Category Archives: Catechist Training

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! 😉


‘One Message’ Formation

Courtesy of Youth 2000

Courtesy of Youth 2000

Tomorrow I am going to a parish to lead a formation session with some Confirmation catechists. I think few of them have been catechists before, and probably even fewer (if any) have any kind of formation at all.

So, given our time together will be short, I figured I need to get into a nutshell the basic message about what catechesis is and who we as catechists are.

I am going to use this Scripture passage (this is my ‘go-to’ passage when I have to explain simply and easily what catechesis is about):

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Catechesis is above all about being a witness to Christ.

If you had to transmit one message to catechists – what would it be and why?


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

Pope Francis Gold Dust II – Creativity and the Motherhood of the Church

Photo courtesy of tacticdesigns

Photo courtesy of tacticdesigns

Here’s some more ‘gold dust’ from Pope Francis’ address to the Brazilian bishops.

This weekend in the Catholic Herald, Bishop Philip speaks about how we do not need more ‘tradition’ to further the new evangelisation, but rather more creativity. We can get hung up on structures (something that Pope  John Paul II also warned against brilliantly in Novo Millenio Ineunte).

Getting hung up on structures happens at every point of the Catholic “spectrum”: those who think if we use a particular textbook or catechetical method it will solve all our problems; those who are wedded to bureaucracy because it makes everything easier to ‘control’ or manage; those who see ‘roles’ within the Church in terms of ecclesiological power, rather than in the context of vocation or following the Lord’s call. Structures gradually suck life out of our faith if we allow them to.

Pope Francis speaks about it brilliantly:

“Dear brothers, the results of our pastoral work do not depend on a wealth of resources, but on the creativity of love. To be sure, perseverance, effort, hard work, planning and organization all have their place, but first and foremost we need to realize that the Church’s power does not reside in herself; it is hidden in the deep waters of God, into which she is called to cast her nets.”

This has implications for all our pastoral work. I think it’s important we never get into the mindset of thinking that a pastoral need must be met because a box has been ticked, provision has been supplied in the words of a document. No – careful planning can never replace the love, compassion, mercy God awakes in our hearts to respond to the needs of another. Even if it falls outside our hours of work, outside our remit, on our day off. All of us who evangelise, who catechise, participate in the Church’s Motherhood – who is awake day and night bringing forth life…

“Concerning pastoral conversion, I would like to recall that “pastoral care” is nothing other than the exercise of the Church’s motherhood. She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand … So we need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of “wounded” persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.”


Pope Francis Gold Dust I – “Warming Hearts”

World Youth Day Rio

I almost felt like I was in Rio the past week, what with the unstoppable tweets, friends’ Facebook updates, and all of Pope Francis’ words being so readily available. From my experience of previous World Youth Days, you can almost follow better if you’re not there. (Let’s face it… the moment you hit 25 (and you’re not of a Latin American temperament) WYD gets tough! As one wonderful Sister (whose youth ministry is very fruitful) commented, any enthusiasm she had died in Madrid two years ago. I know the feeling…)

Back to Pope Francis. Just about everyone I know has been wow-ing and ahh-ing at his incredible words over the past week. For me, one of the highlights was his address to the Brazilian bishops. I’ve been through this absolutely remarkable speech a few times and have pulled out some truly genius gems. Each one of them needs its own post – so let’s see how I go.

To kick us off, I wanted to start with this:

I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles… Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?

“A Church capable of warming hearts…” It reminds me a little of a book I’ve written about here: Bill Hybels’ Courageous Leadership. In chapter 2, Hybels speaks of leaders having such a “white-hot” vision for what their church is about that they impassion and enflame the hearts of those who hear them. Remember that “enthuse” comes from “en-theos” – literally, to be possessed by a god. The passion in our hearts sparks a flame in another’s.

There is lots to reflect on with regard to how well we, the Church, “warm hearts”. Bishops and priests have responsibility for this in their ministry and communication to the faithful, those who work with the poor “warm hearts” through their love and charity; contemplative religious “warm hearts” through their earnest and profound intercession; those who visit the sick or those who are in prison have a special apostolate of compassion to “warm the hearts” of the suffering and the lost.

However, as this blog is especially for catechists, let’s think about how as catechists we need to “warm hearts”. Here are some questions that may help:

  • Before we teach, do we pray fervently to the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of those we’re teaching? It is He who will stir hearts as we speak (or even in spite of us!)
  • When we teach, do we speak with passion? Not a contrived liveliness or excitement, but with a profound love for the Lord which naturally spills out in impassioned words?
  • If we struggle to feel passion about our topic, have we spent enough time in silent prayer before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament? Have we asked earnestly enough for the Holy Spirit?
  • Do we love not only Christ who we’re teaching, but also the people receiving the teaching? Our authentic love for these people – that they know Christ, experience life in him, receive the joy of the Holy Spirit in their hearts – will also come across.

As I’ve said countless times before, let’s promise ourselves: the day we stop praying must also be the day we stop giving catechesis.