Almost 10,000 children were initiated through the RCIA process last year. Most of them didn’t have saints and theologians as their catechists. Most of the children who were baptized last year were taught by ordinary Catholics who were a little too busy and maybe a little nervous, but who sincerely wanted their children to know how much Jesus loves them. Most children’s RCIA catechists are people just like you.
I’d like you to introduce you to one now. I met Rita Burns Senseman at a national institute where we were teaching people about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. When I met Rita, she was known as one of the leading experts in the country on the RCIA and especially how we adapt the RCIA for use with children.
But she didn’t start out that way. She started out in parish ministry with few skills and few resources. What I’ve come to realize in the years that I’ve known her is that it is not her “knowledge” that makes her good at what she does. It is her passion for sharing faith with children—something she’s always had.
I think Rita is someone who you are going to want to know.
Click on the video to hear Rita’s story.
Rita went from that rocky start two decades ago to go on to become one of most knowledgeable people in the country about children’s initiation. I asked her what her secret was. How did she go from “having absolutely no idea what to do” to being a confident leader in children’s initiation?
Here’s what she told me.
What textbook or curriculum did you use?
The secret to forming children in the RCIA—and something I had to learn, Rita said, is that we have to envision a different way of forming children in faith.
We think of ourselves as teachers, and we certainly are that. And the most important thing we are teaching is the love of Jesus. Are your children learning that primary lesson? They cannot learn that from a book. They can only learn it from you and from their parents. And if they don’t learn that first, they will never really understand anything else you try to teach them about Jesus.
- Key point: So the first job for a catechist is to help the children begin a journey of conversion.
What does a conversion journey look like?
It’s really pretty simple. You’ve been one for some time now, or you wouldn’t be at this point in your life. At some point, you said yes to Christ. You said yes to your faith. You said yes to teaching others about faith.
- Key point: As part of your own conversion journey, you said yes to helping these children celebrate the sacraments of faith.
All of that is a conversion process.
Your children need to say yes to Christ also. They need to say yes to Jesus’ love for them. And they need to say it on their own—not just because their parents (or you) expect it of them. That’s why this first step is so important.
We have to lead children to faith without overtly influencing their decision. It has to be a true conversion journey.
Well how do we do that, I asked. Rita gave me a simple, but profound answer:
- Key point: We have to recall our own conversion journeys.
We’ve all been on a journey of conversion. I have. You have. We wouldn’t be here, if we hadn’t experienced some change in our lives.
By recalling the steps you took to get from where you were to where you are, you can develop a set of clear principles—a kind of teaching outline, or a roadmap—for leading your children on a conversion journey also.
Do you have a copy of the roadmap?
There is a map! It’s a pretty easy map to follow in the sense that the steps are clearly laid out. But it is difficult to follow in the sense that it requires a new way of thinking and teaching.
The roadmap has ten steps:
Step 1: A New Vision
The map for this journey of faith—as Rita mentioned in her video—is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This document that she “miraculously” discovered gives catechists a new vision for leading children to an intimate and powerful communion with Jesus.
So what is this new vision? I asked Rita.
She told me it’s not really new. Rather it is a venerable process that was developed by the first Apostles as a way of introducing people to Jesus. But the core of the process—the “secret sauce”—was lost for hundreds of years. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionaries who were looking for a better way to bring people to faith, began to rediscover the formation process of the Apostles.
- Key point: The formation process used by the Apostles, even though it dates back to the New Testament, is a new vision for many of us. It is the vision that is outlined in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Step 2: Children are people of faith
Hold on a minute. If we’re talking about a faith journey for children, why are we using something designed for adults?
That is another key step in this process, Rita told me. One of the new things we have to understand is that children are on a conversion journey. For children who are old enough to understand what that means—which happens at a very young age—their journey looks a lot like a conversion journey for adults.
We have to adapt what we do with children so it all makes sense to them. But the key steps we take on the journey are the same as those we take with adults.
- Key point: As children’s catechists, we really have to understand that there isn’t one faith formation process for children and a different faith formation process for adults. We are all on the same journey.
Step 3: Parents are essential partners
Rita told me that one thing she discovered back in that first parish she worked in was how important parents were to their children’s journey of faith. Granted, some of those parents barely had a faith life themselves. But something was motivating them to bring their children for baptism. Rita spent time discovering what that “divine spark” was and made the parents her partners in the faith formation of their children.
She really had no other choice. As much as she loved the children she was ministering to and as much as she wanted to help them celebrate their sacraments in a truly meaningful way, she couldn’t make that happen without the active involvement of their parents.
