We Need to Talk: Adult Baptism and RCIA in the U.S. Today

Rite of Election, San Jose, used with permission
Rite of Election, San Jose, used with permission

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,

Rita

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46 comments

  1. Like Rita, the RCIA has been a distinct focus of my work for over 24 years. I share her passion for the rite, as well as her concerns.
    I certainly do not have all the answers for the growing concern; however, I can offer some reflections based on my observations of many current practices.
    – Far too many do not acknowledge RCIA as a rite of the church. It is perceived as a catechetical program (yes, it engages catechesis but it is a rite).
    – Sadly, I know of catechumenate coordinators who have not studied the ritual text, have not read the National Statues, and have not made the effort to become current on best practices.
    – A school-model approach is still rampant and the idea of a year-round catechumenate remains a dream. A pastoral minister once put it to me this way: “It’s easier to get to heaven than to become Catholic.”
    – Despite repeated articles and books by experts in this area, most parishes insist upon using the combined rites, even at the Easter Vigil. The profound meaning of baptism celebrated within the context of the Easter Vigil and the richness of the Reception of Baptized Christians into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church is eclipsed.
    – At the root of the problems may be the lack of theological, liturgical, and pastoral education for those charged with this ministry. Training sessions are good, but they are not enough. We need pastoral ministers with drive who want to learn and go deeper into the rich implications that the RCIA has to offer.

    I share one final concern: The current General Directory for Catechesis and the National Directory for catechesis distinctly states that the RCIA is the model for all catechesis. This is profound; however, catechesis remains at a crossroads because most catechetical leaders do not understand the RCIA.

  2. Rita, I share your concern, but as imperfect as it may be, our Journey of Faith is doing very well. I almost never refer to it as RCIA, because the Journey leads inquirers to and through those rites. But I am hearing that around this archdiocese many of the younger priests have reduced it to an apologetics course. They want to initiate the orthodox, you see. The process, however, wants us to show inquirers the Jesus who is not only the truth, but the way, and the life. I applaud your interest and concern. Surely LA will not carry the day after the experience we have had since 2010. During that process there were popes in office who laid down the law which guided the bishops who wanted to be in sync with them. Things are very different right now. Francis has instructed us to bother the priests and the bishops. Let’s bother them.

  3. Yes, learning about the way (meaning practices) should be an essential part of RCIA. Does it generally include any instruction on the different methods of praying? E.g., lectio divina, Centering Prayer, something about St. Ignatius’ imaginative method.

    It seems to me that the Church has never done enough instruction in how to pray. I’m old, and all I was taught in school were some rote prayers, including the Rosary which never appealed to me. Later I learned a bit about praying spontaneously to the Lord from Fr. john Lafargue, for which I am most grateful. But the other ways of praying? I had to discover some on my own.

    That the Church does not generally teach and encourage different methods of prayer these day is really astonishing, when one sees many people leaving the Church for Buddhism and other ways which encourage contemplative practices for everyone. It seems to me that RCIA would be the natural place to start a movement for contemplative prayer for all Catholics, especially lay people.

    By the way, I think the Buddhists have much to each us about contemplation generally, including methods for eliminating distractions and a method of examining one’s conscience. The word “Buddha” scares off many Catholics, especially the young conservatives, but not among the other young.

    It’s just a disgrace that different forms of prayer are not encouraged by the RCC.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #3: I agree wholeheartedly with your insight and concern about prayer in the RCC. There seems to be an institutional fear of contemplative prayer.

      1. @Deacon James Anderson Murphy – comment #12:
        With respect to your last sentence, this may explain why a number of Catholic converts I’ve known have switched to the Orthodox churches. It could help to explain why so many pentecostals and evangelicals I’ve read abot are also drawn to the Antiochian Orthodox or OCA. What have they got, the RCC is missing?

  4. Thanks for the post.

    I do appreciate the challenge, and the possibility of an inward focus on our ministries. Heaven knows we can all use a fresh outward look at seekers and the unchurched. And maybe some attitude adjustments among us. But I think I’m going to point out the elephant(s) in the room.

    1. The CDF. It’s no coincidence that the publication of Dominus Iesus was followed by a drop in new Catholics.

    2. The bishops. Criminal negligence. Period. And it continues.

    3. Summorum Ponitificum. Not the traditional Latin Mass as such, but the more or less active recruitment of those espousing the hermeneutic of complaint. People who don’t like liturgical reform. People who don’t like women priests. People who don’t like a modern view of Christianity. We’ve traded a broad cross section of souls in pilgrimage for a handful of Tridentine Catholics and an Anglican Ordinariate.

    These small-church-getting-smaller prelates are killing us. Literally killing the Body.

    A colleague of mine was getting grilled by her pastor in 2007 about how few people had been coming in through RCIA the past year or two. Dominus. The Charter. A new bishop. SP. In the eyes of many, it’s morally questionable to be Catholic. Telling Protestants they don’t have churches: that may be correct in theological language. But it’s poor pastoral ministry. Even if you are a pope.

