Inspired by an angel, Philip went out onto the road to preach. While on the road, he met a court official from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian was reading from the prophet Isaiah, but he didn’t understand what he was reading. Philip began to explain it to him and also to proclaim the good news about Jesus.
As they were traveling and talking, the Ethiopian got more and more excited. Along the way, they came across a small pool. The Ethiopian said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And Philip said, “We have to wait because RCIA doesn’t start until September.” (Slightly adapted from Acts 8:26-37.)
Almost everyone agrees that one of the big benefits of a continuous initiation process is that when a seeker is moved by the Holy Spirit to start the journey of faith, they will not be told they have to wait until September when RCIA starts.
But there are also seekers who already have a relationship with Jesus and are already living a life of faith. These are Christians who were baptized in other traditions who now want to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
These seekers are not like the Ethiopian. They are not hearing the good news for the first time. They have been journeying on the way of faith, sometimes for years or decades, and now want to continue that journey in the Catholic Church.
A year-round RCIA is better able to minister
A parish that has a continuous initiation process all year long is better able to minister to baptized seekers. This is so because a year-round RCIA requires that we let go of the classroom, school-year paradigm a lot of us are used to. When a baptized seeker’s journey is no longer tied to a curriculum, it is easier for us to discern how the Holy Spirit has been guiding each candidate so far in their lives and what their next steps might be.
Once we let go of the school year paradigm, one of our initial tasks with baptized seekers will be to determine what rites to celebrate with them.
Unlike the unbaptized seekers, there are no preparatory rites that are required of the baptized seekers. Currently, in the United States, we have three preparatory rituals.
- Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens
- Rite of Welcoming the Candidates (optional)
- Celebration of the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens and the Rite of Welcoming Baptized but Previously Uncatechized Adults Who are Preparing for Confirmation and/or Eucharist or Reception into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church (optional)
There is a lot to unpack here. Of these three rites, the first one, which is celebrated only with unbaptized people, is the only one that is required.
The second rite, for baptized candidates is optional, and it is only celebrated with those baptized candidates who are previously uncatechized.
The difference between the two rites of initiation
The names of the two rites and the prayers, gestures, and symbols of the two rites are very similar. In fact, many RCIA teams see no difference between them and interchange the similar sounding names when referring to either rite. But the difference in meaning and sacramental effect is huge.
When an unbaptized person celebrates the Rite of Acceptance, they become a catechumen. The Order of Catechumens is an official order in the church, and catechumens are part of the household of God. They are literally becoming part of the church.
A validly baptized person, no matter what tradition they are baptized in, is already part of the household of God. In fact, they are priests—members of the baptismal priesthood of Christ. The optional Rite of Welcome does not change their status in the church in any way.
As most of you know, however, the preparatory rite that is most often celebrated in parishes is the third one listed above, which is a combined rite of acceptance and rite of welcome for both unbaptized and baptized seekers.
Because the two rites are so similar, when they are celebrated in a combined fashion, it appears to most parishioners that the unbaptized and baptized are celebrating the same rite with the same effect. And that is a huge problem. When parishioners see no difference in the ritual applied to both unbaptized and baptized seekers, they see no difference in the radical effect of baptism.
Another difficulty is that in most parishes, the majority of the baptized candidates who celebrate this combined rite are not who the RCIA defines as previously uncatechized. In the section titled “Preparation of Uncatechized Adults for Confirmation and Eucharist, the RCIA says:
The following pastoral guidelines concern adults who were baptized as infants [either as Roman Catholics or as members of another Christian community] but did not receive further catechetical formation nor, consequently, the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist. (RCIA 400; Canada and Australia, RCIA 376; the bracketed text appears only in the USA version)
So for the purposes of celebrating either the Rite of Welcoming the Candidates or the combined rites, the baptized candidates would not have received any catechetical formation whatsoever after their baptism as infants.
A year-round RCIA lets us work smarter, not harder, in ministry
Most RCIA teams ignore this stipulation either because they are unaware of it or because they are practicing a school-year model of faith formation. In that model, a “class” starts school on a set date and follows a unified curriculum. In a school-year model, everyone is put into the same class at the same time, including:
- unbaptized seekers
- baptized, uncatechized seekers
- baptized, catechized seekers
- active adult Catholics who need to be confirmed
- inactive adult Catholics who need to be confirmed
- parishioners who want to update their knowledge of the faith
I have even heard of engaged couples (both Catholic, both confirmed) being put in the RCIA because they are being “initiated” into marriage!
All of these groups have diverse spiritual histories and varied formation needs. They cannot all be served effectively by a one-size-fits-all approach. Once we are able to let go of the school-year paradigm, two things happen:
- the formation of the seekers becomes exponentially richer and
- our ministry as RCIA team members becomes exponentially easier
In most parishes in the United States, the largest group of seekers, by far, is the baptized, catechized seekers. These seekers are still going to need some catechesis. Some of them may need only a little formation and some may need quite a lot of formation. But none of them will need to amount of time and formation that someone who is starting at zero relationship with Christ will need.
And these baptized, catechized seekers do not celebrate any of the optional preparatory rites that are provided for baptized, uncatechized seekers.
All this becomes easier if we imagine ourselves responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit throughout the year, whenever a new seeker is ready to take a step forward on the journey of faith. If we make everyone “wait until September” and try to shoehorn everyone into a one-size-fits-all curriculum, we are making a lot of unnecessary work for ourselves and our seekers.
If, instead, we respond to each seeker’s need as the Holy Spirit presents them to us, our ministry as RCIA team members will become much more effective and fruitful.
What benefits have your baptized candidates received by having a year-round process? What help do you need to get your process ready to be year-round? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
2 thoughts on “Why a year-round RCIA is important for baptized seekers”
I’m having a difficult time seeing how year round RCIA would be less work for our RCIA team. We have a very small team, and a small parish. We would need a real concrete model and also a lot of evidence of effectiveness to convince our pastor that this would be a good way to improve our RCIA process.
Hi Juliann. Here are some additional articles that might help: