Category Archives: RCIA

Thresholds of Conversion and RCIA

trust in god

This is a much-discussed topic at the moment. A lot of us are waking up to the fact that the ‘catechetical’ aspect of RCIA is the relatively ‘easy’ bit. We have some clear guidelines for catechesis (e.g. through wonderful organisations such as the Association for Catechumenal Ministry). It should be Christ-centred, scriptural, liturgical, systematic, kerygmatic. OK – so far, so good.

The difficult thing is the evangelisation bit.

One priest shared with me recently that when he moved to a parish, he implemented a thorough and solid doctrinal programme for the RCIA. And do you know what? The outcomes of this resulted in conversions seemingly no deeper than the previous, less thorough, less doctrinal programme had yielded. 

This is something we really need to take on board. Doctrinal catechesis does not necessarily lead to conversion.

I have been re-reading Forming Intentional Disciples on the thresholds of conversion (for a summary, see pp.129-130). Just to recap:

1. Trust: A positive experience, or friendship, which leads someone to have a relationship of trust with God or the Church

2. Curiosity: Someone is intrigued to know more – about Christ, or about some aspect of the faith

3. Spiritual openness: The person acknowledges to him- or herself that they are open to the possibility of personal change (this is not yet commitment to change)

4. Spiritual seeking: Moving into this threshold involves shifting into an active gear – an active search to know this God who is calling him or her begins.

5. Intentional discipleship: The decision to “drop one’s nets”, to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the Church

Sherry Weddell suggests that the fourth threshold (spiritual seeking – the first active stage) is the perfect time to enter the formal Catechumenate in RCIA. This makes sense to me. Only when one is actively seeking God is one open to receive catechesis, the handing on of Christ and the Faith of the Church in relation to him. This fits in well with some principles in the General Directory for Catechesis. There it speaks of the importance of the “activity” of the catechised (n.157) – catechesis reflects the pedagogy of God himself, which invites an active response. Unless someone is at the beginnings of a relationship with God, there is little hope of a response in the way that catechesis, by its nature, requires.

So, this leaves us with a big question… How can the evangelisation/enquiry period of RCIA usher a person from ‘curiosity’ (which presumably they have in order to come at all) through to ‘spiritual seeking’ before they celebrate the Rite of Acceptance?

This big question can be broken down into smaller ones, which I am pondering, and invite you to share your thoughts on, too!:

  • What length of time should generally be expected for this shift to take place? Is a standard enquiry period of 12 weeks long enough?
  • How soon do we discover which threshold a person may be at? Perhaps a conversation with a priest or experienced catechist or sponsor early on could help to establish this.
  • What precise goals can we create for enquiry to lead someone towards the beginnings of an active faith?
  • And what do we do when someone cannot manage to pass through the thresholds, but is eager to enter the Catechumenate?

Some biggies… but ones I think we should tackle! ;)


Quick Takes

Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast Abbey

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I cannot let another blog-post go past without mentioning the new School of the Annunciation. This is a wonderful initiative of the new evangelisation, much needed in this country. I am just going to quote their prayer, which is beautiful:

Mary, Mother of the New Evangelisation, as you prayed continuously with the Church at the beginning (Acts 1:14) be united with us now in prayer. Help us to return to the school of Nazareth and to echo your words in the hour of the Annunciation: “let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). Help us to rejoice in the wonder of the Incarnation and with you to treasure all these things and ponder them in our hearts (Lk 2:19). Obtain for us the courage to take our stand with you beside the Cross of your Son (Jn. 19:25) in the hour of Redemption. Guide us as we set out along all the ways of the earth to bring to our brothers and sisters the light of faith, hope and charity (Lk. 1: 39). All to the praise and adoration of the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit both now and for ever. Amen.

~ 2 ~

Pancake_and_crumpet

By now, the last of the pancakes have been polished off, and Lent has truly begun. I somehow feel grateful for Lent this year. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman,

Let not the year go round and round, without a break and interruption in its circle of pleasures.

This is the time when we refuse to accept “bread” from the devil in our wilderness, but rather, learn the words of Christ to the woman at the well: “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (John 4:32).

