Fifty years ago today, the bishops of the world issued this mandate: “The catechumenate for adults…is to be restored” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, December 4, 1963).
Fifty years later, I don’t think we have yet answered this call—not completely. In fact, I think we may be getting off track and “restoring” something that never existed.
The RCIA never existed before
The fact is, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said nothing about the RCIA—the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The catechumenate that the bishops spoke of had not existed in the church for about 1,500 years. When they called for its restoration, it’s not like there was a plan stored somewhere in the Vatican that could be pulled off the shelf and implemented. The RCIA did not exist in 1963 and would not exist until almost a decade later. And most parishes in the United States would not start “doing the RCIA” until 1988 when the official English translation was issued.
Here is a funny thing that happens to me. Maybe it happens to you too. Once in a while, when I suggest that the way we are “doing the RCIA” may not be what the bishops intended, someone responds, “I’ve been doing it this way for twenty years!” I try not to chuckle. I understand the resistance. No one likes change. But seriously. Twenty years with a brand new rite is something less than a nanosecond in church history.
No one knows how to “do the RCIA”
No one knows how to “do the RCIA” because we’ve never done it before. When you go to a workshop or read articles like this one to learn how to do the RCIA, it is like saying to Christopher Columbus, “How do I get to India?” And Chris points west and says, “I’m not completely sure, but I think it’s this way.” And because you trust Chris or because your pastor paid for your boat ticket, you bundle yourself onto the Santa Maria and head out into deep water, hoping you don’t get swallowed by dragons along the way.
RCIA-wise, I don’t think we’ve gotten to India yet. I think we have just barely landed on the shores of the New World.
Or maybe we are still at sea. Historians report that after they had journeyed for a long time, the sailors almost mutinied against Columbus because they had not yet sited land. They were afraid. They wanted to turn back and return to the safety of the world they knew.
Have you abandoned the RCIA ship?
I fear that many parishes have turned back on their RCIA-voyage. Classroom courses, set schedules, one-size-fits-all programs, and catechism-based syllabuses are indications of having turned back to they way we used to do things. These are signs of having abandoned ship.
For a long time now, I have thought that we are in a time of real uncertainty about what the future of the catechumenate will be. It had seemed like more and more communities were settling for a safe, well-structured program that wouldn’t rock the boat. I believe it is the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit that Pope Francis has come to captain the ship at this very moment.
Captain Pope Francis sets a new course for RCIA
Pope Francis, like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, doesn’t talk about “RCIA.” Instead, he talks about what the church will look like in the “New World.” In this New World, we are going to need radical, committed, passionate disciples. He says this is what the church of the future will look like:
The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. (The Joy of the Gospel, 24)
Okay, take a big breath and think about this for a second. Is the way you are “doing RCIA” forming “a community of missionary disciples who take the first step”? If not, it might mean you are stuck back in the Old World. Or it might mean you are on the ship, but you don’t know where you are going or how to get there. Or it might mean you are on the ship and you know roughly where to go, but you don’t have enough shipmates to help you get there.
So what do you we do about this call to action that the pope has given us? If those of us who do RCIA are in charge of teaching the new folks how to be part of the church, I think we have to teach first of all by example.
The pope say this:
Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. (The Joy of the Gospel, 25)
Now, you might see that word “programmatic” in Pope Francis’ statement and think, “I thought RCIA was a process, not a program. What’s up with that Pope Francis?” Well, take a look at what the pope means by “program”:
I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with him. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.” (The Joy of the Gospel, 27)
The RCIA mission
And that right there—the “missionary option”—is the agenda, syllabus, outline, textbook, plan, and program for the RCIA. If we are not doing that, we are not “doing the RCIA.” Here is what I believe the pope is saying to our RCIA teams:
- If you are on dry land, get on the ship.
- If you are on the ship, start rowing.
- If you are rowing but don’t have enough help, recruit rowers.
- If you have not yet arrived at the New World—a world in which we are going out to others, seeking those who have fallen away, standing at the crossroads, and welcoming the outcast—row faster.
Are you onboard?
9 thoughts on “Pope Francis is setting sail…is your RCIA team onboard?”
Thank you again. Every time I read your messages I am further empowered! Someone once said that few things are as wonderful as hearing your thoughts expressed by someone else. That happens to me all the time with you!
I started the year with five gatherings called Hours of Discernment and talked almost exclusively about Jesus. Then I had one parishioner speak on his journey and the Deacon on his. As a result, all of those in attendance have expressed a desire to continue. I’m rowing!
Hi Carol. Thanks so much for you comment. It’s great to hear you are feeling empowered! It sounds like you are doing great things. Kudos to you! Thanks for all your hard work.
“No one knows how to “do the RCIA” because we’ve never done it before. ”
The church has been doing RCIA for over 2000 years. The apostles following the mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations…baptize…and teach, carried the message to the four corners of the earth leading to what was once called Christendom and western Civilization. The impetous for the “Age of Discovery” was this very same missionary mandate. What is missing today is the missionary zeal to proclaim the gospel and bring souls into Christ’s church. We should be sending missionaries out from every parish, to the evangelical churches, to the mosques, to the synagogue, to the bars and clubs to proclaim the good news that Christ has risen and is alive in His Church.
Hi Walt. I agree with you that the church has been evangelizing since the time of the apostles and that today we are lacking a missionary zeal. But the church has not been doing RCIA for over 2,000 years. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a sacramental rite that is a post-Vatican II restoration of the ancient catechumenate. It has many elements of the ancient catechumenate, but it is not identical to it. And the catechumenate itself died out in the fifth or sixth century. So the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults really is a brand new thing for us.
I may not be the first to ask this, but is the name in English of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” not “The Joy of the Gospel”?
Nick, thanks for your writings. I am always inspired by your insights.
Hi Patsy. Yes, you are correct about the English title. I keep getting that mixed up. I made the change in the post above. I’m glad the post was helpful. –Nick
I agree with you Nick, This 1987-88 Rite is the current iteration of “Adult Initiation” which the Church has been doing since apostolic times. The catechumenate didn’t “die out”. It went through a natural development. Once everyone in town is Catholic attention turns to Baptizing the children of the catholic families, supporting them in the initiation of the children and missionary outreach.
Thanks. I’m rowing, but not necessarily staying afloat. Every so often, when I feel like this is it, I am doing no good, can’t find other rowers, poor students who only have what I am rowing, etc., I read your newsletter — and then I surface and row a little better and feel encouraged. I am studying and praying and following your suggestions, and often times feel like the Spirit sighs as I proceed. Am I doing ok? I am my own worst critic, I suppose. But today, I can see that nobody else knows either!!!!!! Yea! I am sure that we all will prevail. With Pope Francis on board, we will all get on the same boat, on to the New World! And Holy Spirit will continue to do what’s necessary to make our work efficacious today. I pray.
Hi Priscilla. Thanks so much for your comment. I know just what you mean about being your own worst critic. Sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves. Thanks for all the great work you are doing. Keep rowing. Keep praying. I will too.