RCIA Retention Rates Not Just Good, They’re Excellent

Rite of Election, Diocese of San Jose
Rite of Election, Diocese of San Jose

We’ve all heard it.

When the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) comes up in discussion as a good thing for the church or as one of the come-from-behind success stories of post-Vatican II liturgy, someone will always pipe up and say: “But I’ve read somewhere there’s a shocking rate of them leaving afterwards,” or “We were told the recidivism is very high,” or “Most of them don’t stay, though, do they?”

So… is this true? Do great numbers of the newly-initiated turn around and leave?

CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown), in their blog Nineteen Sixty-Four, notes that “there is no current and ‘credible source’” for the gloomy statistics sometimes cited (anywhere from 50% to 90% loss after initiation). In fact, just the opposite is likely the case.

Looking at the numbers of Catholics overall, and the percentage of those who were initiated through the RCIA, they came up with a very different picture.

They estimate an 84% retention rate.

Here’s how they figured it:

Aggregating over multiple years and studies, CARA’s national surveys of self-identified adult Catholics (CARA Catholic Polls or CCP) indicate that 8% entered the Church as adults. Three-quarters of these adults (75%) say they went through an RCIA program. Thus, we can assume that 6% of all adult self-identified Catholics are converts who have been through RCIA.

How many Catholic adults are there? According to the Census, the U.S. population in 2014 was 318.9 million. Of this, 245.2 million were adults. CARA’s aggregation of national surveys for 2014 (Pew, Gallup, PRRI, GSS) estimates that 23.2% of this population self-identified as Catholic at that time. This means there were 56.9 million Catholic adults. Six percent of these adults, who we estimate entered as adults and went through RCIA, represents a total population of 3,413,199.

We know about 4 million have entered the faith as adults since 1986. Surely, some of these people have passed away or moved outside of the United States (…also some who entered the faith in another country may have moved to the U.S. and been captured in our surveys). Yet, even if [we] assume none have passed away or left, then 84% of these entries still self-identify as Catholic and as we have described before they tend to be very active in the faith. For example, 62% attend Mass at least once a month (compared to 48% of cradle Catholics) and 54% go to confession at least once a year (compared to 24% of cradle Catholics).

So why do so many RCIA directors, pastors and others assume retention and activity is so low? Why don’t they see the people they formed in their pews? Because many really did leave that parish. But that doesn’t mean they are not Catholic and not active in their faith in another parish. Remember 72% indicate one of the main reasons they convert to Catholicism is marriage. What do people do in and around the time they get married? They move, buy homes, start families, start careers, and have kids. Don’t take it personally that they aren’t in your pews. It’s a safe bet that they are in another parish’s pews. Actually it’s more than a safe bet. Eleven percent of people CARA has surveyed nationally in-pew, during Mass, self-identifies as a convert to Catholicism. That is higher than their share within the self-identified Catholic population (8%). This is because they are more often attending Mass than other Catholics.

It’s important to note that the 84% figure is an estimate based on aggregating data from other studies, a “quick calculation” rather than a an in depth and comprehensive study. A full study remains to be done. But this does not mean that the story we hear – with estimates of large overall losses – is plausible. The numbers could be better, of course. But they are very, very good. “The 84% retention estimate is likely on the low and conservative end.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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23 comments

  1. Thank you for this!
    You are so correct about the rumors regarding retention. If poor retention is the case in a particular parish, I maintain that the rite has not been implemented appropriately.
    I just completed teaching a graduate course, RCIA: Theology and Practice and I impressed upon the students the importance of a solid understanding and good implementation of this highly affective rite of our Church as well as its implications for everything we do in the parish.

  2. Not surprised at all that the numbers for Mass attendance, Confession, and participation are higher for converts than cradle Catholics…these are people who make a conscious choice to be Catholic instead of passively inheriting a Catholic identity from their family of origin. Many of the strongest Catholics I’ve encountered in my parish are converts. The numbers for cradle Catholics are just sad.

  3. Forgive the double post, but when I led RCIA, I’d also show the catechumens the book of the elect, and point out all the names from previous years of people they knew. Kids in RCIC especially were delighted to see some of their friends’ parents in there. I could point to many of the parish’s ‘movers and shakers.’