I read recently that the virtue of temperance (which is a virtue for all year round, not just Lent) is a memory of the taste of God – meaning we do not need to lose ourselves in other things, but know simply that God alone is enough.

~ 3 ~

This Lent, our Bishop is offering a weekly online catechesis on the Gospels of Lent. The first one, on Jesus’ temptations in the desert, is here. There are also questions for reflection to accompany each video.

~ 4 ~

Crossofashes

Now is also the time of ‘Purification and Enlightenment’ in the RCIA process, when catechumens and candidates prepare for their Baptism or reception into the Church. If we are catechising or sponsoring someone this Lent, let’s offer our prayer and penance for them. How can we help them live a good Lent? Here are some ideas…

  • Do everything we can to help them prepare for a good Confession (more here) – not only is good catechesis on the sacrament vital, but also practical help – a thorough examination of conscience, talking through the steps, ensuring everything is prepared for the day of the first Confession, arranging somehow to celebrate it afterwards
  • Invite them to make a Holy Hour with you
  • Talk about choosing good spiritual reading for Lent and perhaps buy them a book… Anything by Jacques Philippe is good, e.g. Interior Freedom
  • Offer an extra mortification or penance for them each week
  • ACM offers a wonderful ‘home retreat’ for sponsors – see the Sponsors’ Handbook. Do this for yourself, and offer it for your catechumen / candidate
  • Chat about the Triduum – including all the signs, symbols, meanings – as often as you can. Get them excited…!

Happy Lent, everyone!


Marriage, RCIA, Evangelisation

Marriage___Illustration_by_Sabtastic

There can seem to be a harsh, difficult-to-bridge chasm, sometimes, between the beautiful standard of life in Christ, and the messiness of the lived reality of many (well, if we’re honest, every single one of us). When I used to coordinate RCIA in my old parish, I realised why young adult ministry was SO vitally important: how important it is to evangelise young adults before they get involved in messy marriages that could cause them massive problems if they convert later down the line…

People arrive at RCIA with countless different attitudes. They often approach the Church tentatively, wondering if there is something here for them, some new life, new relationship that could give their life meaning. Their enthusiasm may increase during the precatechumenate. Perhaps they arrive already enthusiastic, happy to be part of a strong community, and wanting to understand what’s at the root of all this.

But, then, BAM! Your heart sinks as you look on their form and see that either they or their partner has ticked the, ‘This is not my first marriage’ box. What an innocent-looking box. Little do most people know what it means when they tick it.

The first thing is – at least there’s a form with this particular box on it. We had an extremely thorough form that people completed after a couple of enquiry (precatechumenate) sessions. I’ve heard of some cases where these questions are not even asked. It’s vital we uncover any problems early on (no – not when they’re being signed up for the Rite of Election).

I think it’s good practice that someone should not leave the precatechumenate if they are in an ‘irregular marriage’ which, as someone commented to me recently, is often a euphemism for no marriage at all. After all, if they are unable to be received into the communion of the Church because of their marital status, we are deceiving them by allowing them to become a catechumen (through the Rite of Acceptance) or a candidate (through the Rite of Welcoming).

As I write this, it all seems unbearably hard, doesn’t it? Someone whose faith is only just beginning to awaken or grow, suddenly has an enormous obstacle in their path, an obstacle that their faith is probably not strong enough yet to take on. It seems much, much easier, doesn’t it, just to let them continue, not mention anything, and hope that something will happen to make it go away. Which of course it won’t.

I had some experiences of this during the time I coordinated RCIA. Wonderful people who had either been married before, or whose partners had been. I can tell you, that when a situation seems impossible and desperate – when it seems a person cannot enter the Church because of their marital situation even though they dearly desire to – this is when the Holy Spirit can amaze us and work miracles, slowly, patiently, in hearts. It can, and often does, take years. But with grace, love, patience, sacrifice, often situations can be turned around. This seems light-years away when we first broach the issue with someone. It can feel like their whole world has just smashed into an ‘other-worldly’ reality. They have just dipped their toes into it, and yet already it is presenting them with granite-tough obstacles.

It is massively difficult, maybe one of the most difficult pastoral problems you can face in a parish. In the face of it, only grace and prayer can break through. Faith that the enquirer will not have yet, so we need to provide that for them, through friendship and persistence in keeping in touch when they drop off for a time.

