Tag Archives: catechumenate

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

How are we doing with RCIA?

Over two years ago, we started to restructure our RCIA to a year-round catechumenal model. Currently, we have 15 people at different stages of the RCIA process. At the moment, we’re trying to work out a neater model that will still allow people to enter at any time, that they cover all the teachings, and that they will remain in the process for a suitable length of time.

At the moment, we have a cycle of four phases:

  1. Precatechumenate – 12-week phase (someone can stay in this period of evangelisation and enquiry until they are ready for the Rite of Acceptance / Welcoming)
  2. Catechumenate Phase I – 12 weeks of teachings geared towards the Virtue of Faith
  3. Catechumenate Phase II – 12 weeks of teachings geared towards the Virtue of Hope
  4. Catechumenate Phase III – 12 weeks of teachings geared towards the Virtue of Love

In each of these phases, all four dimensions of the Christian life are present (faith believed, celebrated, lived and prayed). We are still trying to get it right – so that there are particular points during the year when the enquiry phase feeds into the Catechumenate.

If you are involved in RCIA ministry, this is a great video to help you think through these questions. I met Dino Durando last summer at Steubenville – here he gives a really good background based in what the GDC and RCIA ask us to do. Start from 32:04 to hear the practical applications of the year-round model for the parish by the RCIA Coordinator in his parish. And get this – they have over 100 people in their process!

Contraception, Cohabitation, and the Catechumenate

OK, as promised, here’s a post on tackling these issues in the Catechumenate. January to Easter is the time when we turn towards the deepest changes catechumens need to make in their lives, after they have received much grace, teaching, and experience of community.

I said that these two issues were the ones we are challenged with the most in our Catechumenate, and I must say, it is far easier to write about them then actually deal with them. So, here goes…

Firstly, these are emotionally-charged issues. People feel threatened at a very deep level because the Church’s teaching in this area touches the most intimate spheres of their life. We have to recognise this and not blunder in, all gung ho, like a bull in a china shop. You can argue with them about Humanae Vitae till the cows come home, but this is not going to help them change their life. Rather, this is why I believe the Catechumenate (excluding the earlier Precatechumenate) should last at least a year. Because over that time, the catechists and sponsors have had time to build relationships with the catechumens – you know them as friends, they have shared some joyful times with you, they trust you because they know you care about them and want the best for them. They have experienced the lengths you have gone to to answer their questions, introduce them to the parish, help them in other areas of their life.

The second point I would make is that, while we mustn’t charge in, we can’t skirt around the issues either, avoiding them until the ‘allotted session’. Right from the outset, catechumens will be aware that contraception is a particular area where their lives are currently at variance with the Church. So, if it is a question that comes up in the Precatechumenate, answer it fully and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush. At the same time, acknowledge that the Catechumenate is long, and it has built into it the opportunities to understand and learn in more depth how they can realistically put this into practice in their lives. Emphasise the initiative of God throughout – he is leading them on this journey, he gives everything that is needed at the right times. Assure them that everything the Church asks of us leads us to a freer, more fulfilled life, and that God never demands anything of us for which we are not ready.

Sponsors are 100% key in this area. One woman was aware throughout her Precatechumenate and Catechumenate that birth control was an area she was terrified of changing in her life; her sponsor cottoned onto this early on and provided her with wonderful emotional and practical support throughout. It is also vital that the catechesis given is top quality. Every year, I invite an excellent catechist to teach this session because of the angle from which she teaches it. Her teaching is utterly rooted in her own lived experience of the vocation to marriage, and the joy as well as sacrifice of being open to children. She speaks of the benefits of using natural methods for your marriage (it keeps open conversation, and it means the burden isn’t all on one person – e.g. “you forgot to take your pill!”) Then she speaks about the “grave reasons” a couple may have for not having sex in the fertile period. Throughout, she speaks completely candidly about her own marriage, extremely realistically about the difficulties of marriage, and with homespun, practical wisdom about how this fits into your family’s lifestyle.

It is a perfect example of how conforming our lives to Christ’s teaching does not limit our freedom or obscure our individuality (see previous post).

Friendship needs to permeate the Catechumenate to help effect conversion

So, in summary, it’s good to present the Church’s teaching on openness to life within the context of the beauty of Catholic marriage and family life (not by banging people over the head with Humanae Vitae), and it is vital that the person teaching is a living, joyful witness to this life. (An exhausted, bedraggled Catholic mother who has given up on her hair and make-up is probably a living saint, but is unlikely to fill catechumens with joy at the prospect of their new life…)

I am happy to say that, all the candidates and catechumens this year have decided to begin learning natural family planning methods. It is therefore vital that we also provide them with the opportunities to receive NFP classes, that we support them individually in the conversations they have with their spouse, that we pray with them and for them as they take the courageous step of making this lifestyle change.

The other challenging moral question is cohabitation. People are less aware about this than contraception because it is 100% the norm for young couples to move in with each other as soon as it starts getting serious. I mean, why not? It makes perfect economic sense. They can ‘try each other out’ before committing to anything more definite. If you have young, unmarried people in your Catechumenate, it is likely that this is a subject you will have to broach before long. Once again, the sponsor is paramount: a young woman in our Catechumenate who was living with her boyfriend was matched with a young, twentysomething sponsor who was newly married. It is important that we give catechumens and candidates living witnesses, showing them what is possible, and what will bring them fullness of life.