  4. I have written this before, and I will again. I am a cradle Catholic. Even so, I very strongly suspect that the drawn out RCIA process is not for everyone. If an Anglican or Lutheran can in an indubitably orthodox manner articulate each point of the Credo, and also the basics of sacramental theology, a pastor should give his satis and confirm very soon. It is more important that converts who are knowledgeable receive the life-giving Eucharist as soon as possible than be impeded by a one-year course which they could probably teach themselves.

    All is vanity. Parading the RCIA catechumens around a church, especially at the signing of the election book, is indeed vain. Better then to have the book-signing at a separate Mass. I, as well as catechumens and converts, must continuously immerse ourselves in the radiant glory of quiet liturgical austerity and the necessity of liturgical self-denial, and never bask in the plastic clapping of barely veiled engineered-community-formation.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      An awareness of the purpose behind the public rites for the unbaptized is also vital. At the Rite of Acceptance, seekers come to join the Church. They are asked about what they seek. The parish hears it. This signals the larger faith community to an awareness: catechumens will now be in their midst. Time to be on their best behavior.

      In the Rite of Election the situation is somewhat reversed. The community speaks to the bishop (or pastor) and gives testimony that God has indeed been active in the lives of these catechumens. Conversion is about God’s initiative, God’s agency. We are speaking not of candidates electing themselves for baptism, nor a community electing new members. God elects us.

      The Initiation Rites celebrate and make public a theological reality for the Christian community. It leaves little to the imagination: no wondering if we’re sensing austerity, or boredom, or introversion, or going through the motions. It may be one reason why “retention” rates are so high, even given the numbers of people who become Catholic because their spouse is.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:

        Todd, your interpretation of the Rite of Election is most orthodox. However, my definition of “austerity” is perhaps strange. I had never bothered to define it here on PTB; perhaps I should. “Austerity” corresponds to a celebration of the Mass and liturgies in general which is extremely restrained in presentation and positively devoid of the notion of assembly. Imagine a low Mass transposed over a silent Quaker meeting in a catholicized Friends meeting-house, a place nearly devoid of iconography. This would be the best mental visualization of “austerity”. Here the intellect is exalted, the emotions are subordinated, and the need for assembly participation void. Thought alone, aided by a grace external to the sacraments, sustains the believer and impels her to understand the sacraments.

        This fantasy is dangerously heterodox. The reforms sought to stamp out every last vestige of unconditional election and other Jansenisms which had become “orthodox heresies”. The ratification of the assembly during the Rite of Election confirms that grace is a part of liturgy, and not granted by God individually outside of the assembly. So the reformation of the rites, and especially the Mass, is precisely the restoration of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I find the notion that the assembly must participate or ratify at every turn intrusive to thought. If I cannot reconcile myself to the orthodox need for the assembly, then perhaps I cannot be Catholic.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo:
        If I were you, I’d be disinclined to be so hard on myself and my place in the Church.

        You describe an interesting “iconoclasm,” one of the affect. Having been reared in a home that exalted cleverness (as distinct from intelligence or certainly wisdom) over emotion (mainly exuberance and its relations) I was once inclined to feel as you did. Trappists monasteries were and are among my favorite places to visit, to worship, and to make retreats. But I’ve come to recognize that God created all aspects of human beings, and that God likely values our emotional lives as much as our intellectual abilities. Is it not possible to have both, to find God in both, to allow ourselves to explore both in the realm of the spiritual? If not in the same person, at least in the same Church? Or at least treat feelings in Church like exercise: I may not enjoy it, but it keeps me healthy.

        I do think your reference to “every turn” to be something of an exaggeration. There are really only six public rites: acceptance, election at the cathedral or sending in the parish, three scrutinies, and baptism. Cannot one simply offer prayers at those times, and rejoice at the Church’s active and effective evangelization? And pray in austerity at other times of the week, outside of those Masses?

      3. @Todd Flowerday:

        Todd: “Cannot one simply offer prayers at those times, and rejoice at the Church’s active and effective evangelization? And pray in austerity at other times of the week, outside of those Masses?

        I cried (well, became misty-eyed) once in church, during the Easter Vigil. I rejoiced in a visible way, and then became embarrassed that my mask of stoicism slipped off my face for a moment. I was frightened of displaying emotion, and so I hid.

        One of the catechumens wept slightly as she bent over the font for the pouring. I wept slightly because I never knew a conscious, heartfelt baptism. Does an neonate understand joy and the significance of baptism? Perhaps all I did was wail when the cold water touched my crown. I cried because a young adult had the privilege of remembering the joy of her baptism. This must be a wondrous event to remember! I turned my face away, because I was jealous.