There is so much to discuss on this topic – and it’s particularly relevant given the Extraordinary Synod later this year. Ultimately, the messiness of the world we live in requires of us immensely strong faith. It seems to me, we need continually to face up to two things – the chaotic messiness of the world, and the incomparable beauty of life offered in Christ – and realise that a lot of faith, prayer, work and sacrifice needs to take place in order to cross from one into the other.


In Praise of RCIA

Courtesy of Johnragai

Courtesy of Johnragai

I’m noticing something really interesting in comments surrounding RCIA (on this blog and in other conversations). What I’m noticing is a big gap between the American and the British perspective. I’ll try to summarise this general trend (and be warned – ‘I’m-going-to-be-blunt’ alert – this is generalised):

In the UK, on the whole, I think we’ve had a bad experience of RCIA over the last few decades. Many faithful Catholics in this country rename it ‘Roman Catholics In Agony’ and associate it with watery doctrine, lectionary-based “catechesis”, faith-sharing therapy-style sessions, and lots of para-liturgical actions that don’t mean too much to the participants (or – probably – to God) and make you want to squirm.

OK. I hate all of this just as much as the next person. If it results in people giving up (I know some people who have attempted RCIA three times and more), we have a LOT to answer for. If we are obstacles to people coming to Christ and His Church, let’s please stop ‘being catechists’.

However – I firmly believe that RCIA – faithfully, sensitively, attractively done – has been handed to us by the Church as the best way of people converting to Christ – not just a notional conversion, but a full – whole life – conversion.

I come across many who’ve despaired of RCIA who advocate the ‘one-to-one with a priest’ approach. One-to-ones with a priest are excellent – and should be part of RCIA – but alone, I don’t think it’s enough. Like it or not, we are becoming part of the Church (aka a community which is pretty messy), not a private members’ club. Doctrinal formation on its own is not enough. Spiritual formation is also needed (retreats, evenings of recollection); liturgical formation is vital (the rites along the way of the RCIA are outstanding tools of conversion if done well); and pastoral formation (practical help in changing aspects of our lifestyle – often through the help of a parish-given sponsor) is also indispensable.

When I speak about these other aspects of conversion – spiritual, liturgical, pastoral – I am not referring to twigs, tea-lights, hand-holding or ‘Here I Am Lord’. I am talking about a real, radical conversion of life to Christ.

I am aware I come from a privileged perspective of having seen all this being done well. I have seen with my own eyes some profoundly deep conversions that happened only because the people involved stayed in RCIA for a long time (almost always over a year). Not one week of that time was wasted. There was constant, nourishing, deepening catechesis; regular meetings with sponsors and with the priest; opportunities to serve and become involved in parish life. Sometimes they waited longer (we asked them to, and they almost always agreed they needed longer). We also ensured their formation continued after the mystagogia – many plugged into new movements; one group formed a book club; I can’t think of one person who went through RCIA who no longer attends Mass every week.

On the American side of the pond (in my experience), all of the above seems pretty natural. There isn’t the same reaction against RCIA because many parishes have thriving catechumenates.

If you are at a loss to know where to begin – I strongly recommend purchasing the materials from the Association for Catechumenal Ministry – by far, the very best out there. Evangelium is good for a doctrinal approach, but ACM offers the whole package. Whenever I present this approach to seminarians they are amazed – they have rarely come across this before.

This, then, is a plea to the British readers who are still suspicious of RCIA (maybe because of a traumatic experience involving a middle-aged woman taking your hand and asking you to share your woundedness – haha). When it’s done faithfully, RCIA is the best way. One-to-one doctrinal sessions with a priest cannot achieve the same outcome, because the priest is not the whole Church. And doctrine is not the whole Faith.


The Enquiry Phase

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

We had an interesting exchange here about the point of the enquiry period of the RCIA. I know of few parishes who even do this, and I feel it is one of the most important parts to get right in RCIA.

I’ve been at RCIA sessions before that are sound and rich in doctrine, and yet because of a lack of affective, spiritual conversion within the participants, little impact is made. It’s like a puddle of water sitting on the surface of the earth without sinking in.

