In previous posts, we looked at what the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults says about why conversion is important and what the church means by conversion. In this post, we want to look at how, according to the rite, we can foster conversion in seekers.
When we are talking about the initial conversion of seekers who have never, ever encountered Jesus in a meaningful way, the rite says that conversion is a step-by-step (gradual) process that takes place in the midst of the Christian community (see RCIA 4).
Two essential preparation steps
This means that immersing the seekers in what we do as a parish is how we will foster their conversion. Most of our catechumenate processes are not set up for that. More often, we find catechumenate processes that are designed to be small group classes that take place somewhere separate from the larger parish community.
However, we don’t just release the seekers into the community and hope for the best. There is a systematic apprenticeship process that is supposed to take place that has two essential parts. The first part is that the community renews their own conversion, and by doing so they provide example to the seekers (see RCIA 4). We renew our conversion primarily by celebrating the Sunday liturgy, and we also renew our conversion through the entire life of the parish and in our domestic home churches.
The second part—and this is where sponsors and catechists come in—is that conversion involves reflecting upon the paschal mystery (see RCIA 4). Every action of the parish and the domestic home churches is an encounter with the mystery of Christ.
The centrality of the liturgy for conversion
The primary encounter with the paschal mystery is the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist. By regularly reflecting on that mystical encounter throughout the liturgical year, and reflecting on all the other encounters with the mystery of Christ throughout the parish and in our domestic home churches, we help the seekers gradually deepen their conversion to the point of readiness for initiation.
The challenge for us as catechumenate ministers is that we cannot put all this into a standard curriculum that we can schedule in a series of classes. Conversion to the mystery of Christ doesn’t work that way. The conversion process varies for each person; there is no one-size-fits-all or even fits-many program or lecture series or video series (see RCIA 5).
When we really begin to understand this, it becomes clearer what the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults means when it says that conversion is the responsibility of the People of God, represented by the parish community (see RCIA 9).
This might be disconcerting or disorienting for some of us. If conversion is the responsibility of the parish, what is our responsibility as catechumenate team members? Our biggest and most important job is coaching and encouraging the parish to be the best parish it can be.
Every Catholic parish is a living, breathing conversion process. The better we are at renewing our own conversion as a parish, the more effective we will be at fostering the conversion of the seekers. Paragraph 9 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults outlines some of the things we can encourage our parishioners to participate in in the initiation process. Of course, the biggest, most important thing parishioners can do is fully, consciously, and actively participate in the Sunday liturgy.
Recollection and reflection
Another thing we do as a catechumenate team, as mentioned above, is to assist the seekers in “reflecting on the value of the paschal mystery” (RCIA 4). That can be something as simple as asking seekers about their latest encounter with Jesus. We can ask them what happened, what they saw, what they heard, and what it meant to them. If we have more time, we can help them connect their experience to the tradition and experience of the church.
Remember, this is a gradual process. We aren’t usually going to see initial conversion develop into readiness for initiation for at least one full liturgical year and maybe not even for several years. The proposed language for the new translation says it this way:
The length of time appropriate for the catechumenate depends both on the grace of God and on various circumstances…. The catechumenate, or pastoral formation of the catechumens, should last long enough for their conversion and faith to mature, even over several years, if need be. (OCIA 76)
This way of doing the catechumenate process will seem new for many of us. However, it is what the church asks us to do. This process of encounter with Christ and reflecting on the paschal mystery is based on a long tradition of the church. It is the method used by the first disciples. The coming new translation of the Rite (Order) of Christian Initiation of Adults gives us a great opportunity to start to align our catechumenate process with the vision and teaching of the church.
What kind of environment for conversion is your parish creating? Does your conversion process need more “room to breathe”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.