It—s been nearly 30 years since the Catholic Church
first gave us a —new— way of initiating people into the Catholic
Christian community. And it—s been over 10 years since the bishops
of the United States mandated that this new way of initiating
adults and older children be implemented in the parishes of the
United States. This new way of initiating Catholics is called
the RCIARite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Not long ago our U.S. bishops took a closer look
at how well the RCIA is working in our local parishes. The results
of the bishops— study on the RCIA were published in October 2000
in a report entitled Journey to the Fullness of Life. The
bishops found that in some parishes the RCIA is working very well,
yet in other parishes it doesn—t even exist. Nonetheless, the
bishops say that the RCIA is —renewing the life of the Church
in the United States— and that it must continue to be a priority
in our parishes.
That—s a pretty strong endorsement! Why do our bishops
want the RCIA to be a priority in our parishes when there is so
much else going on in parish life? How does it renew a parish?
And what—s it got to do with each of us? This Update will
address these questions about RCIA as well as give a step-by-step
explanation of the rite itself.
Journey of conversion—for
The bishops want the RCIA to be a priority in the
parish precisely because it does (or at least it can) renew
parish life. The RCIA is a journey of conversion for the person
participating in the initiation process, and by extension it can
be a journey of conversion for the whole parish! That is, conversion
happens if the parish fully embraces the process of initiation
and walks the journey of faith with the candidates for initiation.
Let—s look closer at this notion of conversion.
The Rite tells us that those requesting initiation —seek
the living God and enter the way of faith and conversion.— This
indicates that those folks who come to our parish doors saying,
—I want to be Catholic,— are indeed —seeking— something. Although
they may not articulate it as such, what they really seek is God.
So, the parish invites them to into this wondrous process whereby
they develop, deepen and enrich their relationship with this loving
God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
Now, if RCIA really is this wondrous journey of
conversion to God in Christ, then the sponsors who walk with the
candidatessupporting them, praying for them, witnessing
to their faith, guiding them along the pathcannot help but
experience some kind of conversion themselves. Likewise, the Christian
community that supports, prays for, guides and celebrates with
the candidates also renews its own conversion to God in Christ.
Indeed, we Catholics believe that conversion to
Jesus Christ is a lifelong and ongoing process. Thus, when we
witness others changing their lives, giving up old ways of doing
and being and committing themselves to Jesus Christ, it makes
us want to recommit ourselves as well. And when the members of
the parish recommit themselves to Christ, the parish is indeed
Discipleship and mission
RCIA is the Church—s way of forming new disciples
of Jesus Christ. It—s the normative way the Catholic Church welcomes
its newest members, but even more important than membership in
the Catholic Church is discipleship in Christ Jesus. Through a
gradual, complete and comprehensive training in the Christian
way of life (Rite, no. 75), the unbaptized come to know
Jesus Christ through the Catholic Christian community and they
learn to live as Jesus— disciples. Then, as disciples, they continue
the mission of Jesus Christ in the world today.
Some people who participate in the RCIA are already
disciples of Jesus Christ by virtue of their Baptism in a Protestant
denomination. Although the RCIA is designed primarily for the
unbaptized, it can also be adapted for use with those who are
already baptized, including adults and children over seven years
Participating in the RCIA is much more than going
to classes on Catholicism. It—s undergoing a conversion to a new
way of life in Christ. Although doctrinal instruction is a part
of the formation process, the formation of disciples is more like
an apprenticeship. The —apprentices— learn the Catholic Christian
way of life from being in the midst of the parish community.
The entire community helps form the apprentice in the Christian
way of life. Herein lies the answer to one of the questions given
at the outset: What—s the RICA got to do with me? Let—s take a
The parishioner—s role
The entire Christian community is responsible for
the initiation of its newest disciples. Here are some specific
As mentoring community. Every baptized
parishioner has a role in initiation of our new members. We are
part of that mentoring community that apprentices the new disciples.
By observing our prayer, words, deeds and actions in the parish
and in the broader community our newest members learn what it
means to live as a Catholic Christian today. We provide the examples.
We are the models. RCIA depends on us because we make up the Christian
As sponsors. In addition to the
prayers we offer for our candidates and the examples we provide,
there are other specific ways parishioners are involved in RCIA.
Baptized members of the community serve as sponsors for candidates
in the RCIA. A sponsor is an active member of the parish who walks
with the candidate on the journey to new, fuller life in Christ.
The sponsor supports and guides the candidate along the way. The
sponsor is the candidate—s personal connection to the parish.
As catechists, coordinators and assistants.
Members of the community also serve as catechists (teachers)
for the process of initiation. Other members of the community
serve as coordinators and assistants in various aspects of the
initiation process. Furthermore, in Journey to the Fullness
of Life, the bishops urge that —even more parishioners— become
actively involved in the RCIA. The more parishioners become personally
invested in the process of initiating others into the life of
Christ, the more the community itself will be renewed in its own
life in Christ.
As members of the Sunday assembly. There
is one final way that every worshiping parishioner is involved
in the RCIA. That—s through participation in the liturgical rites
of initiation that usually happen at Sunday Mass, especially in
the months before Easter but also throughout the year. There are
major liturgical rituals that mark the progress of the candidates
who are in the initiation process. These liturgical rites are
major events not only for the candidates in the process, but also
for the entire parish. During the rites the parish recognizes
and celebrates the candidates. As a member of the parish you are
asked to pray with and for those in the initiation process. As
a member of the Body of Christ, you also make manifest Christ—s
presence in the community. You, and we, are a sign of Christ to
the candidates in the RCIA.