    I hear FDLC will be chatting up the Rite of Marriage and RCIA, too, right? Maybe it’s time for some people to speak up. We played ball with MR3. Maybe some bishops and bureaucrats should pay back some of the good will and effort those of us in the trenches put into this crummy translation and backing for LA.

    But let’s be frank: we don’t have support among the bishops for this. And we might not for another ten to twenty years. We are re-living the 50’s, from the perspective of Teilhard de Chardin and others.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #4:
      It’s no coincidence that the Scandal and the drop in converts occurred.

      If you poll most Catholics, they don’t even know Dominus Iesus was published. It was a three second story in the media.

      1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #24:
        If you polled church-going Protestants considering becoming Catholic, you might have a different finding. DI was much-discussed in RCIA in 2000-01, the year I was first responsible for being a catechumenate director.

  5. I believe an additional reason for a decline in RCIA influence is due to the influx of foreign priests. We have priests from Latin America who come with no experience in RCIA — everyone was already Catholic — and from Africa where it was probably needed but never developed.

  6. I spent approximately 20 years as an RCIA cathechist, ending in 2005. When I began the priest gathered together a team of approximately 5 including himself. We were each assigned a topic for a given week and expected to give a talk and facilitate a group session.
    After we became fairly experienced a new priest arrived at the parish who wanted to do all the theology himself and restricted us to giving a personal witness or facilitating a group.
    The final priest we had didn’t want us to do anything but sit there while he did all the talks and group facilitation. By this time we had 20 years of RCIA experience and he had zero. Such is life in the Church of today.
    My contact with the RCIA ended then as I moved away to a smaller town and parish. Here at my little parish we have some Instruction (in camera) and possibly some catechumens and candidates at the Easter vigil. You never know till you get there.

  7. I became a Catholic through RCIA. I don’t know if my experience was typical or not … at the time I thought it was a standardized program that everyone who wanted to join the church had to complete, but I guess that’s not so?

    My RCIA class was about 8 months long, starting in the fall and ending at Easter, with a class every Sunday after church and meetings some evenings. It was led by a married couple and the priest had almost nothing to do with it (they all didn’t get along with each other).

    We learned nothing about personal prayer or about spirituality or how to have a relationship with God. And since I’ve commented here a lot, you probably have some idea of the poverty of my “orthodox” RCIA instruction in church teaching 😉

    The worst part for me was the attitude of the two teachers. The lady constantly bugged me about getting an annulment. I have a vision problem and can’t drive … she offered to give me rides to church, but one day I heard her telling someone what a pain it was to do this … ouch. Part of the end of our course was a mandatory visit to confession. Another was a weekend stay at a nearby monastery, and they made it very hard for me when I didn’t want to go. One guy quit before the end of RCIA and they made us write him a group letter begging him to come back and finish. You would think they were getting kickbacks for everyone who finished the course.

    Having said all this, I venture that the reason people aren’t joining RCIA has not much to do with RCIA but instead has to do with the public perception of the current church (even despite Francis’ popularity) … it’s a place where women and gays are treated like second class citizens and where subjects like contraception and abortion take precedence over spirituality.

  8. Perhaps it is declining because many people still think of it as a program (the previous “convert classes” model), and not a process. Classes, a calendar of meetings, etc. And some see it mainly as “information,” not conversion therapy (as Aidan Kavanaugh so memorably called it). Yes, the rituals of the scrutinies and such are set for certain liturgical seasons and days, but the experience of evangelization and reception of the good news cannot be limited to September through the Easter Season.

    1. @Lee Bacchi – comment #8:
      It may also be declining because the founding Forum generation didn’t strike me as being particularly skilled in passing on the tradition and entrusting it to new people. Don’t get me wrong: I had a generally positive experience attending Forum events and serving as a team member in the years 1989-1994. Vicky Tufano, Thom Morris, and Jerry Galipeau, in particular, were very helpful and inspirational to me.

      I interned with one liturgist in 1990 who gave the team leader no input at all on my service. A few years later Jerry shared with me that he had been doing 20 to 30 institutes a year for quite a spell. He’s a star–no doubt about that–in his abilities in music, liturgy, and pastoral ministry. But I notice that he’s been in publishing for years now, and totally out of parish ministry. If Forum had taken the long view, seeking out more musicians and liturgists, rather than a few reliable people they didn’t need to mentor, would the situation in a few parishes or dioceses have been more positive today?

      Or perhaps we reached the limit of our success for the time. The choir was preached to, and now the choir is mostly retired or moved on. How to reach Fr Talking Head or the crowd of bystanders? Maybe there’s some new approach.

      That said, Crystal’s experience is deplorable.

  9. After 20 years as a catechist I can say that the RCIA is not standardized. It varies with the candidate, the catechists and the priest involved. My current pastor likes mass to be over quickly, so any ritual in that context is over quickly if it even happens.

