I haven’t heard of many parishes which have a “precatechumenate”, which is the first stage of the RCIA process as given to us by the Church. Over the past few months we have been running two parallel RCIA groups – one Catechumenate in which the people were being prepared to be received at Easter, and the other Precatechumenate, where people are still at the exploratory stage. It seems to me that, if you have enough catechists, this is a very important distinction to make, since it recognises that people are at different stages on the journey – that people don’t all grow in faith at the same rate.
What is the advantage of the precatechumenate? This should be a period for evangelisation – appeal to the heart, the beginning of the person’s affective conversion – but also a time for apologetics – responding to the initial questions with which people come to the Church, and removing initial stumbling-blocks of misconceptions that can be easily resolved. It is a time for them to reflect on their own journey that God is leading them on, and also to hear the stories and testimonies of others.
In our parish, we have developed a 12-session precatechumenate based on a DVD series on the Creed. The 12 sessions involve an initial proclamation of the Faith, which builds community and friendship, and introduces people to prayer. It is also a time during which, if they are keen and committed, they are matched with sponsor and get to know them. We are also including testimonies and Q&A with the new Catholics received at Easter, and the film, The Human Experience. It is good to be flexible and respond to the needs of the participants – the more rigorous and systematic content comes in the Catechumenate.
Although it might seem a lot of extra work and a complete mentality shift, I have really seen the benefits of the precatechumenate. Last year we did it in the parish for the first time. Over the weeks, a sense of community developed between the enquirers, and we saw how from week to week they seemed to be setting out on a personal relationship with Jesus. By the time September came and they were invited to the Rite of Acceptance (the first Rite of the RCIA where enquirers ask to be prepared for Baptism/reception into the Church), they were able to wholeheartedly take the step of saying they desired to belong to the Church. It made the work of the Catechumenate so much more fruitful in contrast with how many Catechumenates start cold – without this initial preparation taking place.
Sometimes, it can be hard. Especially if you have a small Precatechumenate. Or if it takes a while for people to get into it and become committed to the sessions. But who said catechesis is easy?! The other side of the coin is that life is chaotic and people’s lives are messy, and you have to take them as they come, adapting as much as you can to their needs. But I really believe the Lord rewards us when we’re faithful to the initiation process given by the Church – to the RCIA as it really should be, and not some shortcut which, as I heard one person describe it, can be more like Roman Catholics In Agony…