Monday, August 2, 2010

RCIA: Time to Stop Doing What You Are Doing

A good Monday to you all. I hope your weekend was a good one.

I wanted to share some photos of the interior of Christ the King church in Omaha, where the RCIA workshops were held on Friday and Saturday:

I also had the chance to play their 40 rank Reuter organ—just wonderful! You can just about see the pipes in the gallery in this photo:

My focus for the two days (one day with clergy, the next with RCIA teams) was on recapturing the originating vision for the RCIA as elucidated by the Second Vatican Council, in its document on the Church's missionary activity, Ad Gentes.

I have been doing presentations such as these all over the United States and Canada for about ten years. Dioceses are keenly interested in sharing this vision with the people involved in Christian initiation. This vision—that the catechumenate is not merely a "course" in Catholic teaching—is critical to the full implementation of the rite. The Council envisioned the RCIA as more of a hands-on school of discipleship, a real apprenticeship in the whole Christian life. This is played out in the RCIA text itself through the four-pronged approach to Christian formation, found in Paragraph 75: 1. Formation through catechesis (Handing on the Sacred Word and tradition); 2. Formation in and through the Christian community; 3. Formation in liturgical prayer; 4. Formation in apostolic service and witness. I am convinced more and more that most (90% plus) of RCIA processes in the United States and Canada focus almost exclusively on the first prong. Formation through catechesis is alive and well. Just Google "RCIA Schedule" and you will see what I mean. Parish after parish after parish offers a syllabus of topics, arranged systematically over the course of several months. In many places, there are creative ways that this catechesis is offered, i.e. various approaches with the Catholic Catechism, with the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, with various adult learning models, with Christian witness talks, with the use of all kinds of hand-outs to help with understanding and appropriating God's word and the Tradition of the Church. But, for these 90% plus parishes, this is where it stops. I am getting to the point now of telling people in these parishes (who are unwilling to take steps to embrace the other three pillars of Christian formation) to stop calling what they are doing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults; clearly a course in Catholic teaching is not the RCIA; is not what the Second Vatican Council envisioned.

People tell me time and again how moved they are by the way I present the Council's vision for the catechumenate; the apprenticeship approach. They buy my book (Apprenticed to Christ: Activities for Practicing the Catholic Way of Life), and then they tell me that they don't move their initiation processes beyond the programmatic teaching approach.

Is there hope that the RCIA (the catechumenate as envisioned by the Church) will be implemented in the United States and Canada? Even this eternal optimist is beginning to have his own serious doubts. All I can do is chip away very slowly at the entrenched mentality.

Here's the way I see it. For decades and decades (before the Second Vatican Council), the approach to formation of the unbaptized and those already baptized persons wishing to enter the Catholic Church was the convert class model. The parish priest, or a consecrated religious held these classes and "taught" the faith. The Second Vatican Council came along and restored the catechumenate, the ancient process of gradual formation leading to conversion and to the celebration of the sacraments. When diocesan and parish leaders discovered that there was this mandated way to "bring people into the church," they sent people for training, particularly through the institutes offered by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. The great gift of these institutes, for the most part, has been a wonderful renewal of the liturgical rites that are part of the initiation process. Somehow, though, the Forum's push of the four-fold approach to Christian formation, has largely been ignored, in my opinion. Very early on, those who had religious education degrees, or who had taught for years, were made the leaders in Christian initiation. Rather than looking at the expressed wishes of the Church with respect to the "school for discipleship"—the apprenticeship model—these leaders, I believe, simply took the convert class model a step further and, instead of one person doing the teaching, the responsibilities were spread out through a "catechumenate team." So, in essence, we are now doing largely what the Fathers of the Council warned against : "The catechumenate is not a mere exposition of dogmatic truths and norms of morality, but a period of formation in the whole Christian life; an apprenticeship of sufficient duration during which the disciples will be joined to Christ their teacher." In place of convert classes taught by the priest, we now have convert classes taught by a group consisting of the clergy, consecrated religious, and, for the most part, lay ecclesial ministers. And this model continues to be passed along to new members of initiation teams, who know little or nothing of the originating vision for the catechumenate.