    Catechists teach what they know. If the only prayer they know is rote repetition, they will teach that in some way in every session. If they are charismatic, that will come out any time they talk about God. A curriculum on prayer is not effective without someone who can relate the learner to God. A curriculum on history or physics can teach prayer effectively if the ‘teacher’ can teach how to relate to God in an authentic manner.

    Some of the people I have taught could teach prayer better than I ever could. Why they were candidates and not catechists escapes me. I suppose it is a sign of how disjointed the world is. I just try to learn.

    And there are some parts of the RCIA that are necessary and often unpleasant. Since the point is incorporation into a community, pestering someone about an annulment happens all too often. But it is a step in the process of identifying with the community. Paperwork, discussions of where to stand or sit, when the next meeting will be, etc are part of the process because it is a process that involves people.

    RCIA is a new thing, like Baptism is a new thing. Always ancient, always new. If God wants it, it will flourish. It will find new ways and revitalize old ways because people old and new need it.

  10. So much with RCIA is dependent on the pastor.

    We went from a pastor who loved RCIA and supported it in every way to one who saw it basically as making people jump through hoops in order to become Catholic. It was discouraging to the team and set a very high bar to get past.

  11. The time factor is a weird one with so many priests. They prolong the parts they want to emphasize, and truncate the ones they don’t. This is a feature across the spectrum – it’s most definitely *not* limited to improvising progressive priests.* And RCIA is likely to be one of those things subject to the caprice of the pastor or priest.

    * I was traveling home from visiting nonagenarian parents on LI, and decided to attend Mass in a coastal town in SE Connecticut yesterday morning; the fairly obviously conservative pastor, who was adding lots of pious gestures along his way during Mass (like crossing himself with the paten and kissing it), cut Eucharistic Prayer II (!!!) almost in half – dropped a paragraph in the opening section, then dropped the first three paragraphs of the second half (he did, btw, chant the preface). After communion, he proceeded to spent more time purifying the vessels at the altar than he did offering the Eucharistic prayer. I wonder how RCIA fares in such a place.

  12. Rita – my experience is that RCIA is neither taught nor emphasized in seminary training. Just like many of the rites of sacraments, you may find one liturgy or sacrament class (the class focuses on theology; not the liturgical rite).
    Thus, RCIA is learned too often during the first assignment and dependent upon what the specific parish offers or the specific pastor mentors.
    From Thomas Richstatter (note some of his comments date to 1986):
    http://www.tomrichstatter.org/iinitiation/i31intro.htm
    Some key points and questions:
    – “The RCIA is a rite — liturgical prayers and actions which accompany one’s faith journey during their conversion process. As Aidan Kavanagh has so aptly said: The RCIA are “conversion therapy.” The RCIA are therapeutic rituals intended to accompany conversion. (Evidently a faith community [parish] will want to have a “process” or “program” in place for celebrating these rites with the converts: a program which will include formational, intellectual, and ministerial elements besides these ritual elements.)”
    – note his section on converts and catechumens and his two scenarios
    – The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were not just ceremonial reforms but an effort to express more clearly the nature of the Church. (ecclesiology which we argue about endlessly on PTB)
    – Some of the liturgical reforms, e.g. 1) the restoration of the Order of Catechumens, 2) the restoration of the Order of the Deaconate as a permanent order in the Church, 3) the abolition of the minor orders, were not merely liturgical reforms, but reforms which made the structure of the Church more clear and evident. Lex orandi legem credendi constituit.
    – In the late 1970’s I was on the worship commission for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. At that time we were working on a way to introduce the RCIA (very new at that time) into the archdiocese. We had our plan prepared and met with the Archbishop (Joseph Bernardin) to present the project. He listened attentively, taking notes, and when we finished he said: “If I understand you correctly, this new RCIA is not just about sacraments, it is about initiation into a worshiping community.” We all smiled and nodded. He was getting the point! And then Bernardin continued, “I have only been archbishop here for 2 years, but I have visited each of the parishes of the archdiocese. It seems we have lots of parishes but not many worshiping communities!”
    – When we examine the programs which parishes employ to bring new members into the faith, do we find that the major emphasis is on the “intellectual component”? What language is employed? (e.g. do we speak of “classes” and “lessons” etc.?)

    Is the reason that we have baptized Christians participate in the “catechumenate classes” is because they have to know Catholic teaching before they can be Catholic?

    Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be big on the “doing” side. “I was hungry and you gave me food…” Do we put as much emphasis on living as Jesus wants us to live as e put on “knowing doctrine.” How much of our preparation time is spent on “conversion”? [And we might ask: “Who needs this more, the Candidates and Catechumens, or the Catholics in the pews?”]
    – Faith is more than intellectual assent. Conversion is a journey of faith, not just a journey of the intellect. How many Catholics believe all the Church teaches? What does this mean? Is formation more than information? Are we still in the days of Father Smith Instructs Jackson? (Is Abraham our “father in faith” because he could answer all the questions in the Catechism?) What about those people who refuse to believe what you tell them the have to believe? Baptize them anyway? In the program you outline, what room do you give for intellectual dissent?
    – my experience is that candidates/catechumens are lumped together; to save time the rite is experienced at different mass times spread over a certain time period (because it is a *class* rather than a journey with parish members who accompany them – issue of lack of volunteers; etc.)

