Is your RCIA open all year-round? Having everyone around the same table

Is it time to reconsider following cohort model in our formation processes? The Oxford dictionary defines a “cohort” as “a group of people with a shared characteristic.” It’s a model that has been used in education since the beginning—grouping children into a grade level based on age with the understanding that a similar age corelates to having similar abilities and experience.

The cohort model has also been incorporated whole heartedly in our parish religious education programs, and by default, into our adult formation processes. And while there is some validity to this model, time and experience has taught us that it’s not that simple nor effective, especially when looking at the unique needs and conditions of faith formation versus education.

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The challenge of a cohort model

For many years the adult initiation process followed such a cohort model. Seekers come to us and at the “beginning of the year” where we would group them into a cohort based not so much on their needs but on when they joined our process.

I remember the anxiety we all felt on our team when we moved to a year-round model. We would fret endlessly about how we were going to keep certain cohorts together or the need to separate those in the catechumenate from those going through the period of mystagogy. We stressed over the difficulty it would cause by having to extend (or over-extend) our team so that each of these cohorts could be managed. This cohort mentality was so ingrained in our experience that we became obsessed with looking at the forest when we should have been looking at the individual trees.

Adults come to us with all their diversity—of age, of experience, of economics, of race. And while some may argue that our seekers come to us with the same need—to join the church, to be part of the Body of Christ—the reality is that everyone’s journey to that goal is different.

Some have never been baptized but may be well-catechized, while others may be baptized, but never catechized. Not only that, following a year-round catechumenate recognizes that everyone’s journey through the process is moved by the Holy Spirit, not a calendar. We are meant to take them in as the Holy Spirit calls them to us; they complete their initiation when they are ready, not when the calendar says they should be ready (remembering that not all adult initiation is tied to the Easter Vigil).

So I hear some of you crying, “This might all sound nice in theory, but from a practical standpoint, how does this actually work?”

Letting go of  a regimented curriculum

The first step is to let go of our need to force everyone into a cohort, especially if you’re a smaller parish with fewer seekers. Our seekers don’t have enough “shared characteristics” to make a cohort practical. Nor is it necessary.

Adults, by their nature, are extremely adaptable in social situations. Not all our daily interactions are ruled by a cohort mentality. We live, work, and interact with other people who come from vastly different experiences and backgrounds all the time. We’re used to these differences in our daily interactions.

So why are we compelled to group adults into a cohort in a faith formation setting?

Let’s look at this from another perspective: the parish. Specifically, the parishioners. Talk about diversity! Yet somehow we manage to interact with each other while working toward the common goal of maintaining a life in Christ and the community. The epitome of the Body of Christ is different parts, unique in themselves, but still part of the whole. And in those interactions we are able to share our experiences with each other—catechizing and forming each other along the way.

It is possible, even beneficial, having everyone around the same table for catechetical sessions, no matter when they enter the process. The key to making this work remembering that our formation process should not be a regimented curriculum, but life of the parish!

The life of the parish is the key

The premier place of formation is Sunday Mass and the celebrations of the liturgical seasons. Formation also takes place in the activities of the parish community, not some specified course of study.

If Sunday Mass is our primary catechetical tool, our catechetical sessions become subordinate to that, with our sessions and topics reflecting the lived experience of everyone around the table, no matter how much time they may have had in the process. They all have something to share and we all learn from each other. That family atmosphere we think makes a cohort necessary still develops.

Think about it—family units change all the time. New members come in regularly, through new relationships, marriages, and births. Family members also depart regularly, through death, or distance. Change is a constant, but we are resilient, we adapt. Somehow it still works as we gather around the same table.

The same can be true for your catechetical sessions if you give it a chance.

Your turn

How do you help everyone “come to the table” in your parish’s catechetical ministry? What does it look like to gather seekers from different walks of life at the Sunday Mass? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Photo by StefanDahl.
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