What is the RCIA?

Before the reforms of the second Vatican Council, adults were initiated into the Catholic Church after a period of private “convert instruction” by a priest. Those who had not been previously baptised (and sometimes even those who had been baptised in another Church but whose baptism was considered invalid) were baptised in private, using the same ritual used for infants. They were confirmed and received communion at a usual Sunday Mass with little, if any, special ceremony to mark the significance of the occasion.
The revision of the sacrament of baptism was one of the most extensive and intensive undertakings after the Vatican Council. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) can perhaps best be described as a journey of faith which passes through a number of different phases or periods; progression into the next phase of the journey is always marked by the celebration of a liturgical rite. For example, those who are called to enter into the Period of the Catechumenate after the initial Inquiry phase celebrate a public ritual termed the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, often called the Rite of Welcoming.
The RCIA places the focus on Jesus in a much more explicit way than earlier rites of initiation. Adult conversion is not so much a conversion to belief in God as to a belief in the mystery of Jesus. For example, in the final period of Purification and Enlightenment the elect exchange “Satan’s crushing yoke” for “the gentle yoke of Jesus” (Exorcism, First Scrutiny) and have their spirits filled by Christ the Redeemer (RCIA 130). The prayers for each of the stages repeat phrases about “following Christ”, “knowing Christ” and “being conformed to Christ”.
The Rite explains that, from the moment someone is received into the catechumenate, he or she becomes part of the Catholic Christian community. It expresses this in warm images of family intimacy: “From this time on the Church embraces the catechumens as its own with a mother’s love and concern” (RCIA 47).
It is important to be clear on the purpose of the catechumenate. It is not primarily aimed at “making more Catholics” to fill up some of the empty seats in our churches. The first paragraph of the RCIA outlines clearly its vision that adults might “…enter the way of faith and conversion as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts”. The 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 calls the candidates to conform to Christ, not to the Church. It also calls us to conversion – to a new way of being church. What is our response to the living God? How do we live out our life in Christ? What kind of church are we initiating people into?
¨ An edited extract from “RCIA Team Book” by Peter Gagen and Elizabeth Harrington. Just published, it is available from Brisbane Catholic Education, GPO Box 1201 Brisbane 4001. Phone 07 3840 0516.


Elizabeth Harrington