Many of you who know me are aware that I’ve spent most of my life working on RCIA. It has been a major focus of my ministry. Through parish and diocesan work, and through giving talks and training events around the U.S. and abroad, I’ve been a consistent advocate for the reformed and renewed rites of adult initiation ever since I was inspired, as a young student, by the vision of my teacher, Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, in the early 1980s.
Frankly, I’m worried. This is why I wrote a column (“Room at the Font”), which appeared in the May 2nd issue of Commonweal, describing the decline in numbers of adult baptisms in the US over the past several years. That’s also why I wrote an open letter to some of my former colleagues in the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, noting the loss of quality that I see. I am concerned that this project, which is important to the wholeness of the Church in our time, is slipping. I think we need to talk.
Don’t get me wrong. Adult initiation has done incredibly well in the post-Vatican II church in the United States. Against the odds, the RCIA was adopted as a radical proposal that struck to the heart of what baptism is, and what the community of faith is called to be. Seeds of joy have been sown here. Much profitable work has been done.
The RCIA in North America has actually been an inspiration for the worldwide church. We need to acknowledge that, humbly but truthfully. It’s something that American and Canadian churches have embraced in a way that is the envy of other places (although it exists elsewhere, it has flourished here beyond expectations). Taking up the challenge that early work in France and Africa began before the Council, the church in North America has worked hard to integrate the catechumenate into parish life.
Yet something is amiss. After steady gains, there has been a drop of 49% in adult baptisms in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013. Once-flourishing parish processes are morphing into convert classes with a thin layer of ritual tacked on. Training of catechumenate ministers has fallen off.
In its present weakened condition, adult initiation will meet what could prove to be a mortal challenge: the rewriting of the RCIA ritual text in terms dictated, not by pastoral wisdom or urgent necessity, but by Liturgiam authenticam. If the experience with the translation of the Roman Missal is indicative, not much leeway for adaptation will be allowed in the upcoming refashioning of the RCIA. Despite the fact that initiation is arguably the high water mark for the allowance for inculturation in the post-Vatican II rites, we may soon be back to square one in terms of our ritual text. (Square one being the 1974 tan book which, some may remember, was NOT greeted with rapture and only rarely was implemented.)
I’m not the only one who is concerned. Rory Cooney, one of my valued colleagues from the North American Forum, shared my open letter on his blog last week. The comments on my Commonweal column have been poignant. I have also received letters and messages beyond those that were posted.
So… I thought it might be good to invite the readers of Pray Tell into this discussion. I do not know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. But I do know that we ought to talk about it. The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions is hosting a consultation at their Fall meeting in October 2014. But the conversation needs to go on first at the grassroots if it is going to matter.
Peace to you all.
Here’s my letter:
Dear friends in initiation ministry,
Please forgive the group email. I wanted to reach out to a number of you at the same time, and this seemed to be the best way to do it. We’ve worked together through the North American Forum, and have shared some wonderful growth and challenges over many years of engagement with the RCIA, which is why I wanted to talk to you.
I’m writing because it seems to me we are at a kind of crisis/opportunity moment. On the one hand, we have been seeing some of the best advertisement for the Catholic Church in our lifetime – in the person of Pope Francis. His witness has captured public attention, impressed the skeptics and opened many hearts by focusing on mercy. What an opportunity to draw new followers to Christ! At the same time we are facing a retranslation of the ritual text that could remove half the book and most of the people who currently take part in the process (the baptized candidates), depending on how strictly the new National Statutes are written.
It’s not all about the pope or the book, however. I don’t know about you, but I am seeing a lot of initiation processes at the parish level that have gone stale, or are held captive by a single person with a narrow vision, or have simply closed down. In one story I heard recently, a parish now sends their people to “Tuesday night lectures” in the deanery, in place of a formerly-thriving RCIA process. In another, the DRE told me with a sigh, a newly-ordained priest took over and wants to “teach the catechumens” all by himself. They have been fleeing. In a third, the Robert Barron videos have become the backbone of the program (I use that term advisedly). In yet another, it’s all about “converting” the Protestants as the RCIA director proudly announces “I’m a Home Sweet Rome Catholic!” Paschal journey? Not so much.
I recently studied the trajectory and the numbers are grim. Between the year 2000, when Journey to the Fullness of Life was published, and 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, adult baptisms in the US fell by 49 percent. (41% of that drop was between 2005 and 2010) That’s in absolute numbers. Taken as a proportion of the total Catholic population, which has grown during this time, it’s an even steeper decline. I wrote about this in Commonweal. I’d invite you to read the article and make a comment if you wish.
Why did this dramatic fall-off of catechumens happen? Is it all the abuse crisis, or something more complicated than that? What is the situation in your own parish or diocese? Frankly, I think that the “Francis effect” is not going to matter much if what transpires at the local parish is repulsive. It haunts me that we used to be able to do this – not perfectly, to be sure, but we did it — and now no longer, or perhaps I should say “at half the rate.” Why aren’t all the cylinders firing?
One of my concerns right now is that if the revisions of the ritual text are deep enough, it will push many parishes that are marginally committed to RCIA over the edge into abandoning it. They will either cease to have a catechumenate or water it down to nothing. Someone wrote to me after reading the Commonweal article, to say that he had a bad experience with the RCIA, and when taxed with the story of the repellent experience, the pastor said “Why did you even go? I would have baptized you anyway.” That’s where we are. Hopeful endeavors, like TeamRCIA, are working. But the big picture is worrisome.
When the bishops sit down to ask Rome for adaptations, or to approve new texts, or to write a new set of National Statutes, I would like to think that they will do everything in their power to strengthen Christian initiation. But I don’t know that. What I do know is this: a good outcome is more likely if we advance a conversation among pastors and liturgists and catechists that makes a case for “what works” and distinguishes it from “what doesn’t work.” The Conference of Bishops was very different in 1988 than it is today. But even then, it was the people working at the grassroots who made the difference.
I don’t want to wax sentimental about Forum, but I feel the absence of that organization. I honestly think that RCIA has been on the back burner in many or most dioceses for some time. It needs some more conversation, and loving attention, especially now. Thanks for listening and for continuing the conversation within your own circles, wherever they might be.
With all best wishes,