In both the current translation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and in the proposed new translation, the phrase “a priori” is left in its original Latin state.
Nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori. (RCIA 76)
So nothing can be laid down a priori. (OCIA 76)
I suspect it was not translated because the English usage of the phrase has drifted from the literal Latin, which is something like, “from the cause to the effect.” In English, we use it more to mean, “without evidence” or “without experience.”
An appropriate time
In its full context, the church is using the phrase “a priori” to say that the time a catechumen spends in the catechumenate cannot be predetermined:
The length of time appropriate for the catechumenate depends both on the grace of God and on various circumstances, namely on the plan of instruction of the catechumenate itself, the number of catechists, Deacons and Priests, the cooperation of individual catechumens, the facilities necessary for finding a place for the catechumenate and occupying it, and the help of the local community. So nothing can be laid down a priori. (OCIA 76)
The duration of the catechumenate will vary for each individual (see also RCIA/OCIA 5), and so we cannot tell new seekers that the RCIA begins in September and ends at the Easter Vigil.
And yet, we do. The majority of parishes in the United States (and probably all of the English-speaking world) have decided, a priori, how long the catechumenate will last. We have predetermined, before meeting any actual seekers, when they will start and stop their formation.
A prevalent paradigm
Because the school-year paradigm is so prevalent, many catechumenate teams believe it to be the norm. They see an ongoing initiation process that incorporates seekers into the life of the community whenever someone inquirers as an overly-burdensome ideal. But the church has not given us the option for making an a priori determination of the duration of the catechumenate. In fact, the rite says our catechumenate process is probably much, much too short:
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. (OCIA 76; emphasis added)
If your parish currently exists within a school-year paradigm, this is going to seem impossible. How in the world are we going to be able to sustain several years of weekly classes that all begin at different times?
The solution is to set yourself free from the school model, which Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, called a “chokehold” on effective faith formation.
Instead of thinking of 14 classes (or however many chapters in your textbook or videos you purchased), think of encounters with Jesus in the Sundays of the liturgical year. We can easily imagine catechumens participating in the life of the parish, especially Sunday liturgy, for several years. In fact, for the rest of their lives. It is what they are asking to be a part of when they say they want to be Catholic.
Will they need more than just participation in the liturgy and in the life of the parish? Very probably. But we cannot know, a priori, what that “more” consists of until we start accompanying them on their journey of faith and discerning with them what the Holy Spirit is asking of them.
Discerning the length of the catechumenate
One final thought. Not predetermining anything a priori works the other way as well. In many, many of our parishes, most of the seekers are baptized candidates who come to us with some level of formation already—often a great deal of formation. If we begin to accompany them on their faith journey and discern with them what the Holy Spirit is asking of them before we determine their formation plan, we will discover that many of them “need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community [and] should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate” (United States National Statutes for the Catechumenate, 31).
As we prepare for the new translation of the initiation rites, let’s all resolve to be a little more faithful to the church’s teaching about the length of the catechumenate. We can start by not laying down, a priori, a plan of formation before getting to know the seekers who want to walk with us on the journey of faith.
How do you discern the catechetical needs of your seekers? How do you help integrate them into the life of the parish? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
8 thoughts on “One Latin phrase that was not translated in the initiation rites”
I agree with spirit of article. I do think though there is something missing, or a bit of a diversion is made in the text. PART of formation is too teach Catholic stuff, if you will. One of the most common criticism we see about Catholics today is the seemingly lack of catechesis. My wife who converted after 30 years of marriage and being Baptist stated firmly that every one of the content areas covered in process clarified and correct her thoughts. She adamantly affirms completion of the content. (Yes I know she was a Candidate)….just making a witness to importance of this component of the process. She then participated in Christ Renews His Parish weekend retreat and joined two ministries. Those actions established a strong friendship among parish women especially and provided much of the “parish participation “ in her faith life. She now works to meet and engage women coming forward. But through it all we keep learning from those completing the process that the professional, well presented teaching was critical to their discernment process. I would never advise diluting that part of the effort is the point I am trying to make.
Hi Bruce. thanks for sharing your comment. I completely agree that we need to be teaching the Catholic stuff. In my post, I wasn’t advocating anything other than that. I think my point was more about *how* we teach the Catholic stuff. The liturgy is the privileged place where that happens (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1074).
I do think that classroom-style religious education has its place. And it is usually much more appropriate for baptized candidates who already have a relationship with Jesus and who have “Catholic questions.” But for catechumens (and candidates who have no real relationship with Christ), they have to first of all be given an ongoing encounter with Jesus. They have to be immersed in the discipline of the faith and learn how to live as Catholic-Christians in the world and in their homes. That is primarily a sacramental-mystagogical process.
My larger point, however, was that formation varies for each seeker. We cannot predetermine that a formation process is going to last from September to May as though learning how to live as a Catholic-Christian is an academic course that one is enrolled in and graduates from. A Baptist, who comes to us pretty well versed in Scripture and with deep relationship with Jesus is going to need a very different formation process than an unbaptized seeker who has only just now encountered Jesus and now wants to begin a journey of faith.
I find this discussion quite helpful in reminding me of the danger of the attitude that the end justifies the means which seems to apply in so many aspect of secular living or that if we do the subject matter the the Holy Spirit will do the rest. A role of a mentor for catechumens and candidates even at an informal level might help in this discernment process in developing the qualitative as well as the quantitative progression .Also there is the aspect for me that each person being accompanied through RCIA teaches me many things and it is important when this happens that I try to let them know about the multi-way process.
Hi James. Thanks for your thoughts. And thanks for reminding us that the accompaniment process is also a learning process for us as well as the seekers! Blessings on your ministry.
I agree with the idea of year round catechumenate, but it seems that initiation revolves around Easter Vigil, which precludes a sense of time urgency. We know the prescribed time for study is 3 years, and some parishes do 2 years, and my pastor says 1 year. If an inquirer comes mid year and sees others receiving sacraments at Easter time they want it too. Discernment of their growth and expectations seems to become arbitrary.
Hi Roberta. As I hoped to point out in the article, there is no prescribed length of time for the catechumenate. It takes as long as it takes. It can be longer for some and shorter for others. I believe that’s what the rite means when it says: “Nothing, therefore, can be settled a priori” (RCIA 76).
For someone who has only recently had an initial encounter with Jesus and has had no prior Christian formation, it is difficult to imagine that they would be ready to celebrate initiation before they had experienced a full liturgical year with us. For some, it may take several years.
But for many baptized candidates and some unbaptized folks who have been coming to Mass for years (maybe because they are married to a Catholic), their time in formation could be shorter. Each person’s faith journey is different, and we have to adapt how we accompany them based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their ability to live fully as a missionary disciple.
Discernment of readiness is not arbitrary. The expectations for training in Christian life are always those from paragraph 75. But seekers will become skilled at missionary discipleship at different rates and so their readiness for initiation will vary. See also paragraph 5.
I understand about the time frames for individuals. I have had people waiting 25 years, 10 years, 5 and 3 years for them to discern their readiness. Longer and shorter times make sense. I guess my big question is “whenever they are ready, do we then wait for Easter vigil??
Hi Roberta. If you are talking about candidates, then no, we do not wait for the Easter Vigil. They are received into full communion (or celebrate confirmation) as soon as they are ready. For the unbaptized, the norm is to celebrate initiation at the Easter Vigil. There can be pastoral exceptions, but they would be exceptions, not the rule. This article goes into more detail: https://knot.teamrcia.com/2020/08/can-rcia-seekers-celebrate-their-sacraments-outside-of-the-easter-vigil/