Top Ten RCIA Traps

The Association of Catechumenal Miinistry is the best for RCIA - click on the image

Recently a number of conversations with different people have highlighted for me that in many parish RCIA processes there are still some fairly dismal practices going on. RCIA, in my view, is one of the most important works of the Church – it is crucial in determining the depth of a person’s conversion, and whether they continue to practise after their classes finish. 

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am aware that RCIA catechesis can be difficult work and that most catechists are volunteers or overstretched priests. I think that sometimes, though, there is little investment made into training RCIA catechists (Maryvale Institute runs an excellent one-year RCIA training certificate) so that they are even aware of the liturgical, catechetical and pastoral principles of the RCIA. 

So, with this in mind, here is a list of the Top Ten Traps that some RCIAs – wittingly or unwittingly – seem to fall into: 

Conversion takes time

1. A nine-month journey, one-size-fits-all, to the sacraments of initiation
You know how it goes – someone rocks up at a class in October and by May they’re a fully-fledged Catholic. But are they? It is rare that a person’s full conversion process – which involves mind, heart, will, entire life – can take place in such a short space of time. Give God chance! Each person has an individual story and needs an RCIA process which meets their needs.

2. Lack of faithfulness to Church teaching
In my naivety I thought this had mostly died out in our Church today – until I was speaking recently to someone who is a catechist in an RCIA process where the catechumens are told they don’t need to worry about going to Confession… Uh-oh. Let’s not create even more Catholics in the image of those who don’t practise. We are seriously short-changing people by not telling them the truth they are hungry for.

3. Emphasis on experience over doctrine
This is another model of catechesis I thought had died out… but little did I know, it is apparently still alive and kicking. The “Twigs and Tealights” approach: The starting point is to ask people what a Scripture passage means to them before they have received any teaching. I presume people come to RCIA for answers – they already know what they think! A girl I met for catechesis last week summed it up when she said that the doctrine she was learning was “satisfying” – it nourishes the mind with truth.

4. No reference to experience – failure to help catechumens apply doctrine to life
This is at the opposite end of the spectrum: The doctrine presented is very orthodox… but completely dry. Catechumens are left wondering what on earth this has to do with their everyday life. They can explain to you perfectly what the hypostatic union is, but they have not been helped to see how doctrine impacts their daily life. We need to model the principle of “unity of life”: what we believe and how we live are intricately connected.

Disgruntled Catholics do not help the Catechumenate

5. Opening the doors of RCIA to Catholics who want answers to their questions
We’ve all been there: Mrs. Why-Can’t-Women-Be-Priests shows up at RCIA because it’s been presented to the parish as open to everyone – a “journey in faith” together. Catholics with gripes about their faith really do much more harm than good to the fragile faith of those in the early stages of conversion. This problem points to a much greater need – adult Catholics need ongoing formation which sadly, in most places, they are not getting. The answer is not to lump them in with the catechumens: these are two groups of people with different “statuses” within the Church and with very different needs. 

6. No period of evangelisation (or precatechumenate)
An easy trap to fall into. Curious enquirers come in off the street slap bang into the middle of a heady presentation on “The Proofs for the Existence of God” – the standard first class of the RCIA. Are they likely to want to come back? Probably not. There’s a need to be sensitive to the beginnings of faith – which tend to be delicate and shaky. The first step of the RCIA must be a gentle and inviting enquiry period. Apologetics should be up front and centre: Answer the immediate questions that people have to remove their stumbling blocks. Evangelise through a welcoming experience of community; an initial and attractive proclamation of the Faith; an introduction to the life of prayer. A thorough and systematic catechesis comes later when faith is stronger and the mind needs to be nourished. 

7. No celebration of the liturgical rites throughout the process
It can easily be forgotten that RCIA is a liturgical process: R stands for Rite. It is the Liturgy that initiates us into God’s life, and catechesis always leads to the Liturgy. The Church has instituted Rites along the way of the RCIA process to give grace that is needed to aid conversion, to strengthen faith. This allows the process truly to be God’s process of drawing people to himself – not something we do through our nine-month programme. 

8. Overlooking irregular marriages / living arrangements
This is a tricky one – it’s a difficult moment when you look through someone’s initial enquiry form and realise that there’s likely to be a problem: maybe they have been married previously or maybe their partner has. These delicate issues need to be tackled with great pastoral sensitivity and support – before the Rite of Acceptance (that is, before they begin their Catechumenate). The role of the sponsor here is vital to ensure that the person is encouraged to persevere. A less serious, but still crucial problem to be faced, is cohabitation. Again, we are not doing people any favours in failing to speak the truth to them in love. Sponsors again are key here – someone who has a good, trusting relationship with the person concerned – and can speak openly and honestly about their situation. Another common moral situation to be faced is contraception. We need courage, sensitivity and wisdom to tackle these problems (not immediately, but gradually) – and tackle them we must, to be faithful to God.

