At our recent Community Chat on moving to a year-round initiation process, it seemed there were two types of comments. On the one hand, lots of folks were excited about moving to a continuous initiation process and couldn’t wait to get started.
On the other hand, while also excited, other folks were a bit stumped as to how to make a year-round RCIA possible in a practical, doable way.
As I read through all the comments and question, it seemed to me that we have two different paradigms about what seekers need to learn to be fully Catholic and how to teach them that content.
Some of us see the essential Catholic content as a discrete body of knowledge that can be written down in a book and delivered to the seekers in a series of classes or videos. For those of us with that model of catechesis, a year-round process is going to be very difficult or impossible.
Those of us who have moved to an effective ongoing initiation process have realized the essential Catholic content is a person — Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II said this over and over again in many different ways. Here is one version:
Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere “paradigm” or “value” but as the living Lord, “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). (March 24, 1993).
Another way to say that is that our biggest priority is not to teach seekers facts about Jesus as though Jesus were a mere “paradigm” or “value.” Rather, our top priority is to introduce seekers to Jesus and lead them into a personal relationship with Jesus.
If that is our model, then the only possible way to deliver the essential Catholic content is through an ongoing initiation process. There are five reasons this is true.
1. The fullness of who Christ is revealed in the celebration of the liturgical year
This is a paradigm shift for some of us. I grew up thinking of the various feast and seasons of the liturgical year as something like anniversaries or reminders about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past.
But the celebration of the liturgical year is not about the past.
The liturgical year is how we encounter the risen Christ right now. When we celebrate the liturgical year, we are encountering the Risen Christ. Our weekly sacramental encounter with the Risen Christ is the core Catholic content. It is the fullest way we can teach who Jesus is. The church says:
Within the cycle of a year, moreover, [the church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.
Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 102)
Practical step: To move from an academic program to an ongoing initiation process, bring seekers to Sunday Mass and holy day Mass, every week of the year — especially in the summer. Make sure they have each have a parishioner to sit with.
2. The mystery of Christ is best taught mystagogically
We can try to teach about the mystery of Christ in a lecture-format or through reading handouts or by watching a video series. But none of those methods compare with unfolding the mystery of Christ through mystagogical catechesis. This is another paradigm shift. We are accustomed to thinking of mystagogy as something happens after initiation. However, this is a misunderstanding. Mystagogical catechesis happens throughout the catechumenate process.
Mystagogy is a reflection on our encounter with the mystery of Jesus Christ. Another way to say that is that we are constantly being reminded of God’s saving love for us. We are formed more deeply into God’s people when we mediate on God’s signs of love in our lives — especially sacramental signs.
Mystagogy is not about teaching in the classroom sense. It is about transforming our lives to be more like Christ — especially through the celebration of the liturgy.
Pope Benedict XVI said:
The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 64).
Practical step: Stop holding weekly classes. Transform your formation process into an ongoing mystagogical catechesis. Teach sponsors and parents how to ask mystagogical questions.
3. The parish is the curriculum
In their document, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, the United States bishops said, “The parish is the curriculum” (118). What they meant by that is that the fabric of parish life is in and of itself catechetical.
Another way to say that is, the seekers will learn the core Catholic content by doing what Catholics do, following their example, and imitating their behaviors.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says the same thing in other ways. For example:
The initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized…. Hence, the entire community must help the candidates and the catechumens throughout the process of initiation…. (9)
And later on:
[Candidates and catechumens] are given suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in Christian life. (RCIA 75)
Seekers cannot learn how to live the Christian life from classroom teaching. They only learn how live the Christian life through a hands-on apprenticeship process that takes place every day of the year.
Practical step: Read “The parish is the RCIA catechetical plan.” Then develop a plan for training the seekers in Christian life by integrating them into the fabric of the parish.
4. Conversion is a gradual process
St. Paul’s instantaneous conversion on the road to Damascus is one of the most famous events in scripture. But 99% of conversions don’t happen that way.
The conversion of St. Peter is a more common model. Recall the stories of St. Peter, and try to pinpoint his conversion. Was it when he answered Jesus’s call to follow? Was it when it dawned on him that Jesus was the Messiah? Was it when Jesus sent him on mission to preach and heal? Was it after the resurrection, when Jesus forgave him? It’s sort of all of those.
Peter’s conversion happened gradually, over time. When we try to schedule conversion within a school year timeframe, we are damaging the gradual unfolding of faith that happens with most people.
