After team formation, the next step to moving to a year round process is simple: Throw out your syllabus.
Hear me out on this one… Have you noticed there’s not much out there when it comes to an “off the shelf” program for the RCIA? There’s a reason for that… but more on that in a moment. This lack of a defined program has left most of us to develop our own programs (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Many RCIA teams and leaders (myself included) would gather together and lovingly craft a “course of study” that they feel every good Catholic should know… and crafted it so that all the “important” topics can be covered over the course of the school year (typically 7 or 8 months).
The reality, however, is that regardless of whatever we’ve crafted in the past (with all the best of intentions) just is not and will never be sufficient. What I’ve explained to inquirers over the years also applies here to RCIA leaders and catechists: The RCIA is not a series of “classes” you take in order to “graduate” as a Catholic. Rather, it is a process of conversion to the Christian life.
Weave RCIA into the fabric of parish life
Put another way, the RCIA is not about “learning” Catholicism, it’s about “living” Catholicism. And to help our catechumens and candidates do this, we need to put aside the traditional academic model in favor of a model that weaves them into the fabric of parish life.
Perhaps the hardest part of throwing out our syllabus is changing our own perspectives. When I started in the RCIA ministry 20 years ago, we ran with a traditional academic model, like most parishes at the time. We began our process in September, aligning with the school calendar, and we gathered people into a single group or “cohort,” and following a lecture style presentation based on our carefully crafted syllabus. Everything about our process fell in line with traditional academics. And why not? It seems to work well for kid’s religious education… and what is the RCIA but religious education for adults, right? Wrong.
While this model may be effective for teaching, it’s not very effective for forming people to the faith.
Move past academic goals
To be fair, we don’t want to throw out everything from our academic toolbox. After all, much of our catechetical training has it’s origin and practices in the world of education, and many of our catechists come from academic backgrounds. But we also need to remember that when it comes to forming adults to the Catholic faith, we need to make a conscious effort to move past the academic view (especially when you consider that adults who are not in school or don’t have school age kids don’t follow the academic calendar). That includes embracing a language and a process that has us forming individuals to the faith life of the Church… not teaching classes to a group. Remember, the RCIA is not about “learning” Catholicism, it’s about “living” Catholicism.
And that takes me to one more very important topic: the language we use when dealing with the RCIA and all our Adult Faith Formation. We need to stop using academic terms as they relate to our formation processes. Words have power (as anyone who’s read the opening of John’s Gospel can attest), so if we are to change the narrative with regard to the RCIA process, we also need to change our language. We should never use the word “class” or “classes.” Instead use the word “session” or “meeting” or “gathering.”
Get out of the classroom
We also need to look at where we’re having our sessions. If at all possible, we should avoid using a classroom, or if you have no other choice, at least bring the desks into a circle so everyone can face each other. If at all possible, find a conference room, meeting room, lounge, or other comfortable space. Even a school cafeteria or auditorium would be more preferable to a classroom. Taking sessions out of a classroom only reinforces the idea that participants are not attending a class, but rather are participating in an interactive experience. This works best when everyone in the group can see everyone else, like sitting in a circle or around a conference table. If you have a particularly large group, you may need to setup several tables in a larger space.
So if you throw out the syllabus, what do you do? As I noted earlier, there isn’t much available as far as an “out of the box” RCIA process. That’s because there’s no “one size fits all” model that can be developed for the RCIA. There are just too many variables, both among the catechumens and candidates, and within each parish community. That being said, there are a wealth of tools and experience available that help us to re-craft a process that effectively brings our catechumens and candidates into the active life of the Church, and it all begins with Sunday Mass… but more on that next month.
What happened when you threw out your syllabus? What did you have your catechumens focus on? Did you have to bring in new team members to help think outside the classroom model? Share in the comments below!
Photo by Jay Clark | Unsplash
3 thoughts on “Is your RCIA open all year-round? Throw out your syllabus!”
Thank you for continuing to say this in as many ways as possible. Each group of seekers is different and the process should have that flexibility to meet each person where they are on the journey. We shouldn’t know 6 months ahead what we are “covering” on the second week after Christmas. Over a five year period of co-ordinating RCIA I have come to grasp this model more fully each year. Being able to tell a candidate that we are not taking roll but rather looking for those outward signs of conversion of heart…a turning toward Christ. They will want to be there and not miss a thing. As it turns out you don’t have to be able to spell ciborium or even know what it is to be a Catholic. A blessed Holy Week to you and yours.
I believe we are moving in this direction a bit more every year. We get together weekly for “sessions” or our “RCIA group” with a rotating facilitator, not a teacher. We meet around a rectangular table but when the group gets too large it is made square, its better when there is more face to face contact. Sometimes we use a day chapel. We welcome seekers in anytime of the year, the mixture of experience is healthy. We serve coffee and tea and begin sessions by talking about our week at work, with our families. We invite parishioners to share their journey – recent RCIA members, those working in the parish ministries, the deacon tells us how he was called, those volunteering for the Food bank. We also involve our group in making and serving coffee after Mass and try to hold Breaking Open the Word at each of our 4 weekend Masses at least once a year, each one has.a different “flavor”. The entire parish knows our catechumens from this as well as having a poster with their pictures on it in the lobby during Lent and Easter.
Some of us attended a TeamRCIA conference and continue to use your articles. You have been very inspirational. Our team is united in our joy in being involved in RCIA!
We started a year around program in 2016 after Easter. We have four distinct types of sessions: Inquiry, RCIA, Purification and Enlightenment(which is in addition to the RCIA) and Mystagogy.
We are still making changes to the program to accommodate people who can’t make regular session by starting a Mentor program for one on one training.
We video all the weekly sessions for RCIA which cover short topics of about 30 minutes so something can be preserved of the class that night. to be used by the Mentors if needed.
We have even videoed Mystagogyt topics in the event we have a one-off person so they don’t miss anything of the RCIA experience.
We have a small group at the Vigil this year, but we have had one baptism and 10 professions of faith since Oct. 22, 2017/.