In a previous post, I asked why it was important to involve the whole parish in the RCIA. If we are clear on the why, the what becomes more clear. What are we asking the parish to do, exactly, when we ask them to be more involved in the initiation process?
The purpose of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is to lead seekers on the way of faith and conversion (RCIA 1). It is important that the parish as a whole serve as a guide to the seekers because the parish is our best example of the way of faith and conversion.
So what we are asking parishioners to do is to be a shining, clear example of a people of faith and a community of conversion. While this is somewhat easy to grasp, it can be very difficult to pull off. People are fallible. We are often unfaithful. We often resist change. RCIA team members exhibit those failings themselves, and they witness those failings in their fellow parishioners. So, without really even thinking about it, we tend to shield the seekers from the larger parish community and focus on the “RCIA community.”
But in reality, there is no RCIA community. The seekers are not joining the RCIA. They are joining Christ. And the place they find Christ is within the Body of Christ—the body of believers that we call “parish.” That is the only community that can initiate the seekers into the way of faith and conversion.
“Hence, the entire community,” says the RCA, “must help the candidates and the catechumens throughout the process of initiation…” (9).
Our job as RCIA team members is not so much to initiate the seekers as it is to coach the parish in their role as an initiating community.
The RCIA lists five stages along the way of faith when the community does this.
Period of evangelization
Pope Francis has continued the emphasis on evangelization that every pope since Paul VI has urged us to. As RCIA team members, we have to ask ourselves how we are coaching the parish to become an evangelizing parish. We have to continuously and creatively remind the parish that their “supreme purpose” is to make Christ’s message known (RCIA 9.1). It is not primarily your job to evangelize (except in your role as a parishioner). It is the job of the parish. What is one thing your team can do this year to coach the parish toward accomplishing its supreme purpose?
Period of the catechumenate
For seekers who have been evangelized, the parish has a powerful catechetical role to play along the way of faith. Too often, we think of catechesis as a small-group gathering to explain doctrine. Rather, catechesis is an encounter with Christ. Our fullest encounter with Christ is when the believers gather to worship. That’s why the RCIA says the parishioners have to show up for all of the rites belonging to the catechumenate and “take an active part in the responses, prayers, singing, and acclamations” (RCIA 9.2). If the catechumens encounter a Spirit-filled, joyful community that seems to be worshiping God at full tilt, that will teach them about the way of faith and lead them to conversion.
Rite of Election
Most parishioners will not participate in the Rite of Election, because it is held and the cathedral or another central church, and space is limited. However, this rite should be the total focus of attention for the parish community from the moment seekers enter the catechumenate. All the effort the parish exerts on behalf of the catechumens is to bring them to this key conversion moment. The RCIA says, “The election, marked with a rite of such solemnity, is the focal point of the Church’s concern for the catechumens” (121).
But if most parishioners cannot participate in the actual Rite of Election, how will they be able to demonstrate their concern for the catechumens at this crucial moment?
The RCIA tells us: “The faithful, when called upon, should be sure to give honest and carefully considered testimony about the catechumens” (9.3). Testimony is an interesting word. It literally means “witness.” It shares that meaning with the word martyr—someone who is a witness to faith. The most important thing that the members of the faithful can do to support the catechumens along the way of faith is to testify—give witness—to the faith of the catechumens. It will require some self-sacrifice (a small martyrdom) on their part to involve themselves significantly enough in the lives of the catechumens so that, when called upon, they can give their testimony.
And will require some creativity on the part of the RCIA team to devise ways to call upon the faithful to do so. (For a beginning list of 20 ideas, click here.)
Purification and enlightenment
In one way, this is the easiest point along the way of faith for the faithful to show their support of the catechumens and elect. Their primary role is to “give the elect the example of their own renewal in the spirit of penance, faith, and charity” (RCIA 9.4). In other words, they should do Lent really, really well.
Your job as the RCIA team is to make sure the catechumens and elect are involved in all of the Lenten activities of the parish, including the scrutinies. I’ve heard stories of parishes where the elect were not required to be at all of the scrutinies. In other places, I’m told, the elect have separate catechumenate activities, such as Stations of the Cross and retreats. These missteps will inhibit the faithful from performing their primary duty at this point along the way of faith.
Too often, the period of mystagogy is misunderstood to be a time to sign up the elect for ministries in the parish or to offer more classroom experiences. The RCIA says that this is a time when “the faithful should take part in the Masses for neophytes, that is, the Sunday Masses of the Easter season, welcome the neophytes with open arms in charity, and help them to feel more at home in the community of the baptized” (RCIA 9.5).
These are not things the faithful will find difficult to do. However, it will require more creative thinking on the part of the RCIA team to plan for ways to make the parishioners’ role explicit to them and to give them ideas on how they can be more mindful of their role throughout the Easter season.
Share your thoughts
What the faithful have to do to become more involved in the initiation process is not especially difficult. However, the discipline of keeping the seekers at the forefront of the parish’s concern will be an ongoing challenge. People are busy and easily distracted. Our constant task as RCIA teams is to be continuously and creatively encouraging and coaching the faithful to take up their role in helping the seekers to enter the way of faith and conversion.
I would love to know how your team sees its role in the RCIA process. How much time does your team spend coaching the parish community to be the primary agent of initiation? What kinds of things do you do to assist them? Please share your thoughts below.
Check out this webinar recording: “Is your RCIA process slow enough? “ Click here for more information.
2 thoughts on “What should RCIA teams ask of parishioners?”
Here are three ways that our RCIA team tries to involve the parish in Christian Initiation. First, in addition to the ministry of sponsors, we invite parishioners to offer their friendship to a catechumen or candidate by becoming an “adopting” parishioner. We host a “Meet and Greet” brunch and pair each “adopting” parishioner with a catechumen or candidate and encourage them to continue to be in regular contact with their catechumen or candidate by phone, email, meet for coffee, lunch or dinner. We follow up with two larger dinner gatherings of “adopting” parishioners and their catechumens or candidates in the Fall and before Lent. Second: we have established a “Friends of RCIA” hospitality ministry of parishioners who are connected through a “Sign-Up Genius” data base. These parishioners offer hospitality and refreshments at their convenience for RCIA sessions and special retreats or other events. Third: During Lent, we pass out prayer partners cards with the name and contact information of each catechumen or candidate and ask parishioners to commit to pray for their catechumen or candidate, have a Mass said for their intention, write them notes of support and encouragement, come to be with them for their liturgical rites, etc.
I am a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. I found Peggy Donnelly’s comments and suggestions very helpful as a way to involve parishioners. I will bring her suggestions up at our next RCIA meeting.