People often express their concerns about the RCIA in this way: "What happens to these people after their initiation? Sometimes I don't see these people six months later." Or, as I heard on Saturday, "We all know that the percentage of those who fall away after the RCIA is very high."

Hello!? If it is true that many people drift away after having spent time in our classes, might we consider it possible that the way we are doing initiation might just have something to do with this? What happens after one spends time in other kinds of classes? Simple—one graduates and one does not have to return until future class reunions. This is why the classroom approach to initiation has little chance of actually accomplishing initiation into the Catholic Church. Why? Because the Catholic Church is not a classroom; it is the living breathing Body of Christ that believes, celebrates, prays, parties, laughs, cries, and helps continue to build the kingdom of God in this weary world.

I am not going to apologize today for this rather dismal portrayal of the state of the RCIA in the United States and Canada. Something's gotta change. How can we hope for a changed world when all we are doing in most initiation process is cranking out students of Catholic teaching who, by and large, do not ever become involved in real Catholic living?

I sense another book on the horizon. Somebody has to start telling it like it is. Recently I have begun naming my talks on apprenticeship "Re-inventing the RCIA." Maybe the title needs to be stronger: "Stop Doing What You Are Doing in the RCIA: Start Over."

Thanks for listening to this too-long post today. Initiation is at the center of my passion for the Church; hence my long expression of disappointment.

Still . . . gotta sing. Gotta pray.


John McGinty said...

Jerry, you are right on the mark, the painful mark. Too much of what we do at all bears all the characteristics of a classroom teaching exercise, of something that may appeal to the mind, but not to the whole person. And who does God call but the whole person?

There seems a clear need to stop indeed. To stop, re-read (what we were asked by the Council to do and be), re-assess, and only then to begin again. Of course once a model - even a mistaken one - is 'in place' it is something of a herculean effort to get us all to stop and take a saving breather.

Thank you for being a Hercules in this effort. Yes, write that book!


SJF Evangelization said...

We have transitioned to more of an apprenticeship model and I can attest--our "retention rate" has skyrocketed. It is the exception, rather than the rule, that neophytes do not become active members of the community. We find we have to re-orient our sponsors, or look for different sponsors, to make this work, too. It is not just changing the focus of team members.

Alan Hommerding said...

In a way, the whole story of Christianity could be called "Stop Doing What You Are Doing" - we've gotten lots of things wrong along the way, as we strive to keep doing what is right. There may also be a component in our (US?) makeup that makes/made us think everything will be accomplished successfully in our lifetimes, and we are failures if it isn't. Though I understand and share in your disappointment/discouragement, it might be that in the BIG picture, Jerry, the RCIA has made some remarkable progress, given the CENTURIES of mostly infant-only baptism, the generations of "instructions" as the norm, and the mindset that still prevails that those who come to the Roman rite from other Christian traditions are "joining the Church" (though they were joined to the Church, the Body of Christ, at the time of their own baptism). It takes a lot of personal and institutional humility to acknowledge that we are trying to convert people primarily to Christ and the Gospel, secondarily to Roman Catholicism. Gaudium et Spes. Hope and Joy!

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Thanks for these comments thus far, ye very wise ones. During my presentations on apprenticeship, when I see that people are starting to "get it," we pause and I ask everyone to take a deep breath. I then remind them that we have only been at this RCIA thing officially in the US for 22 years, 23 in Canada (the years since the promulgation of the rite in both countries.) We are still in a very early infancy stage with it, of which I need constant reminders. It just frustrates me that even though people know they can make slight adjustments to their processes, they still hang on to what they've been doing for years.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Amen to you and John McGinty.A while ago I told you there was something Lacking in RCIA. you hit the nail on the head in your message. Keep it up. A short question: You mentioned a " living, breathing message of Christ celebrating caring etcetc" Iwould like to know where it is in the church today in the USA? So many in the hierarchy,the lower clergy{as some refer to us priests} and laity are turning their backs on the wonderful Good News of vatican II . They seem to forget the many great things that Pope John XXIII accomplished ,even without the cooperation of the OLD Guard in the church. the Council wanted to return to the teachings and example of the early church when Catholics were concerned with reaching out to others and not just throwing more andmore people out just to satisfy a Neo=Calvinistic and Neo-Jansenistic group in our church.Keep trying and pray for a new POpe John the 24th to arrive.