    Finally – key thoughts:

    Initiation into a community Note: It is difficult to initiation someone into a community unless there is a community to be initiated into? How many of our parishes are actually faith communities and how many are just individuals who go to Mass on Sunday? How is the whole parish involved in the reception of the new parish members? Are the rites celebrated at each of the scheduled Sunday Eucharist so that all can welcome the new members or only those at the 8:00 am Mass, or the 11:00 am Mass?

  13. Those who are devoted to RCIA shouldn’t blame themselves. They should be realistic, though, about what is going on, as point #2 in post #4 suggests. The Church is in a time of divine judgment because of its shepherds. See Ezekiel chapter 34 and John chapter 10.

     God Himself will rescue His flock from the shepherds which are devouring it (see Ez 34.10). In the meantime, the sheep will never follow strangers, hired hands who don’t care for them, but they will, in fact, run away. (See Jn 10:5; 12-13.) They don’t recognize a stranger’s voice.

    The good news is that the sheep will listen to the voice of the Real Shepherd and follow Him, and that, ultimately, no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand (see Jn. 10.27-30).

    Sometimes, despite all we wish we could do in a positive way for God’s holy assembly, nothing remains except for the ineluctable wrath of God’s judgment to fall upon it.

  14. I think a vitally important piece of the conversation [that’s often missing] is inquiry. Too often “inquiry” is a designated meeting time, on site at a parish with the RCIA leader/team, where the well-meaning parishioners tell the attendees about the Church or their experiences of it. It’s churchfolk-centric instead of all about the unbaptized. I recently read
    “Seeker Small Groups: Engaging Spiritual Seekers in Life Changing Discussions” by Garry Poole (2003)…and WOW. He writes a handbook on using ordinary people in the parish to lead short-term seeker groups where the discussion agenda is set by the seekers–what questions they have, obstacles, beliefs about God, etc. Sherry Weddell’s “Forming Intentional Disciples” also presents the framework of 5 thresholds of conversion a person passes through as they come to trust the Lord for the first time (and thus seek baptism). When inquiry means casting a wide net (i.e. many meeting spots/groups, off the parish campus, year round, etc.) and discovering what the unbaptized really believe and are curious about, before sharing the kerygma, then I believe the number of baptisms in the U.S. will rise.

    1. @Colleen Vermeulen – comment #18:
      Colleen,
      I agree. In my experience it is very important not to rush this stage. The longer we give people the better they understand and are able to make a firm commitment to the catechumenate. I find that many miss the point that a commitment is made long before baptism – becoming a catechumen is a big deal!.

  15. My initial foray into being an RCIA coordinator and getting trained was instructive. The resources I found seemed to emphasize one of two takes on the whole process: one was that it was all about the ritual. The other was that it was all about the catechetics. While both are necessary, neither necessarily results in folks who have had an inner conversion and deepening commitment to Christ.

    Concurrent with all the training and reading I did, I read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and took a leader’s class in Christlife. Taking elements from all of these, we shaped a program that is not so much a product of the materials/resources as it is a product of the witness of the individual members of the RCIA team, the sponsors, and the RCIA candidates and catechumens themselves.

    We’ve had two absolutely inspirational groups of people come through. Whether candidates, catechumens, sponsors, spouses or catechists — we all moved closer from wherever we were at. It was beautiful. This year even more so than last. The difference was that we focused more on the inquiry process. Started with Why God? Who is God? The story of His Love and Salvation through Jesus. We spent more time on hospitality that lets folks get comfortable with us and others. Both years we emphasized prayer and as the program moved along and we talked about the True presence, the experience of praying in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We gave Jesus some space to work. Very early on, we introduced them to the the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Some may think how quaint. But there is no better or quicker way to get to the heart of the Kerygma than the Divine Mercy prayers. Classes are more like seminars, great book seminar style. Everyone is free to add to the guided discussion. Catechists augment the readings with additional materials. Focus is deepening understanding of the elements of the creed and then later, the sacraments, the Church, and the moral life.
    We also try to be sensitive to schedule issues. Heard a sad store of a man married to a Catholic who happens to have a job that requires travel for six weeks at a time. So for 20 years he has not been able to find an RCIA program that would take him in. We are working wit him, one on one.

    Now we are at the point of how do we structure the entry program to be year around and to accommodate larger groups but maintain the same kind of interaction. How do get the parish to invite folks to consider completing their sacraments, becoming baptized, or coming into full communion with the Church? We’ve had folks asking if they could just take the class to learn more about their faith. The folks for this year kept asking for more classes. Some of them are actively inviting others to join the church already! They are such an inspiration.

    It was not the Rite, nor the Catechetics program that brought this, but the Holy Spirit working in hearts open to Him through all the gifts of the Church, the Body of the Christ.

