Every once in a while, I meet an inquirer who is a Type A, goal-driven personality. He or she wants to know how many meetings we will have, how long they will last, and what book he should read.
More often, however, it is the RCIA team that is goal-driven. We meet to create a calendar, we schedule the topics for the year and who will be teaching them, and we reserve the meeting space. We mark out six, one-hour meetings in the fall for precatechumenate, followed by the Rite of Acceptance on the next Sunday. That is followed by four or five months of weekly 90-minute meetings until Triduum (with time off for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Super Bowl Sunday). Assuming the neophytes come back, we also schedule a series of mystagogy meetings after Triduum. All this before we have even met any inquirers!
What do we teach in RCIA?
That scenario might be a little exaggerated for some teams, but for others, it’s pretty close to the mark. And even those of us who are trying to loosen up a little and perhaps expand into a year-round process still get caught up in the question “what do we have to teach?”
Pope John Paul II answered that question in a way that is both simple and profound. He said,
At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father…. (On Catechesis in Our Time, 5)
Apply that notion to learning about any other person in your life. How can you know, before you have ever met the person, what topics you need to discuss? How can you know when and where you are going to meet? How can you know what celebrations you will share together and when you will celebrate them? These are all things that have to be discovered as the relationship unfolds.
Another important thing the pope said is that we are not the teachers! He said:
It is Christ alone who teaches—anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ’s spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with [the catechist’s] lips…. (On Catechesis in Our Time, 6)
If it is Christ alone who teaches, we have to look at how Christ actually taught. Open to almost any gospel story at random, and examine what happens when Christ encounters people in need. He doesn’t ask them to come to a series of preplanned meetings to cover the basic tenets of the Torah. He feeds them, heals them, consoles them, forgives them, and empowers them. He meets the deep need of the person standing right in front of him.
Two laws of catechesis
So based on what the pope says, there are two “laws” of catechesis to keep in mind:
- Catechesis is always an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. It is a relationship process
- The “catechist”—the one leading the relationship process—is always Jesus Christ
Our mission as RCIA catechists
To follow these laws, then, we have to ask ourselves, what is the need of the person right in front of us? How is that need leading this person to an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ? And what is Christ saying—through us—that meets this person’s particular need?
And because we are RCIA catechists, dealing with those who do not know Christ, we are going to talk almost exclusively about the path to initiation, which is communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ. Our mission is to baptize, because it is through Christian initiation (baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist) that the newly evangelized are delivered from the powers of darkness and are adopted as sons and daughters into God’s family (see General Directory for Catechesis, 65).
The link to initiation is a profession of faith
The way the newly evangelized get to initiation is by making a sincere profession of faith. It cannot be mere rote, however. Think again of any other relationship in your life. Will anyone believe your “I love you” if you have not, in fact, been loving? Your profession of love has to be authenticated by a lifestyle of loving action.
And so catechesis cannot be simply an education on the points of the Creed or the topics in the Catechism. It has to be a process of building up a relationship with Christ and Christ’s people. It has to be “an apprenticeship of the entire Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 68).
Three more laws of catechesis
If that’s so, then several more “laws” of catechesis become evident:
- Initiatory catechesis is centered on the core of Christian experience—the things that are most fundamental and essential
- Initiatory catechesis is comprehensive. Catechesis goes beyond mere instruction and forms initiates for living out the gospel for the rest of their lives
- Initiatory catechesis requires that the newly evangelized be deeply incorporated into the community. There is no authentic life in Christ outside of the Body of Christ
If you think about this for a second, you’ll see that these five “laws” of catechesis make it impossible to schedule set topics or determine how many meetings someone needs if we haven’t even met any of the seekers. Some of our seekers will already be living an authentic Christian lifestyle. And of those who are not yet living out the gospel, some will progress more quickly than others toward a true relationship with Christ. More importantly, we cannot know ahead of time how the Holy Spirit will lead the various seekers into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Implications for RCIA catechists
For us, catechesis becomes a process of discerning what Christ is saying to each individual in each encounter that individual has with Christ.