So, I thought it would be good to revisit the principles of this phase – which I believe should be part of a good Confirmation programme, too.

The RCIA tells us that, before they are ready to celebrate the Rite of Acceptance, “the beginnings of the spiritual life and the fundamentals of Christian teaching have taken root in the candidates” (RCIA, 42). What is meant by “beginnings of the spiritual life”? The rest of the paragraph gives more information: there “must be evidence of the first faith” and there “must also be evidence of the first stirrings of repentance”.

In other words, there must be an initial adherence to Jesus Christ, the beginnings of a relationship with Him, the initial desire to give our life over to Him.

“First faith” is someone’s spiritual awakening, the realisation that “Jesus is Lord.” This simultaneously causes the “first stirrings of repentance”. Part of the process of adhering to Jesus, is seeing our life in His light, and repenting of our sin.

In my understanding, I think this corresponds somewhere between the third threshold (openness) and fourth threshold (seeking) in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (see one of my posts on this great book here). It is the bridge between passive curiosity and active seeking. We encounter Christ, begin to ‘fall for Him’, and want to take things further. As one RCIA leader put it, the enquiry phase is the “dating” phase.

Everything in the enquiry phase, therefore, is introducing someone to Jesus, inviting them to “taste and see” his goodness, to lead them to an encounter with him. And to remove any obstacles that may be in the way of this encounter.

As RCIA 37 puts it -

“From evangelisation, completed with the help of God, come the faith and initial conversion that cause a person to feel called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God’s love. The whole period of the precatechumenate is set aside for this evangelisation, so that the genuine will to follow Christ and seek Baptism may mature”

My experience in the parish was that, once we established an enquiry phase and gave people time for this to happen, the fruits of the Catechumenate were far, far greater. It was like the earth was turned over and the water could sink in.

2013-04-20 17.06.18

In contrast, what do we typically see in parishes? (Here I’m thinking of parishes with a doctrinally solid RCIA.) I think sometimes we see adults receiving catechesis that is too advanced, too soon. They listen to a wonderfully rich exposition of the “four marks of the Church”. But, without a growing relationship with Christ, do they know what this means for their life? Or is it like water sitting on hard earth which will soon float away? All doctrine needs to nourish spiritual life. If the interior life is not yet there, teaching doctrine (unless in a deeply evangelistic way) will have little effect.

So, what do we need to do in the enquiry phase? In our precatechumenate, we started with some simple sessions: ‘What is faith? Why do we need it?'; ‘What is the purpose of my life?'; ‘How can we know God?'; ‘Why did God create?’ We focussed on getting to know people, building community (the first threshold is establishing trust), answering apologetics issues that arose (the child abuse scandal; the problem of evil), helping people to establish a prayer life (bringing them every week – even the first week – for a short time of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament). We can ask catechists or guest parishioners to share their testimony. We can read through one of the Gospels together. We need to try and stay utterly focussed on Christ.

Once again, I think Pope Francis’s words in Brazil speak powerfully to this phase of the RCIA:

We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church also has to learn how to wait.

Only the beauty of God can attract. God’s way is through enticement, allure. God lets himself be brought home. He awakens in us a desire to keep him and his life in our homes, in our hearts. He reawakens in us a desire to call our neighbours in order to make known his beauty.


One Stop RCIA

4th Century Baptismal Font, courtesy of Vangelis Valtos

4th Century Baptismal Font, courtesy of Vangelis Valtos

Over the two years (yes, two years!) I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written a number of posts on the RCIA. I still think this is one of the processes in the Church that is barely understood in many, many parishes. ACM resources are fantastic in emphasising that RCIA is not just a doctrinal process, but also a liturgical and pastoral one. I think they are the best resources we have to help priests and catechists create a life-transforming RCIA process in the parish. However, you need a huge amount of patience and dedication to read and understand the principles and methodology behind them, and I think you need more than this, too: great RCIA leaders will have a round-the-clock passion for helping souls convert to Christ.

In the three and a half years I worked in the parish coordinating RCIA, I was blessed with the opportunity and support to get to grips with a true vision for RCIA. We already had an excellent doctrinal process. But our vision was to create a process that had liturgical gateways marking stages of conversion; that had pastoral flexibility in allowing people the time they needed in each phase; that had a large team of committed sponsors dedicated to help the conversion process.