  16. I’ve been tracking the RCIA numbers since the 90’s – partly because I am the survivor of three RCIA’s and graduate of none myself. (I was received on 10 days notice just before Christmas.)

    One issue that hasn’t been raised is a simple but powerful demographic one – RCIA has historically been predominantly young adult and the US Bishops 2000 study showed that the majority of those in RCIA were there for marriage and family reasons. Only about 12% were there on a personal spiritual quest.

    When only about 15% of Millennials/Gen X Catholics are at Mass on a given weekend and many fewer are getting married than once did, it makes perfect sense that the family/marriage motivation is much weaker than it once was. If it was the primary motivation for the majority, it makes perfect sense that the numbers would drop significantly.

    One question is “what is happening with the personal spiritual quest” group?

    I’m very curious as to whether or not we will see a rise in RCIA numbers due to Pope Francis but all I’ve seen so far is anecdotal stories from a few dioceses. If the drop in RCIA numbers levels out and then begins to rise over the next few years, we’ll know that something really significant is happening.

    As Colleen notes above, we could stop waiting for them to come to us and go out and share the Gospel with the unbaptized, unchurched, and other seekers. We are seeing that parishes that regularly evangelize grow because those who are seeking (and about 1/4 of the American adult population is looking for spiritual alternatives at any given point in time) hear you can ask your questions in this parish and often just show up.

    Word does get around about RCIA communities that in which people experience great spiritual and personal change. In one Newman center that we know, 8 people went through one year and all 8 had powerful conversion experiences. The next year 17 signed up – some because they had heard about the experience of the group the year before.

  17. I just watched a classic old Seinfeld episode. At one point Kramer asks George the very abstract yet at the same time highly existential question, “Do you yearn? Are you a yearner?” George replies, “No, I’m not a yearner. But I do crave”.

    As an old philosophy teacher, it seemed to me their exchange is relevant for those who prepare the RCIA programs/classes/whatever. TV series have to show what average people are concerned with, or they wouldn’t be popular. So who or what do we crave and how do we find It? That’s what RCIA is about.

  18. Having facilitated the process for thirteen years and having been taught by Fr. Tom Richstatter, O.F.M., attended Beginnings Plus, and having the wonderful experience of learning Making Disciples from Sherry Weddell, I have realized a few things. RCIA must begin with prayer, by the team, by the parish and specifically by those who discern intersecessory prayer as a Charism. They are your front line. Those who God is calling are longing to find your front door and everyone in the parish is instrumental in their journey. Encourage them to pray for the unknown member. We also discern different team members who have the Charism of hospitality, pastoring, encouragement and teaching. If you or your facilitator is not gifted with the Charism of discernment then find someone who is and bring them in to help. One axiom I live by is let’s deal with the reality we have not the fantasy we want. How, given what we have can we make room for the Holy Spirit to do his work? RCIA is a couple of hours a week, do we encourage those we sit with to live out their Catholic faith so to be models of Christ that draw others? Do we respond to our inquierers as people discerning a life or assume once you walk through the door you’re Catholic? We have a culture that people need to grow into just as much as they will grow into their faith. If discernment isn’t a Charism at least Somebody on your team possesses, GET someone. People will ask me how many are coming into the Church at Easter and I always say, only God knows. However, there are … going through the process. I agree we should give input to the Bishops and it’s important to understand what it really means to offer the process. Where I believe we should begin though is in prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction.

  19. Believe it or not, I instituted the RCIA in a Toronto parish in the early 1980s employing what I believe is the “tan book” referenced previously and I did so fully — all culminating in a 3-hour Easter Vigil that began at midnight that initiated adults, children and received people into full communion. This was all before most people had heard of RCIA much less attempted to implement it. I have had opportunity in other places to do the same. As a result I have a number of concerns and questions:

    1. Has anyone ever done a recidivist study on the number who are initiated who actually persevere? My sense is that many/most do not.
    2. The Easter Vigil following the one I mentioned had about half the people in attendance and by the time I left the parish it was celebrated at the usual 8:00pm. I understand how over centuries it ended up on Holy Saturday morning! I believe that as the Vigil goes so goes the RCIA.
    3. Why does every parish feel a need to do this? Why not a regional or deanery RCIA with rites that travel, so to speak, much like the Rite of Election held in the cathedral church. I have always worried that people thought they were joining a particular parish rather than the Catholic Church.
    4. With the lasting residue of Burke appointees to the episcopate in this country along with priests being ordained who are more attached to devotions than they are to the liturgical and pastoral vision of the RCIA, well, I think there lies the problem.
    5. And I am currently in a diocese that, up until receiving the last of the Burke acolytes, had been a model for implementing these rites. I fear it will suffer much the same fate as other initiatives of the previous bishop, who was among the last of the Jadot appointments. We shall see.

