Uncover the hidden gem of RCIA formation—celebrations of the word

Different multi-color gems and crystalsI discovered how to be a catechist for seekers almost by accident. When I was in my 20s, I learned all about liturgy, and I worked in a parish that had a vibrant catechumenate ministry. My role in that ministry was to plan and facilitate the rites for the seekers.

When I was in my 30s, I moved to a new city for a non-church job. Once I found a new parish, I volunteered to help with the RCIA. My intent was to stick to the liturgical side of things. But the Holy Spirit had other plans, and I was soon deeply involved in the catechetical formation of the seekers. Since I hadn’t done that before, I turned to the rite to see what my job was supposed to be. I read there that we are supposed to train the seekers in how to live a Christian life. One of the ways we do that is this:

A suitable catechesis is provided by priests or deacons, or by catechists and others of the faithful, planned to be gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year, and solidly supported by celebrations of the word. (RCIA 75.1)

The team at my new parish was using a combination of a textbook and a video series to provide a suitable and complete catechesis. I honestly didn’t think it was very suitable. It was over the heads of some of the seekers and way too basic for a couple of them. It wasn’t very gradual, and it wasn’t at all accommodated to the liturgical year.

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What might be missing in RCIA catechesis?

The biggest missing piece was that there were no celebrations of the word. As a liturgist, I knew the power of a well-celebrated liturgy of the word. And what I learned in that parish is that celebrations of the word are powerful catechetical tools.

It was years later that I would read in the then-newly-published Catechism of the Catholic Church that liturgy is the “privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (1074).

What the church means by that is not what we might first think. The church is not suggesting that we turn homilies into explanations of doctrine. Nor should we tack on a “four minute catechesis” after communion. Nor should we add on a prayerful readings of scripture at our catechetical sessions before we get to the meat of the evening, which is the video teaching we have scheduled for that week.

Why celebrations of the word are essential

The RCIA tells us exactly what a suitable catechesis looks like:

The instruction that the catechumens receive during this period should be of a kind that while presenting Catholic teaching in its entirety also

  • enlightens faith,
  • directs the heart toward God,
  • fosters participation in the liturgy,
  • inspires apostolic activity,
  • and nurtures a life completely in accord with the spirit of Christ. (RCIA 78)

It can be difficult to do all of this with the teaching tools many of us rely on. However, the liturgy does all of this and more. That is why the catechism teaches that liturgy is the privileged place for catechizing. That is why the RCIA says catechesis must be accommodated to the liturgical year and supported by celebrations of the word.

What do we really ‘teach’ in the RCIA?

How is it possible that celebrations of the word, accommodated to the liturgical year, will present Catholic teaching in its entirety? It is possible because what we mean by “teach.” When we teach the faith, we are not reciting a set of facts. We are accompanying seekers on a journey of faith. On that journey, they encounter Christ—who becomes their teacher. Every encounter with Christ is a deeper revelation, a deeper learning of who Christ is and how to follow Christ.

The Directory for Catechesis says a catechist is:

A teacher and mystagogue who introduces others to the mystery of God, revealed in the paschal mystery of Christ; as an icon of Jesus the teacher, the catechist has the two fold task of transmitting the content of the faith and leading others into the mystery of the faith itself…. The catechist is called to…[unveil] the mysteries of salvation contained in the deposit of faith and renewed in the Church’s liturgy. (113b)

In my younger days, I made a mistake thinking I could just focus on the liturgical side of the catechumenate and leave the catechetical side to others to worry about. What I had to learn was that the liturgy is the catechesis. It is the formative, revelatory, mysterious, life-changing, encounter with Christ.

If we want to provide a complete catechesis for our seekers, we have to provide them with the fullest experience of Christ in the liturgy that we can. And that’s going to mean providing regular celebrations of the word during their catechumenate.

In a future post, we’ll look at what celebrations of the word and the minor rites during the catechumenate look like.

Your turn

Is something ‘missing’ from your parish’s RCIA catechesis ? Are you incorporating celebrations of the word? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Photo by Chris_Hotwired from Getty Images.


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