“When do your classes start?” If you’re an RCIA coordinator you probably hear this question on a regular basis. Most times you hear it from seekers, but I’ve also heard it from our own parish staff.
I have two problems with this question. First is the use of the word “classes.” Second is with the word “start.” The word “classes” assumes that the Catholic faith is something that can be taught in a classroom. It can’t. And the word “start” assumes a common point of entry, of which there is not.
Academic language has its place
For too many years the RCIA, and all catechetical formation, has been steeped in the use of academic language. And to be fair, it made sense at the time, especially when you consider that catechetical formation was an extension of what our Catholic schools were providing, often by those same priests, sisters, brothers, and teachers who ran our parochial schools. But now in the 21st century we’ve come to realize that this use of academic language has clouded our perception of what it takes to become a Catholic. Our faith is much more than an academic exercise… it is a way of life. Our faith is not a series of abstract notions of a creator, but rather a relationship with the living Christ and his church.
So to clarify what we do as RCIA catechists, we need to be conscious and deliberate in our use of catechetical language for everything we do.
We should never use the word “teacher” or “instructor.” Instead use “catechist” or “facilitator.”
We should never use the word “class.” Instead use the word “session” or “meeting” or “gathering.” And related to that, never refer to the collective group as a “class.” The word “class” infers that everyone is on a common path with a defined conclusion. Instead use the word “group,” which has a certain flexibility that allows each individual to be on their own path even though we may gather together as a group for catechesis.
Learners, not students
We should never refer to seekers as “students.” This is an academic term that doesn’t fully encompass a catechumen’s or candidate’s position within the church. Yes, as a catechumen, they officially become a “learner” within the church, but I would argue there’s a difference between being a “student” and being a “learner.” The word “student” evokes an academic endeavor whereas the word “learner” evokes something more personal. A student “studies” their topic… there’s an inherent detachment in the endeavor. A learner, on the other hand, is “apprenticed” to a “vocation.” Their lives become what they do. And isn’t that what we want from those going through the RCIA? We don’t want students who study Catholicism, we want learners who apprentice themselves to the ways of Christ and his church. Becoming a Catholic is a vocation, not just a course of study.
And when it comes to our scheduling of sessions, we should avoid using the words “start” or “finish” as they relate to our calendar. There is no beginning or end in a year-round RCIA process. That being said, I do recognize that even in a year-round process you may not be running catechetical sessions every week. In those cases sessions don’t “end.” Instead you’re taking a “break” or a “hiatus” from regular weekly sessions, after which time regular sessions will “resume.” The RCIA is not something that starts and ends on a schedule. Rather it is a continual and ongoing process where members enter and exit according to their needs and goals.
Time to shake up some of our habits
Now some would argue that all this “politically correct” language is much ado about nothing. But I disagree. The words and the language we use both create and reflect our understanding, so we need to be conscious of the words we’re using and change our habits accordingly. And not only that, we need to catechize our fellow catechists, parish staff, and parish leaders on the importance of using the right language, especially when addressing seekers.
Words are serious business in our faith tradition. When God uses a word, it becomes.
• Genesis 1:3 “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.
• Isaiah 55:11 “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.
• John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
• John 1:14a “And the Word became flesh and made his welling among us,”
Words have power. Words shape our perceptions. As catechists, our words and our actions are the tools we use to evangelize and spread the gospel. So it stands to reason that we should be very careful with the words we use when engaging in catechesis. So the next time someone asks “when do your classes start?” my answer is “right now.”
How have you transitioned your RCIA program away from the classroom/student/teacher model? What have been the benefits? How has it challenged your parish’s understanding of the RCIA? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
6 thoughts on “Is your RCIA open all year-round? Watch your language”
We went to a year-round model this year, and I am thrilled. We have one catechumen. He would not have thrived in a “classroom” setting, so we made a break for it and jumped in all the way. The team does not like change. They see the rationale behind the change, but are still leary of any change when they felt comfortable with what they were doing. The parish has no concept that they are the RCIA team. The traditional team is filling an as the parish sponsor, while I bring the parish along in their understanding. The catechumen is not on board yet, but we expect he soon will be. Thanks for the clearer vision.
We’ve been year round for several years. When our Bishop modified the process for Candidates, we take them in several times a year depending on their understanding and readiness. It’s different for the Catechumens because Easter Vigil is the designated time to receive the Sacraments of Initiation.
Our diocese suggests a 2 year program and at my parish it was reduced to 1 year. So, if a catechumen (usually not catechized)_enters after October of a given year there doesn’t seem to be enough time to develop a relationship with the Church to make the Easter Vigil sacraments meaningful. We welcome them any time, but sometimes need to delay the sacraments and they see that as a punishment. Any suggestions would be welcome.
I will welcome an inquirer any time of the year. If they are “too late” (e.g. have already missed a lot of the faith formation sessions with the group who has already begun gathering) and I don’t feel they will have enough time to really develop their faith and discern their readiness to enter the Church by the upcoming Easter Vigil, I do not even mention that to them. I begin working with them individually, maybe once or twice a month, welcoming them into our parish community, having them attend Mass weekly and having a team member sit with them at Mass if / when possible so they will feel comfortable and welcomed and can ask questions. We might do a tour of the Church or give them a chance to ask questions at those monthly sessions. When I feel they are ready, I go ahead and celebrate a Rite of Acceptance or Rite of Welcome and bring them into the Catechumenate and then allow them to participate in the Sunday Breaking Open the Word (dismissal from Mass) with the group that is preparing for the upcoming Easter Vigil. They will join that group just for that part of the RCIA, and I will often continue those Sunday sessions after Easter and over the summer, even if it is not every week, but make sure they are still attending Mass every week, whether they are dismissed or not. I have used this approach several times and I have never had anyone be upset that they “had to wait”. Faith formation is not something you can “play catch up” with. It just takes time! That is the one thing that is so hard about having a set time each year for the baptisms at Easter Vigil – it requires us to be creative and foster patience in those who are seeking the Church.
The use of the word “classes” has been my pet peeve for years as an RCIA minister. Here are some of the ways I address these issues:
I call our catechetical sessions “Faith Formation Sessions”. We are forming them in the faith, not just teaching information.
I don’t say the sessions START on a certain date, I say, “we begin formally gathering as a group on X date.” I am already working with the individuals in that group, sometimes for months, leading up to the time when we begin those structured faith formation sessions, because, let’s face it, you do have to begin those sessions at some given point each year, even if you welcome inquirers at any time and begin working with them any time.
If I need to refer to the whole group of catechumens / candidates, I refer to them as “participants” because they are participating in the RCIA process, the journey of faith. They are expected to participate in the process, not just sit there and listen or learn.
My catechists are referred to as presenters. We present the faith to the catechumens and candidates and they receive it and discern whether to accept it and become disciples and apostles of Christ in the sacraments of the Church.
We dismiss our participants each Sunday after the homily to break open the word. The person on the RCIA Team who leads this is called the leader or facilitator. Their role is to lead the participants in reflection on what they heard in the Scriptures and homily and how they will put it into action in their lives. Although they should be prepared to answer questions if they arise, and may affirm, correct, or guide the discussion, they should be doing less talking and more listening as the participants reflect and share.
Should we not call them what they are instead of coming up with names for them? I thought they were Inquirers, candidates, catechumen, elect, and/or neophytes. I think that covers pretty much everybody, or am I missing something?
We have always been year round and only take off for the 4th of July and two weeks during Christmas.
Dismissals every Sunday all year long