  20. I find myself wondering if this RCIA phenomenon isn’t something of the canary in the coal mine – a preview of things that may be coming. My long-held suspicion (reinforced by consistent, if anecdotal, experience) was that the vast majority of those coming into communion with the RCs were doing so as a “marriage hoop” to jump through. Any gigging church musician can tell you that weddings (esp. church weddings) have dropped off. And we’ve all read the numbers about the increasing number of spiritual-but-not-religious and/or outright atheists in the coming generations. If we’re going to shackle the RCIA numbers to anything, it would most likely be to that generational phenomenon much more so than the clergy scandal (most likely church attendance would have tracked a similarly precipitous drop-off, which it hasn’t) and definitely NOT Domine Iesus.
    We also have to remember that the increase in RC population in the US is attributable almost exclusively to Hispanic immigration and birth rate. And those numbers are self-identifiers; we can’t translate them automatically into participatory numbers. RCIA, generally speaking, would not be a known concept to that population; if you know somebody working with that population you know that immigration-related concerns often keep folks from programs that they have to sign up for. And recent data shows that those 2nd generation youth are falling out of religious practice at the increased rate of the general population.
    Like Rev. Middleton, I’d be interested in some post-RCIA recidivism numbers. Again my anecdotal but consistent experience is that post-Vigil and/or post-wedding the active involvement rate is kind of low. If we are heading for a time when those going through the RCIA process are truly doing so because of an attraction/desire to belong to the Roman rite, perhaps we’re starting to see truly accurate numbers for the first time.

  21. It begins with spirituality…..of the pastors, clergy, RCIA teams and the candidates/catechumens themselves. It is a shame that in the RCC, one priest or pastor can have such power to do ‘as father pleases” no matter what the parish has been doing or how they express their faith.
    I agree with one of the post that state folks come thru RCIA for a variety of reasons and don’t stay. Why? Because they miss the whole point. It is about Jesus Christ, our salvation and living a life of holiness and transformation. People just don’t get it.
    I had a great RCIA team and now, 3 pastors later, it is almost gone.
    When I get to teach a RCIA class, i begin with a funny but thuoght provocting question” Why do you want to be Catholic?!” The answers always surprize me to a point. Very few say “Because I believe in Jesus as my Lord”; “I want to be saved”; “I found Christ thru my future spouse”, etc.
    I hear the pain and frustration in the posts. All we can do is to proclaim Christ by words and actions…even to the pastor. We must do God;’s work with the sheep that comes to us with humility and sincerity…..

  22. A friend who read the thread emailed me to say that she thought we make it too hard to become Catholic. I sent her the following response:

    I agree that we make it too hard to become Catholic. But it’s not just us. Some of the people themselves make it hard because they want (in today’s instant gratification society) it too easy. “Just tell me what I have to do, what I need to know, and I’ll do it and learn it,” they say.

    I think we all need to realize that it’s not just about being baptized or received — the “end product”, if you like. It’s about the process of learning what it’s like to be Catholic, what it feels like, how we pray, etc. It’s about gaining an appreciation of scripture (without of course knowing the entire bible!). In fact for my money all that is more important than teaching people about doctrine, etc. (That can come later in the mystagogical period after baptism/reception.) I’m talking about learning the ethos of being Catholic, and that’s not something that happens overnight. It’s a gradual process that takes a long time. You and I never had to learn it because we grew up with it, but think how many years it took to form us as children. A similar amount of time is required for adults too, in my opinion. That’s why I keep saying that there are lots of people who call themselves Catholic, and technically are Catholic, who in fact are still Anglican. They may have a Catholic label stuck on top, but they think and feel and pray and talk quite differently from Catholics. They have the label but they have not learned the Catholic ethos. And there are others — the success stories — who you would never know hadn’t always been Catholic. I would even say that those who have never been baptized as Christians have an easier time of it because they have no or fewer preconceptions.

    The problem is that it takes different people differing amounts of time to learn the way of being Catholic, but it still does take time. So the question is: do you baptize and receive them quickly anyway, and assume that they will just pick it up later as they go along? Or do you ask them to steep themselves in who and how we are for a period of time beforehand? To use a culinary analogy, I think it’s like marinading a piece of meat for a period of time before cooking it. Some marinading requires an hour or two, other marinading takes a day or two. I think that skipping the marinade means risking a flavorless dish that doesn’t satisfy, or meat that is inedible because it’s still too tough.

    One category of people who haven’t really been mentioned in that thread are the baptized Catholics who were never catechized and never practised. We have lots of people in our RCIA process who don’t need to be baptized but know nothing of the Church. They are seeking Confirmation and Eucharist, but I hope they are also seeking something more than that. They, too, need the marinade.

    At the same time, it’s not all about preparation. The mystagogy element is something that we almost never do, and yet ongoing formation is crucial not just for those coming into the Church but for all of us. I wish I could find a good culinary analogy for what happens after you’ve eaten the meal!

    In summary, I am thinking increasingly that the “quick fix” approach to RCIA is why we are not doing well, either in retaining those we initiate and in encouraging new inquirers.

    (And if Nick Wagner, who I know often uses culinary images in his work, has already used the marinade image, I apologize. Great minds think alike!)