And then we need to discern if those who are being catechized are changing their lifestyle to respond to their deepening relationship with Christ.
Once we see the newly evangelized living an authentic Christian lifestyle, we can believe their “I believe” when they make their profession of faith. At that point, we can be confident they are ready for initiation.
Do you see any other implications for us because of the “laws” of catechesis? Do they raise any questions or provide any insights you can share with the rest of us?
15 thoughts on “Five laws of RCIA catechesis”
based on these laws, the catechist must also be trained in spiritual direction. Or at least some members of the RCIA team should be able to direct the seekers, candidates and catechumen at a spiritual level. Correct?
Hi Marie. I think if you had a trained spiritual director on your team, that would be fantastic. Most teams aren’t able to provide that however. As you say, I do think team members should be attentive to seekers, candidates, and catechumens’ spiritual development. That takes some effort, but not any specialized training.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and blessings on your ministry!
What an excellent little article! We have just been asked to provide the ‘year’s program’ with specific dates, topics, and catechists. As co-chairs we have found that flexibility has served us well. We may have a specific plan 6-weeks out, but with great regularity that is not quite what happens because of the very things you site in your article. Father might be giving a talk we hadn’t planned on and it fits perfectly with RCIA, so we adjust our schedule for that. All kinds of reasons dictate that any program written stone does not work for us. We will provide the program through the end of the year just to satisfy the political need, but I guarantee it will NOT be quite what happens. Rigidity becomes a program, not a conversion of heart. Thank you very much.
Thanks for your comments Sid! Blessings on all the fine work you are doing. It sounds like your parish is lucky to have you.
Nice article, Nick: clear and practical.
Thanks Charlie! All the best to you.
Excellent points in the article. My only quibble would be that the profession of faith – the “I believe” – is in fact a set of topics; a built-in “calendar of lessons” to encounter Christ. Your point about community and love of neighbor as the manifestation of living a life in Christ is a good one, but it seems as though you are setting the catechist up to determine if each inquirer is validly proceeding after the rite of acceptance. That’s not right, is it?
Hi Bruce. Thanks for your terrific comments! If I’m understanding your point about setting the catechist up to determine the progress of each inquirer, then no, I wouldn’t say that is what the catechist does. But the catechist, along with the inquirer, the sponsor, the rest of the team, and the pastor, are always in dialogue about the conversion process the inquirer is undergoing. There are clear lifestyle criteria in the RCIA that inquirers and catechumens are expected to meet before moving to the next stage. So each faith journey has some level of accountability. (See for example, RCIA 42 and 120-121.)
Thanks for your commitment to this ministry and all the work you are doing.
Thanks, Nick. All of this is quite helpful; I’m not trying to be a sharpshooter.
I am so heartened to hear repeatedly that our goal is to lead people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Often sponsors will come to me and say that we aren’t teaching enough Catholic doctrine and I respond that people need to know Jesus first before anything else will make sense. Thank you for all that you do to help us with our mission in RCIA.
Hi Lynda. Thanks so much for your comment! We do teach Catholic doctrine, of course, but the teaching flows from the development of our relationship with Jesus. It sounds like you are doing a terrific job leading your sponsors and catechumens. Blessings on your ministry.
Thanks again for all the great information. This website is the basis for our Team formation efforts. The structure that we try to use in our parish is to always be prepared to introduce some facet of the Four Pillers at every session. The more important structure is to be prepared to lay that topic aside to allow our Catechumens and Candidates to set the theme of the evening to meet their needs. We find there is always time to give our people what we want them to get; but only the time at hand to give what they want to know.
“We find there is always time to give our people what we want them to get; but only the time at hand to give what they want to know.”
Wow, Larry. That is such a great statement! Thanks for your commitment to this ministry. Keep up the great work.
Thank you for your article. You speak what I believe, the purpose of RCIA is to guide the candidates or catechumens into a relationship with Jesus, the Christ. The team is the first spokesperson and model. The whole Church community also share that role.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Norah! And thanks for your dedication to all those who are seeking a relationship with Jesus. Blessings.