Let’s say your pastor has asked you to establish a new RCIA ministry in your parish. This may seem overwhelming at first, but you are probably keen to get started in your work of evangelization. What steps should you take to begin?
Pray, Pray, Pray!
Start with prayer. Our Lord Jesus is our model for everything we do. Usually when Jesus set out to do something big, he began in prayer. St. Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized, he was praying, and heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove, and God the Father declared from heaven:
“You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased”Mark 1:11 (NAB)
There’s no better place to start than here, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, for a reflection on establishing the process for enabling adults to become Catholic.
Just as Jesus gathered his disciples, when beginning RCIA ministry start by gathering a group of parishioners together to pray for the ministry, for the grace to discern who would be the best team members, and for the Holy Spirit to draw people to Christ and his Church through your ministry. Consider recruiting intercessors to pray for the process throughout the whole year—cloistered sisters or monks are often keen to help!
Knowing the terminology can take you a long way toward understanding the process. The “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” or RCIA is a process, rich in liturgy, catechesis, and pastoral ministry, whereby adults become Catholic. It is a rich and dynamic journey alongside people as they cooperate with the action of the Holy Spirit within their lives, and progress toward union with Christ in the sacraments.
Many practitioners make the mistake of treating RCIA as a program through which inquirers are taught the Catholic Faith, or undergo a series of liturgies, and in the end graduate with the Easter sacraments. Far from being a program, however, RCIA is when we accompany people in their encounter with God as they cooperate with his grace. As with any new relationship, there are likely to be ups and downs as the person meets obstacles and develops in relationship with Christ.
The process involves different stages. First, there is pre-evangelization in which the catechist, through the help of the Holy Spirit, removes obstacles to faith for the unbaptized person. At this early stage, inquirers ask questions and propose objections to Christ and the Church. The catechist gently responds to their questions and objections in order to help remove barriers in the way of faith.
Second comes the stage of evangelization in which the catechist proclaims the gospel kerygma, that is, the core gospel message, in order to bring the unbaptized person to an initial response of faith. This is the period in which the person begins to encounter Jesus Christ, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit, responds with the initial “yes” of faith. These first two stages belong to the pre-catechumenate period.
Once the unbaptized person comes to an initial act of faith, responding interiorly to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and with any significant obstacles now removed, the catechist can begin the next stage. This third stage, known as the “catechumenate“, takes the form of systematic catechesis, in which the whole Catholic Faith is unpacked for the unbaptized person. The catechist must take care to catechize in an evangelizing manner so that the person is able to deepen their new personal attachment to Jesus Christ in the parish community.
When catechesis draws to a close, the person moves into the final stage of preparation for the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and the Blessed Eucharist). This fourth stage is the period of purification and enlightenment which involves a deepening of graces already received, a personal examination and purification of one’s motives for seeking baptism, and an overall growth in the spiritual life.
After the Easter reception of the sacraments of initiation, the newly baptized (neophyte) enters a period of mystagogy in which the catechist guides him or her in a deeper reflection on living out the Christian life now that they have received the graces of the sacraments. This stage is a rich time of spiritual growth for the neophyte. It is a time in which the RCIA team connects them to various apostolates and ministries within the broader parish community so they can more fully live out their Christian vocation.
The Liturgical Rites
The three major gateways marking one’s progression through the RCIA process are liturgical rites. The Rite of Acceptance is a public celebration of the inquirer’s intention to enter the Catholic Church, and the parish’s intention to accompany them on this journey of preparation toward full initiation into the Church. This rite changes the status of the person from an inquirer to a catechumen.
At the end of the catechumenate, the catechumen passes through the Rite of Election, which is a diocesan-wide celebration, typically at the beginning of Lent, in which the parish community declares to the Church that the catechumen is ready to proceed to the final stages of preparation for the sacraments. The Rite of Election transitions them from catechumens to members of the Elect. The final major gateway is the full reception into the Church through the rites of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, which typically occurs at Easter.
Before establishing the RCIA ministry it is essential that you have a copy of the RCIA Rites book which provides all of the liturgical rites for the different stages of RCIA. It also describes how to discern if the candidates are ready to progress through each stage. You may benefit from consulting one of the study editions of this book in collaboration with your pastor.
Where RCIA Fits into Your Parish’s Evangelizing Mission
Once you have grasped the RCIA terminology, reflect upon how the RCIA process fits into your parish’s evangelizing mission. Does your parish have outreach ministries in which parishioners take the gospel to non-believers and draw them into the parish? Does your parish have something like St. Paul Street Evangelization teams, or programs like The 99 or Chosen: This Is Your Catholic Faith, that can direct inquirers to your parish RCIA ministry?
Arguably, the RCIA ministry should be at the very heart of the parish’s evangelizing mission. Every evangelizing activity should spring from and return to the RCIA because this is the process that the Church herself has established as the way for adults to enter the Church. If the Church exists to evangelize, then the RCIA process is the model proposed by the Church in which to do it.