The RCIA: A Step-by-Step
New life in Christ is a gradual journey of many
steps and stages. The four steps of the RCIA are: pre-catechumenate,
catechumenate, Lenten purification and mystagogia. Along the way
are key rites of acceptance, election and initiation.
1: The pre-catechumenate
The RCIA officially begins when a person calls the
parish office and says something like, —I want to be baptized,—
or, —I—d like to know more about the Catholic Church.— When such
a person begins the process of initiation, she or he is in the
first stage or period of initiation, called the period of evangelization
and pre-catechumenate. It—s also known as the inquiry period.
This inquiry period has usually begun long before
anyone calls the parish office. It begins when the person is first
evangelized. That—s when they first hear the good news of Jesus
Christ from a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, a spouse, a parent,
a stranger. Someone or something has drawn them to the parish
and they want to find out more. During this first period of the
process the parish helps the inquirer to discover just what it
is he or she is seeking.
Rite of Acceptance. Once the inquirers
have experienced an initial conversion to Jesus Christ, they celebrate
the first major liturgical ritual of the initiation process. This
first ritual is the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens.
During this rite of acceptance, which is usually celebrated during
Sunday Mass, the candidates for initiation are publicly welcomed
for the first time. They —declare their intention to the Church
and the Church in turn...accepts them as persons who intend to
become its members— (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no.
The Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens
completes the first stage or period of the initiation process
and opens the door to the second period of the process, the period
of the catechumenate.
This second stage of the initiation process is
the extended period of time when those to be initiated receive
their more formal training in the Christian way of life. There
are two groups. The catechumens are those who are unbaptized.
Other candidates for initiation are those who are already baptized,
either in a Catholic or Protestant Church, but who are not fully
During the catechumenate stage, those to be initiated
learn more about the sacred Scriptures and the doctrines— of the
Church. They meet weekly at Mass to hear the Word of God proclaimed.
In many parishes, the catechumens and candidates (those in the
period of the catechumenate who are already baptized) are dismissed
after the homily. That is, they are invited to leave the main
body of the Church and meet with a catechist to discuss the Scriptures
they heard proclaimed at Mass. This study and reflection on the
Scriptures is an important part of their formation and helps them
prepare for the day when they will receive the Body and Blood
In addition to the study of the Scriptures, the
candidates participate in sessions that help them to understand
the doctrinal teachings of the Church. The candidates also learn
about the prayer and worship life of the Church. They learn how
to live and serve others in apostolic witness. And they develop
their relationship with the Catholic Christian community.
When they have experienced a true conversion to
the Christian way of life (which the Church says is at least one
year for the unbaptized), they celebrate the second major ritual
in the process of initiation.
Rite of Election. The second major
ritual of the RCIA usually occurs on the First Sunday of Lent.
The catechumens have been elected (chosen) by God to receive the
sacraments of initiation. The Church gives voice to God—s election
and calls each one of the catechumens by name to sign the Book
of the Elect. This is a diocesan celebration and the presiding
celebrant is the diocesan bishop. Often the celebration takes
place at the diocesan cathedral, though in many dioceses there
are multiple celebrations and sometimes at multiple locations.
Generally, the local parish celebrates a Rite of Sending as a
way of celebrating the candidates— upcoming election and sending
them on to the bishop for their admission to the final period
of preparation for the sacraments.
3: Period of purification
This final period of preparation is one of intense,
spiritual recollection that usually coincides with Lent. It is
a period of purification and enlightenment. It is a time for reflection
and prayer more than teaching. The candidates, now called the
elect, purify their minds and hearts by celebrating several rituals.
The three purifying rituals, known as the Scrutinies, strengthen
the elect and help to complete their conversion. The Presentation
of the Creed and the Lord—s Prayer enlighten the minds of the
elect in the final weeks of their preparation for the sacraments.
Lent ends when the sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday,
Good Friday and Easter begins, at sunset Thursday of Holy Week.
Finally, some preparatory rites on Holy Saturday morning serve
as the elect—s immediate preparation for the Sacraments of Initiation,
which will be celebrated that night at the Easter Vigil.
Sacraments of Initiation.At the Easter
Vigil after sunset on Holy Saturday, the elect and possibly some
previously baptized candidates celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation:
Baptism (for the unbaptized), Confirmation and Eucharist. The
elect are plunged into the waters of new birth and come out of
those waters reborn in Christ. They are then configured to be
more like Christ through the sacred chrism of Confirmation. Finally,
the culmination of their initiation happens when they taste the
Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. So,
too, some of the baptized candidates may make a profession of
faith, be confirmed and receive the Eucharist in this most holy
of all the Church—s liturgies.
4: Period of mystagogy
The process of initiation continues even after
the Easter celebration, during the Eastertide period of mystagogia.
The word comes from an ancient Greek word signifying a deepening
understanding of the mysteries of our faith. During the Easter
season, the neophytes (newly initiated) gather each week to deepen
their grasp of the great paschal mystery into which they have
just been incorporated. These new Christians have received the
Body of Christ and have indeed become part of the Body of Christ
through their Baptism. The Church uses the period of mystagogy
to help the neophytes understand and live out their new lives
as part of the Body of Christ.
Furthermore, mystagogy is about mission. The new
Christians, now part of Christ—s body, must now go forth with
us to continue the mission of Jesus Christ.
That—s where the whole parish, indeed the entire
Church, comes in again. We celebrate the three sacraments of initiation
to make us more like Christ and —to enable us to carry out the
mission of the entire people of God in the Church and in the world—
(Rite, General Intro, 2). Through the RCIA our parishes
participate in the mission of the Church. We make new disciples
and we renew the old, faithful ones. When we commit ourselves,
our energy and our resources to the RCIA, we commit our parishes
to continuing the mission of Jesus in the Church and in the world.