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #28:

      Paul, I’m not sure if I’ve used the marinade image before, but you did inspire this half-baked idea. As many have already commented, there is no single RCIA recipe. If what you have to prepare is a well-marbled rib-eye steak, all you need to do is add a little salt and pepper and cook it very quickly and briefly. If, on the other hand, you have a chuck roast, you will need to marinate it and use a long, slow cooking process. And if you have a block of tofu that you want to make into something palatable, you will need a conversion process that involves fervent intercession, divine inspiration, and miraculous transformation.

      The difficulty in many parishes is that those who are charged with the initiation of seekers only have access to or the imagination for a just-add-water recipe. Every formation opportunity is subjected to the same drab hamburger-helper-like process that usually produces a bland result.

      Coincidentally (providentially?), I read this scripture this morning: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rm 14:17). That sounds like a pretty good recipe.

      1. @Nick Wagner – comment #41:

        Nick,

        Thanks for the reply! To your comment If what you have to prepare is a well-marbled rib-eye steak, all you need to do is add a little salt and pepper and cook it very quickly and briefly I would add the last bit of the cooking process: you also need to let it rest before serving ! That allows the flavors to really develop before they reach the taster’s mouth. I think there may be an RCIA parallel there: even those we want to fast-track will benefit from a bit of extra time…

  23. Fr. Richard: There aren’t the kind of serious studies of how many who enter the Church through RCIA are still there a year or two down the road. But CARA estimates that 11% of the average congregation at Mass on Sunday is made up of converts – when you extrapolate that out to the larger population, it means that roughly 30% of all Americans who have been baptized or received into the Church are to be found at Mass on Sunday. (The Pew US Religious Survey estimated that 2.6% of all American adults are converts to Catholicism.) The US Bishops’s study found that 36% of those received at Easter were not at Mass the following weekend.

    1. @Sherry Weddell – comment #30:
      I’m wondering about that 11% figure – remember that people who are baptized in another Christian tradition and come into full communion with the RCC aren’t converts. They are already in Christ; converts come from non-religious backgrounds and/or other religious (non-Christian) traditions.

    2. @Sherry Weddell – comment #30:
      In regard to the drop-off of those who go through the rite – I wonder if it has something to do with how some parishes implement the rite. I would say drop-off is the fault of poor implementation and not the fault of the rite itself.

  24. The parish I worked at as a faith formation coordinator had a stellar RCIA team. For many years (before I got there), they had a vibrant and thriving ministry with many catechumens, including whole families. When I arrived, they were dismayed that the number of people asking to be baptized or fully initiated (which I recognize are not catechumens but still need catechizing and a process for initiation) had dropped off. When I talked to adults who had been thinking about becoming Catholic or being baptized, they often said they didn’t want to be part of something so public. They wanted to do it on their own time, in private. One woman told me “it’s a personal choice.” That simply said to me that we’d done a poor job of communicating what it meant to be part of the Church, that it was joining a community. It is not just a “personal choice” to be a Catholic Christian, it meant joining a BODY. That was the sticking point for many that I encountered, and they just never got around to it. The fire for conversion and transformation just wasn’t there.

  25. I went through RCIA because I was not confirmed as a teenager. I did not have to attend all the rites, though.

    What I disliked was that I was treated like a convert even though I was actively involved in the parish for years, even being asked more than once by the same teachers what religion I was converting from. The classes were remedial, and no effort was made to check for prior knowledge. I enjoyed some of the people I was able to meet, but it really felt like jumping through hoops.

    1. @Jack Wayne – comment #33:

      Jack: The classes were remedial, and no effort was made to check for prior knowledge. I enjoyed some of the people I was able to meet, but it really felt like jumping through hoops.

      I’ve wondered how often Jack’s experience occurs in RCIA programs. Not every participant will have the same level of knowledge. If a clergyperson or lay theologian of another communion wishes to be received into the Church, or a lay Catholic desires confirmation but knows his or her catechism well, then perhaps a priest, religious, or lay catechist should instruct them outside of basic-level classes. Perhaps a guided reading of magisterial documents might be more profitable for these persons. Every person would enter the Church at the Easter Vigil, but with an education which is best for each one.

      Different curricula for participants of different levels of knowledge does not preclude common participation in community events.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #35:

        First, RCIA. is about the unbaptized. While that occasionally includes the well catechized, it is pretty rare.

        I cannot imagine any program for other Christians that would not consider their prior knowledge and experience. Well, not true. I can imagine that kind of program and have encountered them. They key concept is from Acts 15:28-29 “No greater burden than necessary.” I doubt the issue of meat sacrificed to idols comes up often, so the necessary may be even less extensive now than then.

  26. You’d have to ask Mark Grey but I presume that he was using the term “convert” in the sociological sense that Pew US Religious Survey did – someone who is not a Catholic – whether baptized or not – and then becomes one. He also used the non-liturgical, popular term “revert”. As one of those baptized Protestants who became Catholic, I am almost always referred to as a “convert”. Although that is not liturgically correct, it is sociologically accurate and certainly an accurate description of my experience. While we share many essential elements of the Christian faith, someone from my background goes through years of sometimes wretching transition – not just theologically, but spiritually and culturally on all levels in both big “T” and little “t” Traditions. It is a huge shock on many levels and it certainly felt like a major conversion!

