Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Frustration and Hope: The Evolution of the RCIA or not-RCIA

Wednesday greetings.

A few weekends ago, I was asked to lead an RCIA training day for initiation ministers in the Archdiocese of Seattle. It was entitled "Rebuild Your RCIA." Kudos to the leadership in Seattle for this title.

I have been experiencing a sense of growing frustration with the way the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has evolved here in North America. The Church's vision for the catechumenate was clearly articulated in the inspiring words of paragraph 14 of Ad Gentes, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity:

14. Those who, through the Church, have accepted from God a belief in Christ are admitted to the catechumenate by liturgical rites. The catechumenate is not a mere expounding of doctrines and precepts, but a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship duty drawn out, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher. Therefore, catechumens should be properly instructed in the mystery of salvation and in the practice of Gospel morality, and by sacred rites which are to be held at successive intervals, they should be introduced into the life of faith, of liturgy, and of love, which is led by the People of God.

This paragraph envisions a parish catechumenate that is like a "dynamic novitiate," as a participant at one of my workshops said a few years ago. He was a Christian brother who, he said, "finally saw the light," embracing the vision of the council and rejecting what he had inherited in his pastoral practice, namely an RCIA program that was little more than an "expounding of doctrines and precepts" in a classroom setting.

Yesterday, as I do about every six months, I did an internet search, using the words "RCIA Program." Here are a few of the descriptions of the RCIA I found on various Catholic parish web sites across North America:

Are you interested in learning more about Catholicism? Do you have friends or acquaintances who are questioning what Catholicism is all about? Do you have Catholic family members or friends who have fallen away from the Faith? Invite them to investigate the truth about Catholicism by joining the RCIA group here at St. ------’s. Our group meets once a week for the length of the school year, beginning in September. Practicing Catholics are encouraged to join as well – you are guaranteed to learn things about the Church you never knew! We have room for all ages groups, elementary school through older adult.
The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program is the process through which interested adults are gradually introduced to the Roman Catholic Church. Do you know anyone who wants to learn about the Catholic Faith? Or has it been so long since you have been trained in the Catholic Tradition that you would like a refresher course? Then please join us!

RCIA classes are Thursday evenings at 6 pm in the Parish Hall building. Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic Faith may attend. Call 000-000-0000 for more information.

We welcome anyone who is interested in joining the Catholic Church. If you have never been baptized before, or have been baptized but still are in need of other sacraments, or would just like to learn more about the Catholic faith, we offer a series of classes to assist in discerning if God is calling you into full communion in the One, True Church.
The RCIA classes meet on Sunday mornings at 9:00 AM. We attend Mass as a group and then proceed to the SCS school cafeteria for our formal lesson.
We have both an English Program and a Spanish Program.
We teach two ways:
By Topic – for example, Creed, Trinity, saints, Mary, moral law
By Sunday Liturgy of the Word – for example, we explain the Sunday Readings for the following Sunday in preparation for their attendance.
Our instructors are priests, deacons, religious, lay people with advanced degrees, and very experienced team members.
We meet only on Thursdays from the first week of September to three weeks after Easter.
The program is open to anyone – Catholics who want an update on Catholicism are welcomed.

Often used terms in these descriptions include:
update on Catholicism
refresher course
school year
series of classes

It would seem to me that in many Catholic parishes, the "RCIA" has morphed into something never intended by the Church. "RCIA Classes" is a term that is used to cover a multitude of educational opportunities, focused on teaching the dogmas and precepts of the Church. Now don't get me wrong. I am not anti-doctrine. I just think that these RCIA "programs" have simply missed the whole point. The unbaptized and baptized/uncatechized need doctrinal formation, no doubt. But when these classes become what the RCIA actually is in a parish, then I would argue that the parish simply is not doing the RCIA at all. You can definitely see this in those parishes that invite fully initiated Catholics to the "classes" so that they may update their faith through this "refresher course." How, pray tell, does this approach capture the originating vision, that the catechumenate is "a training period in the whole Christian life, and an apprenticeship duty drawn out, during which disciples are joined to Christ their Teacher."

There is a part of me that can slip into hopelessness with all of this.

Then I discover other parishes that describe their RCIA like this:

RCIA is a process, conducted in the context of learning about the Catholic faith and the spiritual life, through which a person is fully incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. People involved in the RCIA process are either catechumens (those who have never been baptized) or candidates (those who are baptized in a different faith tradition or baptized Catholics who have not received the Eucharist or been confirmed). It is a journey to see how gospel values and the truths of the faith may be lived out. Candidates and catechumens are mentored throughout the process by a team of catechists and sponsors.