Here, I have pulled together in one post all the posts on RCIA I wrote over that time. They may be helpful either practically, for those trying to implement a true vision of RCIA in their parish, or theoretically, to help you grasp the vision.

A couple of disclaimers: Firstly, not all the posts are systematic; some are reflections which may not be exhaustive, but hopefully give some ideas. Secondly, they are not chronological. Sometimes I have written about the period of enquiry with one particular group of people, but what I have written for a later period (e.g. the Rite of Election) is with another group. Probably about five different groups of people passed through this process (which shows you need different starting points through the year).

What I hope you get from these few posts is that RCIA is messy! We can make very nice, neat structures (and it’s important what we do is ordered towards an end and is systematic) but at the end of the day, people are messy and RCIA needs to be flexible. Isn’t that what Pope Francis said recently?! “Make a mess!”

  1. An overview of the structure of RCIA
  2. Top Ten RCIA Traps!
  3. From the very first moment: Meeting the enquirer the first time they make contact
  4. Enquiry sessions – a year-round period of evangelisation
  5. Proclaiming the Kerygma
  6. Motives for Conversion
  7. The pastoral role of the Sponsor 
  8. Starting out…
  9. Liturgical Steps and Discernment Interviews: Rite of Acceptance
  10. Slow Evangelisation…
  11. Catechesis of the Catechumenate
  12. Telling the whole Story
  13. Catechumenate and Natural Family Planning
  14. Life in Christ: One and Two
  15. Contraception, Cohabitation, and the Catechumenate
  16. The Challenge of Conversion
  17. The Rite of Election: “I have chosen you”
  18. Period of Purification and Enlightenment: Preparing Candidates
  19. Preparing Adults for Confession
  20. The Triduum
  21. Period of Mystagogia
  22. Easter Catechesis

Preparing candidates to be received into the Church

Meeting Christ's mercy in Confession

Helping people discover the mercy of Christ

A couple of weekends ago, it was a joy to join my old parish’s candidates and catechumens on their weekend retreat. Once again, we went to Ampleforth Abbey – it is really the perfect setting for such a retreat. I have said this a million times and I will never tire of saying it – what a great joy and privilege to accompany people as they prepare to enter fully into Christ and his Body, the Church. We had a weekend of teaching from Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, Fr Sebastian (who I’ve mentioned here) on the Mass and the lay vocation. Saturday afternoon was dedicated to First Confessions. After a thorough preparation, Fr Sebastian spent several hours hearing each candidate’s First Confession. There was not one candidate for whom this experience was not deeply moving. The joy and exhilaration in our group afterwards was palpable. At breakfast on Sunday morning, the laughter was contagious. This was a group we had felt never particularly ‘bonded’ – perhaps this was true on a natural level, but on a supernatural level, there was real communion. People who had previously been quiet and reserved came out of their shells. It was beautiful to see. What Confession can do!

So…on this topic, allow me to make three points:

1. Don’t become one of the (disturbingly numerous) parishes whose candidates do not go to Confession before being received – If we experience in our own lives the transformative and life-giving power of this sacrament of conversion, why fail to introduce it to those who are precisely in the most fundamental process of conversion?

2. Don’t downplay or minimise this sacrament in an effort to make it ‘easier’ or seem less intimidating – I’ve heard of people being told they don’t need to confess every sin. How very sad. This means that we’re allowing a person both to make an invalid Confession and to not experience the full impact of Jesus’ love and mercy which we receive when we empty our hearts fully of everything

3. We must be lovers of Confession and frequent this sacrament ourselves – As a catechist, how can I convey the love and mercy of Jesus in Confession unless I receive it regularly, frequently? I would suggest that as catechists, desiring to be the best witnesses of Christ that we can be, we should go at the very least once a month, if not fortnightly or weekly. Christ strongly desires for us to allow his love and power to work through us – so let’s keep getting rid of everything that stops it.

One woman, on the weekend, said that she couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t be at Confession every single week, it sounded so wonderful to her! This is the kind of response to Confession that the Holy Spirit can stir in a person’s heart… if we witness to it well.


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