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Many readers will have witnessed new members being initiated at the Easter Vigil or during the Easter season.
The process by which new members are incorporated into the Catholic Church is called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. The RCIA is a journey of faith which is made up of several phases.
The first phase is the period of Evangelisation and Precatechumenate. This is a time for questioning and discovery and an opportunity for the beginnings of faith. For those enquirers who then decide to begin the process of becoming Catholics, the first major rite of the RCIA, Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, is celebrated.
The “catechumens”, as those seeking full initiation into the Church are known, now enter a time of pastoral formation which includes four elements: catechesis (teaching), experiencing the Christian way of life, celebrating liturgical rites and doing apostolic works. Catechesis is tailored to the needs of the individual - no ‘one-size-fits-all’.
As the season of Lent approaches, those who are found to be ready for initiation celebrate the rite of Election or Enrolment of Names. This liturgy is a public statement of the catechumens’ readiness for the sacraments and the Church’s acceptance of their intention to follow the way of Christ. Lent is a time of prayerful preparation for the climax of their journey at the Easter Vigil, where, in the midst of the community, they are baptised, confirmed and come to the table of the Eucharist.
The journey continues through the Easter season which is a period of ongoing reflection on the Easter sacraments and discerning where God is calling these new members in the ongoing life of the community.
The process is gradual, public, involves the whole community, includes both catechesis and ritual, and requires prayerful discernment at various stages. The length of time spent in the catechumenate needs to be sufficient for the conversion of the catechumens to become strong. Most parishes have a yearly RCIA cycle which begins around September and ends at Pentecost, but the rite assumes that the unbaptised and uncatechised experience a full liturgical year of preparation before initiation.
The catechumenate is not about “making more Catholics”; its chief purpose is conversion of heart and mind to Christ. During the catechumenate period, candidates come to ever deepening faith in Jesus. In baptism they become incorporated into Christ and into the Church.
The RCIA is a process, not a program, and it is unfair and unwise to tell those who enquire about membership of the Catholic Church in mid-cycle to “come back later”.They should be introduced to members of the parish community, invited to come to parish gatherings and linked to a sponsor who can begin to walk with them on their journey and answer their questions. It is essential that parishes be welcoming and accommodating to those who come to their door.
The RCIA is messy, but then so is parish life, because both are about human lives.Remember that God is in charge. Our role is to remain open to the movement of God, not put obstacles in the way.