What is RCIA? What are the Steps?
For the past few decades, the normal way for an unbaptized non-Catholic to enter the Catholic Church is the RCIA process. This stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. There is an entire book of the Church (aptly named “RCIA”) which walks a catechist through the steps to lead someone into full communion with the Church.
First, the Period of Inquiry is a time for those who are curious about Catholicism to ask questions and hear a clear proclamation of the central message of the Good News of Jesus Christ and His Church.
Second, the Period of the Catechumenate begins when a learner is accepted into the order of catechumens. At this point, they are referred to as catechumens (one who learns the Faith). At the end of this period, the catechumens make their way to the cathedral and have their names recorded in the Book of the Elect and they are referred to as the elect.
Third, the Period of Purification and Enlightenment happens during Lent. During this time, the Scrutinies take place on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. These rites include intercessions for the elect, as well as minor prayers of exorcism.
The norm of the Church is for those who are ready and properly formed and prepared after this time of purification to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil which takes place in the night before Easter Sunday. Though, a pastor of a parish is able to bring an unbaptized into the Church at any time during the year. At the Vigil or at another pastorally appropriate time, the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are administered.
Fourth, the Period of Mystagogy begins. All Catholics are in this period for the remainder of their life. After having received the Sacraments of Initiation, the neophytes (new Catholics) are led through the mysteries they have received (this is the meaning of the word mystagogy; a leading through the mysteries). This period never ends because we can never exhaust the depths and richness of the Sacraments.
Preparing RCIA Candidates
I am the Director of Catechesis and Evangelization for my parish and one of my greatest joys each year is working with people wanting to become Catholic. They are each different and come with different stories, different reasons, different baggage, and different questions. Every year is exceptionally different. It is thrilling to see how Christ is the answer to the aching hearts of those of all age groups, ethnicities, and backgrounds. In particular, as a catechist, I want to share five joys that I have had in preparing candidates for full communion in the Church.
The First Joy of Preparing Candidates: Lightbulbs
Every year, the classes begin relatively the same. We are getting to know one another. We are building a bridge of trust to support the weight of truth, as Billy Graham used to say. However, from day one, I am proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I begin day one with the universal call to holiness. This is the foundation: Jesus Christ and the invitation to the abundant life that He is offering.
As we begin to talk and as I teach, I lightly touch on a few different common experiences. Has something felt like it’s been missing? Have you wondered if there is more to life than what you have experienced thus far? Do you believe that God exists? Do you think that there is truth? All of these questions are huge and have great consequences. Within the first weeks, these, and others are what I discuss.
As the sessions progress, I see the Holy Spirit working the hearts of those gathered in such a powerful way. Questions are being answered. The lightbulbs are going off right and left. This encounter with the truth has a transforming effect. The lightbulbs are clear moments of the breakthrough of grace into the lives of these wonderful people, and that is a great joy for me.
The Second Joy of Preparing Candidates: Depth
Every year, my RCIA class (if you want to call it a class) follows the same general predictable pattern. It has to. The learners are different every year and need the same information and Good News. However, what strikes me every year is the amazing depth of the Catholic religion. The mystery Jesus Christ, God incarnate, cannot be exhausted in two millennia, let alone one lifetime.
This depth and scope of the Catholic Faith is daunting to someone who is new. At some points during the journey, the learners become seemingly overwhelmed with the amount of information that there is to learn. The points of doctrine and theology are endless. You can talk your whole life to only scratch the surface of who God is.
However, I remind them, that we are not Gnostics. We do not have to have secret knowledge to be good faithful Christians. Of course, it is hard to love Christ if we do not know Him. But Christianity is an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ; it is a relationship. In the hearts of the learners, the depth of the Faith gradually turns from a burden into a delight that there is always deeper to go into the heart of God. What a joy that is to witness!
The Third Joy of Preparing Candidates: Richness
The great depth of the Catholic Faith is augmented by the richness of the Faith. When I draw out certain truths about Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, led by the authentic interpreter of the Magisterium, there is a richness that cannot be counterfeited or duplicated. The love of God is rich and textured, written into the hearts of believers across thousands of years.
Whether on the written page, through visual art, beholding a beautiful celebrated liturgy, or hearing transcendent music, the richness of the Faith is a joy to share. In other words, there is a depth to the Faith, but the river of the Catholic Church winding through history is quite wide. Saints as diverse as St. Augustine, St. Damien of Molokai, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Paul II, and St. Therese of Lisieux highlight to diversity and richness of what God can do with a willing heart.
The Fourth Joy of Preparing Candidates: Conversion
This entire process of RCIA facilitates conversion. That is the whole purpose of the various stages or periods. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it a leading by the hand or entering the river first through little streams. Conversion in the Catholic context is not a one-time thing. God calls and we respond. Each step is a new conversion where we turn our hearts more and more over to the all-consuming love of God.
Seeing this process of conversion in the catechumens is a source of great joy for me. However, it is also an amazing opportunity for me to fall deeper in love with God and with His Church. One of the greatest joys that I have each year is teaching the catechumens how to offer their lives as a sacrifice culminating and drawing from the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I teach them that full, conscious, active participation in the Sacred Liturgy is understanding what the Liturgy is and then entering in. The Mass is the perfect offering of the Son to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit in which we take part. We take part by offering our lives as a sacrifice to God by offering in humility, in an act of adoration, our joys, sufferings, pains, desires, and hopes. This talk on the Mass is always a high point of the year because I am able to lead the catechumens to understand that this happens in the Mass but it also must happen each day and sometimes even multiple times in a day.
The Fifth Joy of Preparing Candidates: Anticipation
It is easy to go through the motions. It is easy to receive the Sacraments in a mundane way without thought. For example, how many of us let our mine wander in Mass or neglect daily prayer time? How many of us go to Confession out a sense of obligation without true, deep contrition? How many of us send our children to the parish to be Confirmed because that is just what we do as Catholics?
The mentality of going through the motions is utterly destroyed by participation in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. In RCIA, everything is new. I should say, rather, that everything is ancient. Yet, for these people, this is the first time they are experiencing Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, using sacramentals, praying the rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Everything is ever ancient and ever new. This is true not just for the candidates but for you and I as well. The greatest joy of RCIA, for me as a catechist, is the reminder that God is not done with me yet and there is always more to learn. Every beautiful encounter with God through the devotions, Sacraments, and customs of His Church bring life meaning and a fullness that cannot be found apart from Christ. This should thrill us and fill us with anticipation.
As the RCIA candidates are almost shaking with anticipation for the Easter Vigil, I am reminded how I should have an equal or ever broadening anticipation for Heaven.