Anonymous said...

Change is one of the hardest things to do. When RCIA first was being used there wasn’t a heck of a lot of material out there. ‘Topic’ oriented seemed the way to go. Only after attending many Forum workshops did I get a handle on Lectionary-based, but it wasn’t an easy ‘sell’ to the team. We had to limp our way through a year before we began to really see a difference in the approach our catechumans and candidates were taking to their own process. If I had to choose ONE suggestion to really aid teams, it is to use the correct language. Too many parishes think everyone in the RCIA is ‘joining the church’ even if they are Catholics completing their initiation sacraments.( A real call to keep them separate, by the way.) However, most parishes do not have enough team members in place to facilitate more than one process at a time. Sometimes there’s not enough for even one process and so those who do work with the candidates get overworked, which leads to even more unwillingness to things differently. Also, I am in a parish that has ‘confiscated’ the Rites! They subordinate the place of the elect in the Scrutinies to the community. By that I mean that the community celebrates the Scrutinies and the elect just sort of gets thrown in as an afterthought. What is needed is better education for the parish RCIA team but too often parishes cannot afford to send whole teams to workshops for training and sometimes the person that DOES go is unable to translate the heart of the workshop for the rest of the team when they return. Another sticky area can be between the liturgy coordinator and the RCIA director. Because their responsibilities overlap in some areas, if you have a liturgy coordinator who does not understand the Rite, there will be a problem. There is often ‘turf’ issues and an unwillingness to ‘add’ anything to the Sunday liturgies that may take some additional time. Anyway, I could go on (I have worked with the Rite for almost 20 years and have seen a lot). Keep up the good work!!

Dan Houze said...

I would fully support your itching at a new book...but perhaps consider doing a video teaching series instead, recorded while you are working with these groups. You are only one person and can only be in one place at a time, while the internet and our new video technologies can help connect that precious and exciting experience with MANY people around the globe in a video chat room. To see the expressions and to hear the passion, this would be an exciting class to offer!

Anonymous said...


I haven't read your book, but I have three comments.

First, with regard to RCIA, I am not exactly sure what you envision the "apprenticeship" approach to involve.

Second, as someone who came into the Catholic Church, I think instruction is essential. Simply put, you have to know what you believe when you say you believe all that the Catholic Church teaches. And you need to be able to defend the faith when challenged. You can't defend what you don't understand.

Third, instead of ranting about how we are failing to provide "formation in and through the Christian community," I'd be interested in knowing exactly what you think we should do within an RCIA program . . . especially in a parish which has a substantial number of its lay leaders opposed to fundamental church teachings on, for instance, life.

Same thing goes for formation in liturgical prayer: Beyond having RCIA people attend Mass, what do you think should be done within the RCIA program?

And the same thing for formation in apostolic service and witness.

I think you may be expecting too much from a nine- or 12-month RCIA program. We all know that conversion is a lifelong process.

Every person who teaches in RCIA hopes our candidates and catechumens will catch our excitement and love for the Catholic Church.

But I think whether someone will stay or go depends more upon the quality of preaching, the breadth of spiritual activities in the parish, how much people in the parish "talk up" going on retreat, how much a pastor encourages confession, and how much the parish leadership truly believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of parishes where everyone knows the pastor doesn't support the church's position on the Right to Life or on, say "Gay marriage."

kkollwitz said...

I taught RCIA for 4 years before teaching 6th grade (now in my 7th year) in the Bible Belt. Most of our RCIA class was indeed a teaching exercise. Most (all?) people in the class were coming out of a Sola Scriptura background, and wanted to know why, in Bible terms, they should become Catholic. Essentially our class was not about what the teachers or the students felt or thought about anything. It was about what the Church knows, and getting our students to think along with the Mind of the Church. I can't say how that approach would work elsewhere, but it works fine in the South.

As I still think of it while catechizing 6th graders, my job is to give partially-formed Christians a Catholic cadre (French, a framework) to which they can attach all the things they will learn after they leave my class.