- Key point: A lot of Rita’s “catechizing” was developing strategies for engaging the parents or guardians of the children in the initiation process.
Step 4: Create some healthy peer pressure
In her first parish, Rita was not dealing exclusively with unbaptized children. She was the director of religious education for the whole parish. Most of the children she interacted with had grown up in active Catholic homes, and she knew there were many, many children in the parish who had a deep and abiding faith. She also knew how influential children’s peers can be.
What if, she wondered, she got some of her best kids from the parish religious ed program to help out? What if?
It was amazing, that’s what if. Some of the things those Catholic kids shared about their faith blew her away. And their willingness to share their faith had a lasting impact on the unbaptized children.
- Key point: The witness and support of the children of the parish was a powerful influence on the unbaptized children.
Session 5: Look for the road signs of faith
Signs are important, Rita told me. There are the signs of love from the children’s parents and the signs of faith from the children’s peers in the parish. But more important than any of these are the sacramental signs in the rituals of the church. These sacramental signs are the actual presence of Jesus.
I asked her to say more about that.
- She said that things like a laying on of hands or a sign of peace are an expression of Jesus being present with us.
- When we read from Scripture or join together in prayer, these are ways that we see and hear Jesus.
- She said that simple, earthy things—like water and oil and candle light, when used in a ritual way—“become” a tangible sign of Jesus’ presence.
- Key point: Rita said that if the children are going to learn who Jesus is, they need to learn how to read these ritual signs and recognize the presence of Christ in them.
Step 6: Listen to the children
Rita told me that at the very start of this journey of conversion, we have to ask the children why they want to learn more about Jesus. Most of us adults are used to telling children what they have to do because we know what’s good for them. When we’re talking about brushing teeth and eating vegetables, that makes sense.
But when we’re talking about saying yes to Christ, it has to be an authentic decision the child makes for him or herself.
- Key point: At the beginning of the journey, we have to spend time listening to the children. We have to take seriously what they tell us. And we cannot move any faster than they want to move.
Step 7: Develop an apprenticeship plan
Are really young children even capable of making a big decision like this, I asked Rita?
They don’t have to decide to be Christians the rest of their lives, said Rita. Not right at the beginning. We are asking them is if they are intrigued enough by Jesus to want to learn more about him. If they are—and they always are—then we move to the next step. That is, we start to teach them who Jesus is.
But “teach,” in this sense, means teach as the Apostles did. The Apostles didn’t use a textbook or hold classes. They taught by example. They taught as a master teaches an apprentice. They taught people how to live as Christians.
- Key point: The formation process for children is going to look a lot like vocational training. Because we are training them for their vocation as baptized Christians.
Step 8: Teach the faith
That sounds great, I said. But when do they learn the doctrines of the church? Surely the will have to learn about the “deposit of faith.”
Absolutely, said Rita! The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults requires that everyone on this journey learn the fundamental teachings of the faith. What is new in this vision, however, is those teachings are integrated into a larger, richer catechetical process.
That was a struggle for me when I first started, she said. I wanted to focus on the textbook and lesson plans.
- Key point: What I learned, said Rita, is that I had to focus on helping the children grow into an intimate relationship with Jesus. Learning the doctrines of the church then flow out of that relationship.
Step 9: Say yes to Christ
So how do you know when they know enough? I asked.
That’s not really the right question, said Rita. In this new vision, we want to ask if the children are living as Christians. Are they living as people who love Jesus? There are more specific criteria than that in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, but that’s the heart of the question.
If they are living as Christians, then they have, in some way, already decided to follow Christ.
- Key point: The next step is to clarify and affirm their choice for Christ. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults provides a time of spiritual reflection to prepare for the climax of the faith journey—sacramental initiation into Christ.
Step 10: Review the journey
The final step on the journey, said Rita, is really just the beginning. What we’ve been forming the children for all along is to live their lives in a new way.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults provides a final step during which we look back over everything we have learned and celebrated together. It’s not just the children who have grown in faith, said Rita. Their parents, siblings, catechists, and the whole parish have also grown in their faith.
- Key point: It is essential that we take stock of where we started and where we’ve come to. And then we need to look forward and ask, what’s next on the journey of faith?
How do I manage all this?
Wow, this seems like a lot, I said. How is one person ever supposed to do all this?
It is a lot. But Rita figured it out when she was a brand new DRE with few skills and few resources. The essential thing you need is a desire to bring children into a relationship with Jesus. If you have that, Rita can teach you how to do the rest.
Rita has designed an online training program—based on these ten steps—that will give you everything you need to confidently lead your children on the journey of faith. And she’s going to be with you the whole way.
If you’d like to be a part of this learning process, click the button below.