9. Little or no discernment about whether a person is ready for the sacraments of initiation
Perhaps someone’s attendance hasn’t been strong, perhaps they are still not attending Mass every Sunday, perhaps we have a sense they just haven’t quite “got” it. It is recommended that the parish priest meet with the catechumens and candidates for a “discernment interview” before the Rite of Acceptance, and then again before the Rite of Election. The work of discernment needs to be taken seriously: otherwise, we are simply perpetuating the problem of being a Church of lapsed Catholics. The sponsor and the main catechist can offer their view as to whether the person is ready, but at the end of the day, the final decision lies with the priest.

10. Lectionary-based catechesis
Again – I didn’t know this still happened, but apparently, it does…! Catechesis that is based on the Sunday Gospel each week may be Scriptural, but it is not systematic. Systematic means that one doctrine builds upon another – there is an organic connection between all doctrines – with Christ at the centre. There is no guarantee that, if you base your catechesis on the lectionary, your catechumens will have any idea of the teaching on the Holy Spirit, for example, or how this links to the Church. Probably they will be of the impression that Christianity is a moralistic code about being good and nice to people… because, sadly, this is what people seem to take away from the Gospels without deeper teaching. 

The beginning of a new life

A final note – every time I am at our Catechumenate either teaching or just being there, I feel time and again how inadequate my knowledge is, how weak my faith is – every week, it makes me pray to the Lord to make me a better catechist and a better Christian. The truth is, we will always be inadequate to the enormous task that is before us. Only the Holy Spirit is up to this task. As well as taking the steps to form our RCIA process more in the mind of the Church, the greatest need is to increasingly surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit – who is the One Converter of hearts and minds.

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About transformedinchrist

I live in Southsea and work for the Diocese of Portsmouth. My first love is for catechesis and evangelisation: until January 2013, I worked for a busy, thriving parish in south London coordinating the catechesis - sacramental programmes and adult formation. In November 2013, I completed my MA in catechetics at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham. View all posts by transformedinchrist

4 responses to “Top Ten RCIA Traps

  • James Findlayson

    This is a brilliant list of ‘gotchas’! Thank you!

    But how do we discern the course structure itself, and who’s ready?

    For example, from my perspective, it seems as if most people are received into the Church when they shouldn’t have left the pre-catechumenate even!

    That is, they come into the Church still with the same ‘issues’ because ‘the course’ is merely the imparting of facts within a fixed timeline (your point 1), leaving them, at best, with a ‘Heap of Catholicism’, as Frank Sheed called it.

    Everything seems to be dictated by RCIA ‘Gantt charts’, and so RCIA starts on such-and-such a date, then process A, x months long, B, y months long… then you’re ‘done’, and nobody’s ever told to wait or refused.

    In most cases, I’d judge an extended pre-catechumenate is required before RCIA can even be considered, and surely it’s duration will be different for each candidate and ‘where they’re at’? How do we cater for that without appearing a killjoy holding some people back, especially as everything ought to revolve around a (fixed) Easter Vigil?

    My other concern, which is related, is that most candidates I’ve been involved with seem to have had some ulterior motive: having their marriage regularised to salve their conscience or ‘to prevent them going to hell’ (by obedience to the law, repentance excepted) – or most of them – to get their kid into the local Catholic school that’s oversubscribed.

    In short, their whole motivation seems to be some temporal end, and no visible interest in deepening any relationship with God. One seems to sense that they’re not engaged, but just want to get through the hoops to achieve what they want. That is, the ones in disordered relationships turn many discussions to morality, marriage, and sex, and want us to act as amateur Canon Lawyers: casuists rather than catechists.

    Also, in most cases of teens coming to Confirmation classes, it seems more like the parents fear that if their little Kyle isn’t ‘done’, he’ll go to hell, than any desire for God and sacramental anointing of the Holy Spirit. But ‘little Kyle’ really doesn’t want to be there, knows less about Jesus than he does Mohamed or Shiva, and really doesn’t care either (or he’s told it’s about him ‘confirming’ his commitment, like a Catholic equivalent of the Protestant ‘altar call’). He zones out, learns nothing, yet is still confirmed (especially if his parents ‘attend’ Mass as, “If his [clueless] parents are upset, they might stop giving to the Church or leave altogether”).

