship with God in Christ.

Consequently, there must also be:

  • evidence of the first stirrings of repentance,
  • a start to the practice of calling upon God in prayer,
  • a sense of the Church,
  • and some experience of the company and spirit of Christian through contact with a priest or with members of the community.
  • The candidate should also be instructed about the celebration of the liturgical rite of acceptance. (RCIA 42)

At first glance, some of these signs seem more appropriate for older children and adults. However, even very young children can desire “to enter into a relationship with God in Christ.” Very young children can show “a start to the practice of calling upon God in prayer.”

We might have to think differently about what is meant by “an initial conversion and intention to change their lives” for very young children. Can very young children “convert” and “change their lives”? Maybe not, However, If they really are too young to know the difference between right and wrong, then they are not ready for celebrating the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. We may instead need to celebrate the Order of Baptism of Children, which is the rite we celebrate with infants.

But if the inquirers are old enough to know what it means to try to be good instead of bad, they can try to be good more often. They can show “evidence of the first stirrings of repentance” if they are sorry for the times they have been bad.

You will not see these signs of readiness in a single meeting the child. You and the child’s sponsor will need to spend some time getting to know the child and developing a relationship with him or her. In this way, the inquirer will begin to develop “a sense of the Church.”

Also, I think it is very important that we look for these signs of readiness in the families of the inquirers and not only in the children themselves. Just as, through word and action, we proclaimed God’s love to the child, we must do the same with the family. As the family begins to respond to God’s loving invitation, the child inquirer will also begin to develop “a sense of the Church” in the domestic church.

What happens when we look for and see signs of readiness?

These signs of readiness are already a “yes” to the demands of the gospel. When an inquirer, no matter what age, begins to show the beginning of a spiritual life as a response to God’s loving invitation, that is a step forward on the journey of faith. Notice that these “yesses” are very small. The inquirer needs to have an initial conversion, a mere intention to change, barely a start of a prayer life, only a sense of the church.

Yet, as small as they are, these simple “yesses” are all the response God needs to shower grace upon the inquirers (see RCIA 41). That grace gives them the strength they need to stand publicly before God’s people and commit to new life as a disciple of Christ.

And as we, the people of God, stand with these newest members of the household of Christ, witnessing their courage and their faith, we are renewed in our own commitment to the gospel. Because after all this time, we are even more aware that we still don’t know the fullness of what the gospel calls us to. But the “yes” of the catechumens, especially the child catechumens, strengthens our resolve to continue to follow the Cross on our shared journey of faith.

Your turn

What does the RCIA journey for look like at your parish? What does it look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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