The church teaches:
The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful. (RCIA 4)
The duration of the catechumenate will depend on the grace of God and on various circumstances…. Nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori. The time spent in the catechumenate should be long enough—several years if necessary—for the conversion and faith of the catechumens to become strong…. (RCIA 76)
Practical step: Spend most of your time and energy teaching the one, most important thing we have to teach in the catechumenate, and don’t let yourself be distracted by secondary things.
5. The catechumenate is a spiritual journey, not an academic program
When seekers first encounter Christ, they are invited by the Holy Spirit to enter a journey of faith and conversion. A spiritual journey is always a winding road with surprises, setbacks, revelations, and strengthening. The job of initiation ministers is to accompany the seekers on that journey. Our goal is to be spiritual mentors, not theology teachers.
The church teaches:
The rite of Christian initiation presented here is designed for adults who, after hearing the mystery of Christ proclaimed, consciously and freely seek the living God and enter the way of faith and conversion as the Holy Spirit opens their hearts. By God’s help they will be strengthened spiritually during their preparation and at the proper time will receive the sacraments fruitfully. (RCIA 1)
The rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults that varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place. (RCIA 5)
Practical step: Read “The challenge of developing intimacy with Jesus,” and shift your initiation process to focusing on bring the seekers into communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ.
Moving from a school model to an ongoing initiation process is not hard. In fact, it is actually easier to do an ongoing process. But to make it work, we have to let go of our paradigm that the catechumenate is a series of classes.
If we can imagine the catechumenate as a spiritual journey of accompaniment, our lives and the lives of the seekers will be much richer.
What has your ‘core content’ looked like in the past? What can you imagine it to be in this new moment? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
8 thoughts on “Rethinking the core Catholic content as we move to ongoing initiation (year-round RCIA)”
This is great……….. simple, clear vision . Encouraging……..
This is a beautiful vision for initiation, but it has big ramifications for all sacramental ministries and for evangelization of all ages. I think this perspective would be especially helpful for Confirmation preparation, which often has an academic, knowledge outcome, focus.
And first communion preparation. And marriage prep. And infant baptism prep. And ordination prep. And lifelong catechesis of the baptized priesthood. We’ll need a couple more lifetimes to accomplish it, though. 🙂
Tom East, I have felt this way for years! I have used the RCIA model for Confirmation preparation. I have received push back from parents because “we never did it like this before.” If Moses could part the Red Sea and Joshua made walls tumble down, I am certain the Spirit of God can melt hearts and open minds of those willing to walk the road to Emmaus — of the entire parish — that all would their need for ongoing faith formation as a faith community
Switching from ‘program’ to Year-Round RCIA takes a bit of time and needs to be intentionally built. I’ve found that starting with building a “Breaking Open the Word” Team for dismissal effectively includes more parishioners in the RCIA process and often these folks would like to become more involved. That’s where I started forming an “Inquiry Team” and “Catechumenate Team”. Smaller teams helps lighten the workload and captures the vision of a a parish initiating. It takes time and patience but it really works. Within 2-3 years you will have your on-going, year-round catechumenate with an larger pool of people living their baptism.
Not sure you have it right. Simply seating in church will not create vibrant Catholics, the liturgical year alone will not suffice. Our RCIA starts with the Trinity – only it explains everything one needs to know to be connected personally. Once one sees these three Persons as reaching out to them and seeking a personal response, then everything starts to make sense and have meaning. Catholics get something out of the liturgical year because they have passed into this new way of looking at everything in one’s life. It all about Jesus and why Father sent Him and how the Holy Spirit opens up the truth of what this life is all about. Too many Catholics are pew sitters who lack this interpersonal relationship to the Trinity. All that we do as Catholics need this basic understanding to have meaning. Could it be that so many drift off from the Faith, including many of our youths, because we have failed to bring them into this personal call from God. Involvement with the community is needed because our foundation as Christians is a call to oneness/family. How well we live this out is what will further cement this faith journey. It is not all academics, but they need this foundation to hang all the depth of the Faith. Cradle Catholics often lack this foundation and so cannot evangelize others beyond offering the liturgical cycle/Mass.
Thank you for this great article! It takes a huge weight to think about RCIA in the way depicted here since I don’t have to be constantly worried if I am imparting all the knowledge “required” to be a Catholic. Don’t even know what that looks like!
The catechumenate is part of our parish’s adult spiritual formation (ASF) “department.” Much of ASF is about adult education classes. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that the catechumenate is about Spiritual Formation. This is a paradigm shift and moves the process from a discussion of catechisms, dogmas and doctrines to one of spiritual formation through reflection on the Gospel.