By: Msgr. Richard Hilgartner
Every year, in parishes across the country and throughout the world, candidates for the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist) prepare to become members of the Catholic Church. Their process of conversion, discernment, preparation and formation is guided by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
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Those discerning and preparing to enter the Church depend on the support and encouragement of the whole Church, not only to welcome them, but also to join with them in following Christ. At the same time, they enrich the Church by their example of openness to God’s grace and the promptings of the Holy Spirit as they respond to the invitation of Jesus.
In many ways, participants in the RCIA process—the catechumenate—and the parish community enrich one another. Those in the process of preparation should not be isolated from the parish community; they should be active and visible participants even as they are still preparing for full participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults points this out: “The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful. By joining catechumens in reflecting on the value of the paschal mystery and by renewing their own conversion, the faithful provide an example that will help the catechumens to obey the Holy Spirit more generously” (RCIA Introduction, #4, emphasis added).
So how exactly does this happen? It’s important to recognize that we’re talking about a process—“an apprenticeship of the entire Christian life” (General Directory for Catechesis, #67)—not a program. It’s not merely a series of classes. Below are 10 ways members of the parish community can get involved in supporting those on the journey to initiation.
Parishes post the names and photos of catechumens (those not yet baptized) and candidates for full communion (those baptized in another Christian tradition), so that the community can offer them prayerful support. In larger parishes, it’s difficult to get to know everyone. This goes for both parishioners and those preparing for initiation!
Offer prayers for them, or commit to praying for one particular catechumen or candidate and let him or her know of your willingness to offer this gift of prayer as he or she prepares for initiation. In this, they come to know how members of the parish support one another in prayer and come to understand better the concept of intercessory prayer.
The journey of those in the catechumenate can serve as an example for all the Church because they are listening intently to the Word of God and are taking concrete steps to follow the Lord. This can inspire us, especially during Lent, as we, too, strive to follow the Lord more closely.
Take time to listen to their stories and experiences. Sometimes people need an invitation to tell their stories, and it’s often in this telling that catechumens and candidates come to recognize how God is working in their lives. Members of the faith community can gain insight and be invited to reflect on their own experiences as they listen, too.
The catechumenate includes a number of public rituals during the course of the process: the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, Rite of Election, Scrutinies, Presentations and Preparation Rites. (The RCIA provides some corresponding rites for candidates for full communion.) Many of these take place at Sunday Masses. Attend those Masses to show your support for those preparing to celebrate the sacraments of initiation at Easter.
4. ATTEND THE EASTER VIGIL
The Great Vigil of Easter is the “night of nights” during which the Church keeps vigil for the Resurrection of Jesus. During the Easter Vigil, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation are celebrated, and new members are welcomed into the Church and receive the Eucharist for the first time.
Through ancient rituals, this “most blessed of all nights” celebrates the central mysteries of our faith. Yes, it’s a long celebration, but it’s also the heart of the Church’s worship, and the powerful and abundant signs speak to our hearts and fill us with the joy of the Resurrection.
5. BE WELCOMING
In the weeks following Easter, the newly baptized, now called “neophytes,” are looking for their places in the community of the Church. Make them feel welcome. Let them know that their presence in the community is important. If you’re part of an activity, group or ministry, let these new members know what you’re about and invite them to participate.
The process of preparation for the sacraments involves a lot of support, personal attention and a strong experience of community. It will be important for the newly initiated to discover a similar sense of community as they take their places within the Church.
The catechumenate reminds us that God is present and active, and speaks to people’s hearts. How you act, what you say and what you do can point to the presence of Christ. At Jesus’ ascension into heaven, he reminded his disciples, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Each of us is called to witness to what Christ is doing in our life, and that witness can speak to others. One option for the words of dismissal at the conclusion of Mass reminds us of this call: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” (Roman Missal, Third Edition).
Because we are witnesses, each of us is called to share our faith in some way. As we support those preparing for the initiation, we might also take note of others who are searching and who might benefit from encouragement or an invitation to learn more about the Catholic faith.
Evangelization doesn’t necessarily mean preaching on a street corner, but being a member of the Church does mean that we share our faith. Something as simple as inviting a friend or neighbor to join you for Mass can be a powerful witness, allowing the Lord to reach out through your act of hospitality.
8. GET INVOLVED
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There are many facets to the catechumenate. Each depends on members of the Church (along with clergy, catechists and staff members) to facilitate, teach, lead and serve as sponsors.