Or like this:

Becoming Catholic - The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)
Welcome to our Faith community!
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the entry point for many into our faith community and goes back to the very beginning of the Church. In the first several centuries A.D., new believers entered into a type of apprenticeship for the length of at least a year. It is our hope that, much like those early apprentices, the RCIA process will let us grow as a community and be transformed by the person of Jesus Christ. Welcome to our Faith community!
Our lives are a journey to God until the day when we all join together in our eternal home and worship the Lord face-to-face. You are among friends. As we build community through our RCIA sessions, it becomes clear that we all have times of doubt, fear, and frustration. During RCIA, we come together to look at our lives in light of the Gospel so that we can embrace a fuller discipleship of our Lord, Jesus Christ. There are many reasons that people decide that they are interested in becoming a Catholic. It makes no difference if you have been raised in another denomination, have no church affiliation or experience or even if you were never baptized. You may have started out Catholic but never completed your initiation with the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation. RCIA is the process by which we welcome and prepare adults to enter the Catholic faith.

So, I live in hope of a slow and steady transformation from RCIA as classroom to RCIA as dynamic novitiate, a true apprenticeship.

Thanks for listening to my frustrations and hopes today!

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.



John Drake said...

So, is it just the descriptions that are better, more closely reflecting the wish of the Council Fathers, or is there actually something different taking place?

Nick Wagner said...

Hi Jerry. I share your frustration. Just yesterday I came across a site with a full syllabus of "RCIA classes," all taught by the pastor. The same day, I got an e-mail from a frustrated faith formation coordinator whose pastor baptized three children last weekend who had been in her RCIA process (just baptism). He did this without consulting with her. He did it because it was the "pastoral" thing to do.

But, as you point out, there are also signs of hope. I sense an increase in the number of parishes that have an ongoing initiation process (year-round), and those that don't yet have one know they "should." I find I myself needing to define "mystagogy" less often. "Evangelization" is no longer a scary word for Catholics.

My biggest hope these days is Pope Francis. When someone begins to tell me about the need to put someone through college-level theology so they will know their faith, I just start quoting the pope. I think he is the best motivator for true evangelization and initiation that we've had in a very long time.

Keep up the good fight Jerry. Your voice matters.


Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Thanks, John Drake, for your comment. One would hope that if the description is as carefully crafted as these are that the actual pastoral practice reflects that description. That said, who knows how long these descriptions stay static when a process may change?

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Thanks very much, Nick Wagner. I, too, see these signs of movement. I am constantly telling RCIA ministers to take deep breaths because we are only in the early, early infancy of this revival of the catechumenate!

WatchDog said...

Hi Jerry,
I have to share an experience I had last evening with one of our newer candidates in our RCIA process. Last week our parish hosted PORT, an effort in our city to house the homeless at various churches for one week. We have been doing this for several years and our RCIA group takes responsibility for providing the evening meal for one night. One of our candidates expressed to me that after working there that night, she could not stop thinking about the guests that she was able to serve and the way that they were served. It was a profound experience for her - something that she will never forget. It made me proud that our RCIA was able to offer this experience to her, so that she could see, first-hand, how our parish serves the people of God. This was a true apprenticeship experience and we need to be always looking for how we can offer more opportunities like this in our processes. Thanks for your example and leadership in this aspect of RCIA. Looking forward to seeing you at MAC.


Maureen Grisanti Larison said...

Jerry, I share your frustration! When I see and hear some of what passes for "RCIA" in parishes I want to weep (or scream). It saddens me to think that this rich treasure of the Church has been reduced to a series of lessons (as if there were an instruction manual on how to be a Catholic that one simply needs to read and memorize).

How can we so blithely toss aside the wisdom of the early Fathers of the Church who gave us eloquent and poetic examples of mystagogical catechesis? How can we minimize the radical call of Christ to transform our lives together within His Body? We do not seem to be paying much attention when we are willing to diminish the vibrant language of apprenticeship in the Rite and replace it with something that pales in comparison (and bears no resemblance to the original).

Yet, as you note, there are signs of hope (you are one of them!) and parishes where real faith is being nurtured. Like you, I want to believe that we are being attentive to the important things and that we are implementing the RCIA as it was intended. But to do so requires patience, courage, and a willingness to rely on the Holy Spirit more than on ourselves. Many things indicate that not enough of us are brave enough to trust God and trust the Rite. May God grant us the grace to do better!