At this stage it is worth considering whether your parishioners are aware of the process of becoming Catholic. If not, it is advisable to take some time to inform them so they then become agents of evangelization, inviting people to become Catholic and directing them to the parish RCIA team. If parishioners know there is an established process for becoming Catholic, they will feel more comfortable inviting people to consider the Catholic Church. Their job of inviting becomes clearly defined, and they won’t feel overwhelmed that they also have to catechize or mentor any inquirers. In this we begin to see how the whole parish is involved in the RCIA ministry.
Choosing Your RCIA Team Members
Now is the time to consider the types of people that are required for your RCIA team. Work closely with your pastor in discerning who to invite to become team members. It is recommended that you have a diversity of team members, both young and old, men and women, new converts and long-term committed disciples who can act as mentors. Of course, the size of your team will depend on the size of the parish and the number of people who seek to become Catholic in your parish.
Keep in mind all the different tasks when discerning the team members. Choose people who are capable of giving their personal testimony of faith during the RCIA process. Other team members may be asked to act as sponsors of the RCIA candidates, so good mentors will be required. Others can contribute their musical, hospitality, or administrative abilities.
The catechist must have a good knowledge of the Catholic Faith and the capacity to present it in a manner that is attractive, integral, and coherent to a diverse group of inquirers. Be mindful that your ministry may attract people with very little religious background alongside people with a good knowledge of Scripture or other faith traditions. Occasionally, you may ask team members to give a catechesis on a specific topic in which they are strong. For example, a married woman may speak well about human sexuality or the vocation to marriage, while a medical professional may speak well about moral issues like euthanasia or abortion.
Connect with Your Diocesan RCIA Coordinator
It’s important to make an early connection with the RCIA coordinator for your diocese. This person is usually responsible for organizing the Rite of Election on the First Sunday of Lent in which all the catechumens throughout the diocese go to the cathedral, meet the bishop, and have their names enrolled in the Book of the Elect. The diocesan coordinator may have some local tips and resources for establishing RCIA ministry (such as catechetical resources for candidates of a non-English speaking background). They can also provide information about the marriage tribunal process if you have a candidate who is in an irregular marital situation.
Personal Intimacy with Christ and Understanding the Conversion Process
Doing RCIA well requires personal intimacy with Jesus, and knowledge of his teachings and method of evangelization. This requires study and mediation on the Gospels. Ask yourself how Jesus and the apostles evangelized? What is central to Jesus’ gospel message? What methods did Jesus and the apostles use?
Study the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in order to gain a deep understanding of the Gospel kerygma and how to proclaim it. Pay careful attention to how the early disciples lived lives of Christian hope as expressions of their faith in the salvation Christ offers. The Great Adventure Bible studies are very helpful in guiding your team to a deeper knowledge of Christ and his Church through the Scriptures.
RCIA teams, particularly catechists, must think like Christ, judge like him, act in conformity with his commandments, and hope as he invites us to hope. In other words, they are to dedicate their lives to faithful discipleship of Christ. This involves prayer and action, word and deed, and sacramental lives. Essentially, it requires personal intimacy with Christ.
Understanding the stages of the conversion process and how to discern them will require personal reflection, life experience, God’s grace, and mentoring. There are many resources out there that can help in this regard. Sherry Weddell’s books and programs on Forming Intentional Disciples, and the thresholds of conversion and trust, can help enormously in understanding the conversion process. Personally, I’ve found Michael Gormley and Dave VanVickle’s podcast, “Every Knee Shall Bow”, to be insightful in unpacking the kerygma and how to accompany inquirers and those journeying toward the Church. Barbara Morgan’s book, Echoing the Mystery, is a tremendous catechetical tool for presenting the Catholic Faith to catechumens in an evangelizing manner.
Christian Leadership Is Service
Finally, I would like to say something about leadership. So often there is a tug-of-war in the Church for positions of authority and power. This is a very worldly vision of ministry which is not of Christ.
Christian ministry is service: it’s about humbly imitating Christ. Since we are collaborators in Christ’s vineyard, parish clergy and lay team members must work closely in RCIA ministry.
Together, the RCIA team needs to discern their own gifts and put them at the service of the Church. Ask yourself, what has God given you and how can you use it for his glory in building up the Church? Serve Christ by serving those he is drawing to him.
Cast your nets out into the deep and let the Holy Spirit move through you. In the end, our aim should be to say that we have simply been faithful servants. All glory be to Christ the Lord!
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Dr. Christine Wood teaches theology and philosophy for Catholic Distance University in West Virginia. She is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Australia, and the director of the Office of Evangelization & Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Hobart, Australia, where she lives with her husband. Christine is currently a member of the executive for the national RCIA body, Christian Initiation of Adults Network, in Australia. She has also been involved in helping women to discover their identity in Christ through small group communities, Bible studies, and faith formation.
Featured painting, “The Conversion of Mary Magdelene” (c. 1548), sourced from Wikimedia Commons