Consider sharing your own faith and gifts by getting involved. Some roles specifically involve teaching and instruction as catechists; others involve hospitality, organization and companionship. All involve witnessing to the gospel, to which each of us is called by baptism.
9. REPENT AND CHANGE YOUR OWN HEART
In addition to those preparing for baptism, the RCIA may also be used for baptized Christians preparing for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. This can be celebrated at any time of year.
All those preparing for initiation remind us that we’re each called to follow and listen to the Lord, who is always speaking to us and calling us to repentance—ongoing conversion and a change of heart—that we might become more authentic disciples.
10. KEEP GROWING IN FAITH
After celebrating the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, the newly initiated continue their formation in the faith in the period called “Mystagogy,” Greek for “interpretation of mystery.” During this period, they reflect on their encounters with Christ in the sacraments and learn more about the faith they now share.
Mystagogy is ongoing and is essentially what all members of the Church are called to do throughout our lives: grow deeper in our faith and our relationship with Christ, constantly discerning God’s will for us. It’s here that the newly initiated can model “best practices” for all the faithful as they reflect on what they have experienced in the sacraments and strive to understand better the presence and grace of Jesus Christ at work in their lives.
What is the RCIA?
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the Church’s guide for forming and welcoming those who wish to be initiated into the Catholic Church. The process, called the “catechumenate,” is modeled on that practiced in the early Church. It’s “an apprenticeship of the entire Christian life” (General Directory for Catechesis, #67), a journey that involves conversion, reflection on Scripture, formation in the gospel way of life and integration into the community—its prayer, relationships and outreach. —JMcKamey
What are the steps and stages of this journey?
Notice that the first word in RCIA is “Rite.” That’s because the Church focuses on the rites or rituals that mark the progress an individual makes on the journey of Christian initiation. Each rite is preceded by a “period” during which the person receives the formation needed to fully celebrate the coming rite.
Candidates approach the Church for help in their search for Christ. The Church responds with evangelization and precatechumenate, “a time, of no fixed duration or structure, for inquiry and introduction to Gospel values” (RCIA, p. 14).
RITE: ACCEPTANCE INTO THE ORDER OF CATECHUMENS
Candidates express their intention to follow the way of Christ. The Church, in turn, accepts the candidates who, from that point, are called “catechumens” (Greek for “those being instructed”). They begin to join the parish for Sunday Mass. After the Liturgy of the Word, they are dismissed to “share their joy and spiritual experiences” with each other (RCIA, #67).
The catechumens’ faith and conversion to God are nurtured through “pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life” (RCIA, #75).
RITE: ELECTIONS OR ENROLLMENT OF NAMES
This rite, usually celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent, affirms the catechumens’ readiness for the sacraments of initiation. They write their names in the Book of the Elect, expressing their desire and intent to celebrate the baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at Easter. They are called “the elect” from that point, indicating they have been chosen—elected—by God and the Church.
PERIOD: PURIFICATION AND ENLIGHTENMENT
Usually coinciding with the season of Lent, this time of reflection focuses on conversion as the elect prepare to celebrate baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Minor rites—such as Scrutinies and Presentations of the Creed and Lord’s Prayer—occur during this time, often at Sunday Mass. If your parish has members of the elect preparing for baptism at Easter, the readings from Lectionary Cycle A are generally used on the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays.
RITE: CELEBRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS OF INITIATION
The elect celebrate baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, usually at the Easter Vigil Mass. From this point, they are called “neophytes” (Greek for “newly planted”).
PERIOD: POSTBAPTISMAL CATECHESIS OR MYSTAGOGY
During the Easter season, neophytes experience being a full part of the Christian community. They participate in the Sunday Eucharist and reflect on the meaning of the Easter sacraments. —JM
Is the RCIA for those who are already baptized?
The Church recognizes the baptisms of many Christian churches. Baptized members of other churches who wish to become Catholic are called “candidates” or “candidates for full communion.” Since they’ve “already been justified by faith and incorporated into Christ” by baptism (RCIA, #563), their path to reception into the Catholic Church may be simpler and shorter than that of those who have not been baptized (catechumens). Candidates may make a profession of faith and celebrate confirmation and Eucharist when they are ready—at any time of the year.
Some parishes combine the two groups— catechumens and candidates—in their formation process and rites. The RCIA text offers combined rites for these communities. Since the candidates are already united with Christ through baptism, the rites call for a clear distinction between the two groups. —JM
Monsignor Richard Hilgartner
is a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and serves as executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (Sacramental and Liturgical Theology) from the Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselm in Rome.
NEXT: Paschal Mystery by Rev. Thomas Richstatter, OFM