  27. Interestingly, most all of the concerns of #33, #35, and #36 are covered in the Rite. Problem is, few enough people read, study, and discern with the praenotanda, comments, and the people themselves.

    I think one problem in many places is too much emphasis on catechesis. Too little on discipleship.

    Forum did great work with materials on helping ministers “sort fish,” and assess what was needed for whom. But the tendency to reduce everything to a program works against that.

  28. Jack Wayne : I went through RCIA because I was not confirmed as a teenager. I did not have to attend all the rites, though. What I disliked was that I was treated like a convert even though I was actively involved in the parish for years, even being asked more than once by the same teachers what religion I was converting from. The classes were remedial, and no effort was made to check for prior knowledge. I enjoyed some of the people I was able to meet, but it really felt like jumping through hoops.

    this is a major flaw in the implementation of the RCIA!

  29. Rita, I would add to your list of concerns the huge “crack in the foundation” — parish life.

    At that level, I see experienced and newly ordained priests and deacons making decisions about the initiation process based on very little or no familiarity with the RCIA. Seminarians tell us that there is no course work on initiation and some are never guided to read the RCIA.

    At the same time, experienced pastoral leaders who dialoged regularly with the NAForum, attended Beginnings and Beyond, and continued with NAForum workshops, are retiring. They were the ones who knew the strength and beauty of the initiation process (thanks to the Forum). When they leave, pastors naively replace them with parish volunteers who have big hearts but no theological knowledge and no knowledge of the RCIA.

    The wealth of parish leadership might be plentiful in numbers but when the theological foundation is thin and quality of leadership is seriously weakened the whole house stands tentatively.

    We also see fewer young men and women choosing Lay Ecclesial Ministry as their vocation and yet, they are desperately needed in our parishes to educate and guide parish volunteer leaders in their ministry.

    Let us all stop for a moment and dream about ways to invite youth into ministry. Let us dream of ways to train priests to prioritize the parish budget so that the call to discipleship as Catholic Christians can begin with a strong initiation process in every parish.

    The health of the whole world screams for the presence of Christ’s followers to transform chaos and darkness into the light and warmth of the Reign of God. I know we, with Christ, dream for that kind of world . . .

  30. #33, 35, 39: Jack, Jordan and Donna, After struggling with the process of entering the RCC over the past year, I believe Jack’s experience touches on the major problem facing RCIA. It is a program-centered curriculum approach to Christian faith that runs rough-shod over the heart/spiritual elements of faith. Structure and curriculum control the process and are applied cookie-cutter fashion to every candidate. Much of the web discussion about RCIA problems is conducted by teachers of RCIA. Suggestions for fixing RCIA come from Catholic leadership without a serious attempt to gather a broad base of feedback from candidates who struggle with the RCIA process. While some claim that instruction can be individualized…in the real world, this is nearly impossible. RCIA has become a fixture in and of itself, regardless of the content of any parish, and candidates find RCIA to be a take-it-or-leave-it “option.” Sitting on the outside of the church still, I am very distressed by what I have experienced over the past year. It is a big topic and challenge, and I pray I will not be ground down to dust before finding an open door into the RCC.

    1. @Jane Jimenez – comment #44:
      Jane,

      This “program-centered curriculum approach to Christian faith” you criticize is precisely what I and so many others have been crusading against as we attempt to prepare volunteers and professionals to undertake this ministry according to the vision of the rite. That there are parish catechists who prefer a program-centered curriculum approach is a drawback, but not inevitable.

      “In the real world that is practically impossible” you say, but that has not been my experience. Adaptability is natural in a catechetical plan that begins with and returns to the celebration of the liturgy, with the Word and its unfolding message at its heart. The Word continues to educate us all, wherever we are, at whatever level, and is no straight jacket. The role of the sponsor is a key ingredient, as a personal companion and helper. The activity of the community as a whole, and their welcome, also provide a rich education, provided they are not pushed to the sidelines.

      It would help if you could distinguish between “RCIA in itself” and the various mis-handled examples of it that you’ve seen in practice. I know that is asking a lot. But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  31. Rita, I am now thankfully and happily Catholic. I hope to use my experience and the experiences of others I have talked with to promote the type of RCIA approach you have described in your article that takes into account the individual believer “knocking on the door” of the church. You and I share a vision, but we definitely see the current state of RCIA differently. Perhaps we are each limited by our personal parish and Church experiences. “Mishandled” versions of RCIA are the rule, not the exception as you seem to suggest. In fact, those who “mishandle” RCIA are working under clear directives from church hierarchy. They are not wayward educators who are confused or ill-informed. I have written about my experience and have spoken with many who shared similar contacts with RCIA. I welcome any opportunity to speak with and engage in dialogue with people involved with RCIA who are seeking to advocate for changes you recommend.

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