Tag Archives: thresholds of conversion

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! 😉


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.