The RCIA: Process, not Program

Readers of the Catholic Leader will have seen a couple of letters in recent “Have your say” columns in which the writers speak of the obstacles they encountered when seeking to become members of the Catholic Church. Their feelings of frustration are very understandable.
The process by which new members are incorporated into the Catholic Church is called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. The term ‘rite’ here does not have its usual meaning of a ritual celebration. The RCIA is rather a journey of faith which is made up of several phases and liturgical rites that mark progression from one phase to the next.
The first stage 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, called the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, is celebrated. Many parishes will be conducting this rite between now and Advent.
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), lived experience of the Christian way of life, suitable liturgical rites and apostolic works. Conversion is central to the whole process and time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough for the conversion of the catechumens to become strong.
As the season of Lent approaches, those who are found to be ready for initiation celebrate the rite of Election or Enrolment of Names which is their statement of readiness for the sacraments and the Church’s acceptance of their intention to follow the way of Christ. Lent then is a time of prayerful preparation for the climax of their journey in the great ritual of the Easter Vigil, where, in the midst of the community, they will be 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.
This lengthy, careful process which is set out in Part I of the ritual book is rated U.A.O. – Unbaptised Adults Only! Throughout the Rite, the importance of adapting what is set down to make it suitable for other categories of people who seek membership of the Catholic Church is emphasised. This includes those who have been baptised Catholic or in another Church but have had little, if any, further contact with the Church,those who have had long involvement with another Christian tradition and people who have been attending Mass with a spouse for some time. It is quite inappropriate to expect everyone to “fit in” with a process designed for those coming to faith for the first time. There are shorter sections in Part II of the ritual book which look at the preparation of uncatechised adults for Confirmation and Eucharist and the reception of Baptised Christians into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
Most parishes have a yearly RCIA cycle which begins around September and ends at Pentecost. But it is a process not a program and it is unfair and unwise to tell those who come seeking information about or 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. It is hard to package neatly the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Remember that God is in charge. Our role is to remain open to the movement of God, not put obstacles in the way.

Elizabeth Harrington