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: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.
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.
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.