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.

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

7 responses to “In Praise of RCIA

  • Asla

    Hi Hannah, that’s again a great post. As a former catecumenate, I can say that the One to One with the priest is great but I found meeting mine a bit impressive and scary because you meet him only once and at the end of your formation. He’s the one who’s going to say if you are ready or not. I was really stressed before meeting him. So I think the solution would be to involve him to the RCIA courses so we get to know him. Here in my parish in Hull, 90% of the time, the priest attend the RCIA without being heavily involve which makes the people at ease with the priest. And it builds at the same time a relation of trust and confidence.
    Also, I love the idea of the retreat because this is where we come closer to Jesus. It should be compulsory for all RCIA.
    Finally, having followed 3 different RCIA courses (in Paris, Balham and Hull), I can say that the one in Balham is of higher quality and the 2 others will need a drastic change to equal the formation given in this parish, not because they are not good, but because they lack a solid programme to draw the the catecumenates closer to God.

  • Marc Cardaronella

    Very well said! I’m shocked that RCIA could be so different “across the pond” but at the same time I’m not shocked. It is awful that RCIA would be the cause of people abandoning joining the Church. There are places in the U.S. that offer the same touchy-feely “catechesis”, and I see discussions in forums all the time about horrible RCIA experiences similar to what you describe. The experience of so many is that RCIA is something you just have to get through in order to join the Church…grin and bear it. How sad! It should be a wonderful, life-changing experience that brings you closer to the Lord and makes you joyful to be joined to Christ through his Church.

    I agree that the structure of RCIA is sound and the right way to bring people into the Church. And, one further, that ACM has the best materials to teach how to do it right. You know, the ACM approach is comes out of the Rites but you probably won’t figure out how to approach it that way simply by reading them. This approach comes out of Barbara Morgan’s interpretation of the Rites, if you will, along with her vast knowledge and understanding of the catechetical documents. The Rites manual is sufficiently vague enough to allow terrible missteps. Only by understanding everything else the Church says about catechesis can you put it together with the balanced approach ACM delivers.

  • Stacey

    This is a really interesting post, with lots to reflect back on my experience of RCIA in 2004/05. We did have a priest present at some of the meetings, but no opportunity for a one-to-one discussion. Looking back, I really was not ready – the preparation was very thorough, but tended to be more on an academic or theological level. There was no opportunity to explore what living faith would mean in everyday life, and some of the radical choices that you face everyday in living as a Christian – especially in a society that is predominantly secular. The period after the Easter vigil was difficult. There was no follow-up from my sponsor or from anyone at the parish, e.g. the pastoral assistant. It was really difficult to get actively involved in parish life. Despite these limitations, there was enough in the RCIA programme (especially the good intentions of those who gave their time to run it and the discipline of getting through the programme) to lay the foundations and to start the journey. In my experience, the transformation and conversion only really started to bear fruit a couple of years after my baptism, and by the grace of God, through friendships and experiences along the way,is still ongoing today.

    I really enjoy reading your blog, as it’s really inspiring to know that there are people who are passionate about bringing people to a full understanding of their faith. Thank you!

    • transformedinchrist

      Wow – Stacey, thank you for sharing your experience. This honest reflection on your experience of RCIA is so useful. I don’t think we can underestimate the role of the sponsor and the parish to continue reaching out to new Catholics in the months and years after they’re received into the Church. You have hit the nail on the head here in so many ways. Thank you for your comment, and hope you come back!

  • Miss Alexandrina

    Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina.

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