Linda Licata said...

I also have been frustrated and have gritted my teeth at the info brought to me by a team member a few years ago. A neighboring parish had brochures in the pews that summer that assured "Be a Catholic by Easter" with info regarding "classes" beginning in September. We had to be prepared to answer the question posed to us by inquirers "Why should I come here when my friend tells me I can go to St. ---------- and be "done" at Easter?"
Yet Sunday after Sunday I see those initiated, some over a period of several years, who are still active and ministering in the community. They continue to inspire and challenge all of us to an ongoing conversion in faith.

Mike said...

I wonder about the breadth & depth of ministries/apostolates at parishes with a class-focus for RCIA. I bet there is a shortage of varieties of prayer groups, of sick-homebound-elderly engagement, & of community outreach. That's been my experience of different parishes.

Chuck Lorenz said...

This is an old argument, I know (old for a single lifespan), but words make a difference. There is nothing inspiring about the initials “RCIA” (in fact just the opposite); nothing in those four letters rings vaguely of anything sacramental; nothing in them hints at discipleship; nothing hints at personal change. I don’t go to an OCF; I go to someone’s funeral. I don’t go to an RM; I go to someone’s wedding. Think of how those web site descriptions would read if their authors were not allowed to use “RCIA” or the full words that “RCIA” stands for! How many words (which translate into reading time) are spent on explaining “RCIA”—even in the best examples in your post? Why does someone who is not baptized and who is feeling called to become a Christian need to be introduced to an initialism from the title of a liturgical document produced to guide the ministry of parish leadership? Parish leaders, ministry professionals, trainers, and academicians need to reference this document and need jargon to make life manageable and to speak quickly with precision. But why subject others to it? I understand that the word “catechumenate” only applies to those who are not baptized; but does a person baptized in another Christian tradition really need to know (from a bulletin notice or parish web site) how a Roman document classifies her? Or is she more interested in knowing what is required of her to become a full member of the community?

Maybe the call to conversion and discipleship would be more pervasive in a parish (a prerequisite for apprenticeship) if they weren’t seen as the domain of something reduced to four letters. The goal is not the sacraments of initiation; the goal is discipleship to the Lord Jesus. The sacraments are beneficial/necessary for full discipleship. Yet one can argue that the frequently needless public reference to a "behind-the-scenes" document has impeded this goal.

Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: This is not a well-thought out post, just shooting from the hip and speaking from my heart. I'm not solid in my convictions about the following, just speaking feelings:

I am new to RCIA, and trying to lead our small program. Learning the old way, and what's coming for the changes...feels like I'm in over my head.

But here's what I think: Someone comes, hungry and yearning to belong to this giant Mother Church...I wish we could baptize and confirm and offer Eucharist right when it's ASKED for... That our answer was : "Yes, come in, you're welcome, and you'll learn how things go as you come..." The catechizing comes after the initiating...I understand and know the rules for receiving Eucharist (got my fingers crossed with Pope Francis...)

I pessimistically think that us old guard Catholics want to keep out people. That we only want people who are already "like us."

Come in, you're welcome, share my meal (Eucharist).

Did our tradition develop to be more like Jewish initiation--make you work for it? Keep the group tight and safe?

This big beautiful faith of ours is big enough for everyone. Now that's scary.


Mary said...

Using advertisements to judge the type of programme offered is not really fair.

If a parish knows how to communicate to people, then it knows to put things in terms that they understand. People in general understand the idea of "classes" - but the idea of "process" confused them totally. So an advert which said "Join our process" simply would not reach people.

The process can easily enough be explained as a "series of classes with fieldwork" - but I would not be putting that little detail into advertising designed to draw initial enquiries!

Anonymous said...

Last year, I sponsored a colleague going through RCIA at Old Saint Pat's, a parish in Chicago. I found going through RCIA with my colleague to be an amazing experience, and I feel like I also benefited from this experience. The parish involved sponsors in all of the activities including the meetings each week which included dinner and did not feel like classes. One of the most powerful parts of the experience was the evening of Ash Wednesday, where letters from the candidates and sponsors about their journeys were read to to the smaller groups to which everyone was a part of. I really felt like this RCIA program was more than a class, and that it is a meaningful experience. Also, I have been happy with how many people are involved in the RCIA program every year at this parish.