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A New Look at
the RCIA
Journey for the Entire Parish

by Rita Burns Senseman

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 RCIA—Rite 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 parish

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 candidates—supporting them, praying for them, witnessing to their faith, guiding them along the path—cannot 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 renewed.

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 of age.

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 look.

The parishioner—s role in RCIA

The entire Christian community is responsible for the initiation of its newest disciples. Here are some specific ways:

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 community.

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 Look

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. 41).

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.

2: 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 initiated.

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 of Christ.

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.

Rita Burns Senseman, a freelance writer, is a catechist who specializes in Christian initiation of children. She has held various professional positions for parishes and dioceses, and is a team member for the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. She has an M.A. in theology from the University of Notre Dame.


The "New" Is Old:
RCIA History in a Nutshell

Early Church (first to third centuries): Persons wanting to become Christian live with a small Christian community to learn their way of life. The structured "apprenticeship" of the Christian in training becomes known as the catechumenate.

Fifth Century: The catechumenate begins to dissolve because Christianity had been legalized in 315 A.D. and now large numbers of people are becoming Christians. Infant Baptism becomes the norm.

Twentieth Century: Revival of catechumenate in Africa and France. Second Vatican Council, 1963-65; Council calls for reinstating the catechumenate. Post-Vatican Council II: 1966-Provisional ritual distributed by Rome; 1972-Official promulgation of the RCIA; 1974-Provisional English translation available; 1988-U.S. bishops mandate implementation of RCIA

From: Institute Resource Packet, North American Forum on the Catechumenate, 2000


Next: Seven Disciplines of Successful Catholics (by Matthew Hayes)


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