Q: Since the catechumens and candidates come into the church at the Easter Vigil, how do you handle someone who wants to join RCIA in, say, March, when the others in the RCIA process have been there for several months?
A. This is an important question, and it gets to the heart of how parishes have implemented the formation process for seekers versus the church’s vision for formation.
There are a lot of pieces in your question that we need to dig into.
First, we want to note that catechumens and candidates are already in the church. Catechumens are “joined to the church” and are “part of the household of Christ” at the moment they celebrate the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens (see RCIA 47). And baptized candidates are part of the church from the moment of their baptism (see RCIA 400).
Also, as best we can, we want to avoid language and structures that give the impression that seekers are joining the RCIA. No one has a goal to join the RCIA. Their goals vary. The want to become Catholic or they want to marry a Catholic or they want to live as a disciple or they want to unify their family or they want to be assured of eternal life. And there are dozens more goals. No two seekers ever really have exactly the same goal.
The newly released Directory of Catechesis recognizes that seekers have distinct needs and that we have tried to treat them all the same. “The need for formation that pays attention to the individual often seems to become blurred as one-size-fits-all models take hold” (preface).
What does the RCIA model look like?
Well then, if we are going to resist putting everyone into a one-size-fits-all model, what kind of model do we use for formation? The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults gives us a model that is imagines a custom-made formation process for each person:
- The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process
- that takes place within the community of the faithful.
- By joining the catechumens in reflecting on the value of the paschal mystery
- and by renewing their own conversion, the faithful provide an example that will help the catechumens to obey the Holy Spirit more generously.
- 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. (4-5)
Now let’s imagine who might show up in March and what they might be seeking. Suppose an unwed mother asks the pastor if she can have her baby baptized in your parish. After some conversation, it turns out the mother is not baptized herself. After several more conversations, she thinks she might want to seek baptism for both herself and her baby.
If her formation is going to be a gradual process, we are not going to try to rush her into the coming Easter Vigil. In fact, her formation might take “several years if necessary” (RCIA 76). If her formation is going to take place within the community, we have to design a formation process that integrates her into the life of the parish. If the seeker is ever going to understand the value of the paschal mystery, she will have to see regular examples of service and self-sacrifice from the faithful who are daily renewing their own conversion. And if we are serious that this will be an adult journey, we have to commit ourselves to learning and implementing adult-learning models instead of school-year, classroom models. Finally, we need to realize that whatever we have done in the past, what we will be asked to do now, for this seeker, will be a learning experience for us as well. Her formation process will be one that varies from any process we have been part of before.
Catechesis must point to an intimate communion with Christ
Let’s imagine instead that the person who comes to us in March is a long-time parishioner. He is a Lutheran and his wife and children are Catholic. After all these years, in order to unify his family in one tradition, he decides he would like to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
He has already had a gradual process of faith formation through his years of participation in the parish community. So his reception into full communion could happen rather soon. But whenever it happens, it would definitely not take place at the Easter Vigil (see National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 30-32). Because of both his Lutheran tradition and his participation in his family’s Catholic tradition, he has lived a life imbued with the paschal mystery and has both been a witness to and an example of conversion. If his formation from this point is to be suited to one for adults, we will want to take seriously where his journey of faith has already led him and not subject him to a series of classes best suited for beginners in religious education. And likewise, we need to realize that whatever we have done in the past, what we will be asked to do now, for this seeker, will be a learning experience for us as well. His formation process will be one that varies from any process we have been part of before.
The new Directory for Catechesis says that we have to reinterpret the goal of catechesis. The goal is not to join the RCIA or even, ultimately, to “become Catholic.” We have to understand “that intimate communion with Christ…[is] the ultimate end of the catechetical initiative” (3). The directory goes on to say:
Only a catechesis that strives to help each individual to develop his own unique response of faith can reach the specified goal. (3).
So if a seeker shows up in March—or any time of year—we should thank God for the blessing and begin to listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to help that individual person develop their own unique response to God’s invitation to intimacy and communion.
How many seekers approach your parish for initiation in the spring? What does your reception process look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.