On April 15, 2016, more than 150 people from all over Montana and beyond had the opportunity to do just that at the “Making Disciples Institute” sponsored by the Diocese of Helena. That night, all of us gathered in the community room at Blessed Trinity Church in Missoula, Montana, to hear Bishop George Leo Thomas of Helena kick off the institute by sharing what he hoped we would focus on during the next one-and-a-half days. We were both surprised and excited! Never before in the 27 institutes TeamRCIA has done across North America in the last two years has a bishop given us a list of what he thinks is important to understand about the RCIA. It was the first sign that this bishop was special—something the good people in Montana already knew.
So here are Bishop Thomas’s five RCIA priorities. It’s an excellent list for all of us to remember and implement.
1. Encuentro (“encounter”)
Bishop Thomas began by reminding all of us that the heart of the RCIA…and of everything we do as Church…is about encuentro—an encounter with Jesus. This theology of encuentro is vital because, as Bishop Thomas wrote on the Diocese of Helena website, “An encounter with Jesus Christ changes everything.” He also gave a wonderful insight about this encounter. He said that it is a two-fold encounter that happens most powerfully in the liturgy, where we meet Christ and Christ meets us.
He also asked us to be sure to talk about how the catechumenate process dealt with the theology of accompaniment. Pope Francis uses this word a lot in his talks and writings. Just as the Risen Christ accompanied the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, gently entering their lives, asking questions, clarifying their experience, and sharing his own life with them in the breaking of the bread, we, too, must accompany our seekers in the same, gradual way. Bishop Thomas reminded us too that accompanying our seekers also calls us to deepen our own conversion.
3. The role of the assembly
Bishop Thomas stressed the crucial role of the assembly and wanted to make sure that all RCIA ministers know that they are not the catechumenate team. The parish is the team, because the catechumenate is a communal experience. Bishop Thomas called it a “co-mission.”
The bishop also touched on what he sees as the weakest part of the RCIA: mystagogy. He challenged all of us to strengthen our efforts to help catechumens and candidates make the connection between their faith and their daily lives.
Bishop Thomas ended his priorities list by remembering an essay by Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, titled, “Models of Catechesis.” Cardinal Dulles advised catechists to have a balance in their catechesis between evangelization (or kerygma, that is, the first proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ) and doctrine. Bishop Thomas summarized Cardinal Dulles’ concern by saying that at one time in our history, we memorized answers and we catechized; but we did not evangelize. Today, we tend to evangelize, but we do not catechize. We need both…and more, so that hearts are opened to the Gospel and people are transformed into disciples.
Up to now, we’ve never had a bishop take his teaching role quite so seriously at the start of one of the TeamRCIA institutes, and we hoped we were up for the challenge.
This Making Disciples Institute was hosted by Fr. Ed Hislop, pastor, and Sr. Mary Jo Quinn, SCL, pastoral assistant and liturgy coordinator at Blessed Trinity in Missoula. Fr. Ed and Sr. Mary Jo energized us and the participants with their enthusiasm and hospitality throughout the Friday-Saturday event.
The Making Disciples Institute covers the basic structure of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and the vision and principles that make it a powerful process of conversion for both seekers and the parish community.
As Bishop Thomas listed the five key values he wanted to be sure we covered, we took notes like we were back in graduate school. His priorities match intrinsically to the structure and dynamics of the catechumenate journey because it is a journey to and with the Risen Christ.
Another great surprise and gift from Bishop Thomas was that he changed his plans so that he could remain with us and the participants for the entire event, Friday night and all day Saturday! Not only that, he was engaged the entire time and also ended the institute with his own summary of what he heard and a challenge to us, the presenters and the participants: Remember, the RCIA needs to help people recognize that they are part of a wider, diverse Church beyond their own parish communities or dioceses. This includes being “one body” with others who might speak, pray, or think differently than we do. We cannot forget that to be Church is to say, “Here comes everybody!”
Bishop Thomas’s presence and encouragement to the participants and to us are an amazing show of support to the RCIA teams of the Helena Diocese and a testament to how much he believes in the catechumenate process.
We are grateful to him and to all the dedicated pastoral ministers who participated in the Making Disciples Institute. If you would like to participate in an upcoming institute, you can find locations and dates here: https://knot.teamrcia.com/institutes/
6 thoughts on “What if you could ask your bishop what he thought was important in the RCIA?”
Thanks for sharing the thoughts of Bishop Thomas. This provides a great guideline to which we can refer periodically to make certain that we on the RCIA Team are doing what God is calling us to do.
Nick and Diana, we are greatly indebted to you both for your guidance over the years. Thank you for all that you do for our Lord through helping RCIA Teams to bring the Gospel more effectively to those who desire to come into the faith.
Thank you for sharing what Bishop wrote.
Thank you for sharing this insight with us! It’s refreshing to see the Bishop so actively engaged in RCIA. Thank you for continuing to share to help us grow and be better prepared to engage those who enter RCIA.
Thank you for capturing the spirit and enthusiasm of the gathering in Missoula so well! We are still rejoicing in your presence with us and know that we will bring forth the fruits of our time together for years to come. Bishop Thomas’ presence with us will certainly reinforce our Diocesan conversations and the renewed energy with which we will approach this great and holy work of initiation. Thank you!
I ministered on the Flathead Reservation in Northwestern Montana in the 80’s. I met Bishop George when I returned for a Jesuit Celebration. What I found so important was his embrace of the powerful Native American symbols such as the Eagle Feather, sweet grass, drums, blessings that were used to celebrate the RCIA Rites. Thanks for your wisdom in asking Bishop George to address the Conference. I wish I could have been present..
Sr. Muriel Cooney, OP
Bula from Fiji and thank you for sharing the insights shared to you by Bishop Thomas. I have just been part of our team in Suva for two years now and am thankful for the clarity and simplicity of his 5 key important issues.
Am copying this to my other members in the region so that we continue to learn from each other.
Vinaka Team RCIA