There’s one story I will share with you from this particular genre of Catechumenate obstacles… There was a wonderful catechumen who had had a big conversion and was beginning to discover the joy of life in Christ: she was getting up early to pray before work, she was devouring every Catholic book she could find, she was eagerly evangelising her friends. When we went on retreat, she experienced another beautiful experience of God’s love. But she lived with her boyfriend, was completely oblivious to the fact this may not be a wise idea, and eventually, I had her over to my house for lunch to broach this subject once and for all. We had a lovely lunch, very long conversation, we prayed together, we discussed ways forward, we decided to pray a novena for the next nine days. What a grace that this young woman was open to what God was asking of her. How amazing that the grace of our joint novena began to bear fruit in her life, and she is due to be baptised at Easter.

I admit it, being British we’d run a mile before ‘intruding’ into other people’s lives. But this is the importance of friendship. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have had that conversation with someone I barely knew, or who I didn’t consider a friend. And what’s more, as catechists and sponsors, this is truly a part of our call, what God is asking of us – to care so much for the people he has entrusted to us, that we do all we can to ensure they receive the fullness of life. It does cost us. It is a difficult apostolate. But it is one way we can lay down our lives for our friends.

Freedom and catechesis

How many people think they are truly free and that the Catholic Church would limit their freedom?

One of the most frequent criticisms you hear about Catholicism is its “institutionalism” – how many times do we hear people say they’ll take Jesus but not the Church? Personal relationship with God – yes; religion – definitely no.

To some extent, I can understand a certain trepidation. We don’t want to feel confined, we want to be able to choose, we don’t want to feel we have to do things we don’t particularly want to. I remember these feelings very much as a Catholic teenager. I didn’t want to do any ‘weird’ Catholic stuff, like go to Confession, or venerate the Cross on Good Friday, or pray the Rosary…just because that’s what Catholics did. I didn’t have an inner desire to do any of those things.

Now I see that what it comes down to is freedom: people don’t like these external practices because they find in them no interior correllation. Partly, we need to grow in understanding of these practices so we can understand their source in God’s love for us and nothing else. But also, we need spiritual growth to feel free in these practices. When we grow in interior life, we discover we have a space of freedom within us that can never be taken away. It means that we can fulfill the external practices of our Faith without loss to our individuality, our personality, our freedom. We learn that, “I can be fully myself and fully Catholic” and even, eventually, “I can be fully myself because I’m fully Catholic.”

There is a very real need for growth in this, for everyone in the process of preparing for the sacraments of initiation. As we draw closer to Easter, it becomes more and more real, which can either be a source of increasing joy or of increasing tension.

The catechesis of the Catechumenate needs to recognise this. When we begin somewhere new – a new job, neighbourhood, parish, a new family if we get married – there are a whole host of new people, places, procedures, etiquette, norms or rules we need to get used to. This is part of the purpose of the Catechumenate – catechumens get introduced, not only to parish life, but to the life of the whole Church. The new people they grow accustomed to are not only their sponsor, their parish priest, their parish community – but the entire communion of the Church through their primary relationship with Jesus Christ: their Blessed Mother, their elder brothers and sisters the Saints, the Holy Father, bishops, religious, priests…how everyone fits into the ‘Family’. Like becoming a member of any family, over time we gradually feel more at home as we understand the place and the roles that different people occupy, as we get to know people more deeply. I remember once meeting a woman who had recently been received into the Church who referred to “our Blessed Mother” in such a way I realised that she really knew her. This should be our ideal – that ‘neophytes’ leaving the Catechumenate speak with easy familiarity of their new family.

The same applies to other aspects of initiation – growing comfortable with going regularly to Confession, lighting candles for prayers, how and when to genuflect, blessing oneself with holy water, requesting Masses for certain intentions, making visits to the Blessed Sacrament, not eating meat on Fridays, praying novenas, becoming familiar with the liturgical year.

All of this is part of growing in freedom, as a son or daughter of God the Father, in the Church.

At this time of year, many Catechumenates begin to teach the Church’s moral teaching. For us, it comes after the grace of a retreat has prepared the way… Of course, this is perhaps the biggest and most challenging area of growing in freedom – accepting the moral teaching of the Church, particularly those elements that apply directly to your life. Every year, we find that this is the area needing the most prayer, the most careful planning, the most thoughtful yet no-nonsense catechesis. You can probably guess the two areas which present us with the most challenges each year: contraception and cohabitation.

To be honest, I wonder to what extent many Catechumenates even tackle these problems. People seem surprised when I tell them that, in our parish, catechumens do not receive the sacraments of initiation until they are ready to change their lives in these areas. These are admittedly very difficult obstacles to overcome, since they are often extremely emotionally-charged. In the next post, I want to share some practical examples of how overcoming these problems is indeed possible, and the best beginning for the new life of the catechumen.

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.