    However much we use this as an opportunity to evangelise, after they’ve got their annulment; kid in school; or been confirmed, you never see them again.

    I’m at a loss, and fluctuate between the hope I feel from this blog, and despair in the face of the reality of RCIA because, when I bring the issue of discernment of readiness up, people say, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’, or ‘God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’ (our priest’s favourite to permit every request for the Sacraments of Initiation, as if Cowper’s words were dogma).

    Despite striving for excellence and discernment, through prayer, do we (A) follow Chesterton’s dictum – ‘If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’ – and let them in, through an act of ‘pastoral pragmatism’, (B) take a stand like the wonderful Michael Voris, or (C) somewhere in between?

    If (C), how?

    Of course, the other thought is that I might simply be a rubbish catechist in not being able to help them ‘convert’ their temporal ones to more heavenly ones…

    Any comments, or tips, greatly received!

    • transformedinchrist

      Woah! There is so much to reply to here!
      Thank you though for your comment. I think what you’ve written really expresses the frustration felt by many parish catechists.

      We really cannot lose hope though. The Church has seen much darker days and has catechised in much more difficult circumstances. Through faith and prayer, I really believe God can do anything he wishes through us.

      One of the topics you are addressing is the question of discernment: “nobody’s ever told to wait or refused”. It seems mad really: in all other areas of life we have to reach a certain ‘standard’ before being admitted to something – e.g. driving or professional qualifications or even British citizenship. I know there is a fear of losing people. But discernment and a process which is flexible for each person is simply a recognition that people develop at different paces; they have very different backgrounds (some may have no Christian knowledge at all); they may have situations which crop up in their life (e.g. losing a job, or moving house) which mean they need some extra time. All kinds of thing rise to the surface in RCIA: people may face opposition from family and friends; they may struggle to repair or forgive a difficult relationship; they may rebel against applying the Church’s moral teaching to their life. We had one young woman who, during the teaching on God the Father, discovered she had many unresolved issues she needed to face with her own father. All this takes time. But we need to persevere with them. This weekend I was on retreat where the priest said that priests are “professionals who put things right – that’s what we do”. I thought that was a great way of putting it – a priest puts things right, straightens things out between man and God. As friends to the people concerned, our job is first of all prayer, then encouragement, support, gently challenging them.

      I think you’re right when you say that many people get received who should still be in the precatechumenate. The guidelines given in the Association for Catechumenal Ministry materials (and I think the RCIA itself) suggest that the initial conversion to Christ is to become firm, before moving into the Catechumenate. The guidelines they give for a discernment interview (which our parish priests does with the candidates before the Rite of Acceptance) ask questions about their prayer life (how do they pray?); how they have grown closer to Christ; how they are becoming part of the Church community. The RCIA states (43):

      Before the rite [of Acceptance] is celebrated… sufficient and necessary time… should be set aside to evaluate and, if necessary, purify the candidates’ motives and dispositions. With the help of the sponsors, catechists and deacons, pastors have the responsibility for judging the outward indications of such dispositions.”

      Pretty clear if you ask me!

      The ACM materials are a fantastic guide for implementing RCIA in the parish which is in line with the Church’s vision. It might take several years to build it up, but I believe every parish must – if you want deep, lasting conversions.

      So much more to say James – enough for a few posts 🙂

  • Marc

    I have read, and re-read the article and the comments. It seems to me we wring our hands and worry needlessly. I have worked in the Catholic church for over 20 years with adults professing a desire to join the Catholic church. With RCIA, and long before RCIA was brought into the Diocese.
    While we could scrutinize more closely, and accurately, in the end a person’s testimony is all we have to work with. We all want the best RCIA process & experience possible.

    We must judge them, we cannot exclude them and we certainly must not ‘bait and switch’. Does RCIA have any quarantees? Not for the person seeking, nor for the person or staff driving the process. It is not fool-proof, it is not some ‘goal’ to achieve of high graduation rates. We ought to remember the wisdom of ‘freely received – freely given’. And, should we find that this person or that person really is not a good candidate and ask them to wait, or not proceed, let’ try very hard for the candidate to realize this on their own. I know there are some very real impediments that might need to be addressed in some cases. But we should not discourage anyone, We are, after all, a church full of sinners.

    Let’s remember scripture here : Acts 10:34-35.

    May God Bless all of you as you strive to serve Christ and the Church.

  • Marc

    sorry ….type…we must NOT judge them.

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