        I am Dives. I live in one of the wealthiest zip codes in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. I never went for want ever, including education. And yet I cannot see Lazarus, the dogs, and the crumbs. If I cannot see these three, then no amount of wealth will save me. Truly, I must check my privilege. Still, if all is seen darkly, I am back again at ignorance, at the reveling in privilege.

        When I see Masses with dancers swirling about with flowerpots filled with briquettes and Prinknash, I am mortified on their behalf. Mass is the entire cosmos in the mind’s eye of Mary at the Annunciation, “I thirst!”, the water and blood from the Lord’s lanced side. The meditation for the dancers is the frivolity of terracotta censers? Yet do I not see the jar of nard here? Austerity, the entire immersion of the mind in the esoteric and the nearly infinite theological derivatives of the mind is an image of Christ’s adversaries mentally calculating the denarii that amphora of perfume must have cost.

        A true empathy given without grudge or airs must precede the austerity I desire.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo:
      I agree with you…it would be wrong for a parish to turn someone away and make them wait for RCIA classes to start up again if they were ready to join the Church. It’s like saying God only calls people to His Church this one time of the year. Making everyone go through RCIA seems rigid. I think of St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?'” (Acts 8:36)

      What if St. Philip told the eunuch, “sorry, even though you came to faith in Jesus Christ, we only baptize adults at the Easter vigil. Since Jesus was just raised from the dead, take these classes which may or not be relevant to you, and I’ll baptize you next year.”?

      1. @Jay Edward:
        I’ve also heard the stories, of course. I served a parish once where I replaced a person who was perceived to use that method. The RCIA team and I immediately implemented a year-round catechumenate. And for the baptized, “nothing more than necessary” as a guiding principle. You can be sure that in authentic initiation workshops around the world, such stories are discouraged from being repeated and inexperienced ministers of conversion are encouraged to employ better practices.

      2. @Jay Edward:
        Jay, I wanted to respond only to one part of your remark, about the Easter Vigil.

        As you know, we Catholics are not biblical literalists, and so do not take the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch as our model in a literal sense (if we did, our baptizing ministers would have to be “whisked away” as Philip is at the end of the story!). It is, rather, a story with a specific point to make, about the willing inclusion in the community of Christians of those who would have been barred from Judaism because of physical mutilation, and it is a story about the conversion of an individual proceeding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Excellent story! And it should caution us not to assume that the appointed ministers of conversion “control” the mystery. They serve it.

        That said, from a very early date (second-third century) the Easter Vigil was the normal and preferred setting for baptism. It continues to have a great deal of weight as the normative and most excellent occasion for adult baptism in the church year — following a Lent of purification, when the whole community walks with the elect, and in the glory of the Sacred Triduum, their “passing over” from death to life united to Christ’s pascha, as St. Augustine so eloquently expresses it.

        The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults allows for baptism at other times than the Vigil in case of grave necessity. In danger of death, for example, or when soldiers are being sent into combat, or in other cases. But on the other hand we struggle with the instant gratification mentality of many in our society, as well as the assumption that the individual is the sole arbiter of whether their conversion is authentic. No, says the Church. That readiness must be tested, and the authentic call fostered by the local church and allowed to mature so that baptism is embraced with free will, and genuine commitment. This takes time.

      3. @Jay Edward:
        “Making everyone go through RCIA seems rigid.”
        Jay, it seems to me that folks often speak of “RCIA” as though it were course in theology or doctrine. And if that is the sense of it, then making everyone go through it can be rigid. But RCIA is not a classroom program. It is a rite of the Church. And it is the only rite through which an adult may be initiated. There is no Plan B. The *preparation* for the rite and the length of the preparation will vary for each person (see RCIA 76), but the rite itself is required of every unbaptized person who wishes to enter into a life of faith in Christ.

    3. @Jordan Zarembo:
      Jordan, I’d like to add some contextualizing comments in response to your reaction against, specifically, having a public ritual for Election.

      The photograph is not of one of the elect. Rather, it would be a parish catechumenate director or coordinator, or one of the sponsors, carrying the parish book of the elect in procession.

      How do I know? I invented the gesture; it appears in my book On the Rite of Election (LTP 1994), in the description of what we did at the time in the Archdiocese of New York. Why did I do that? Because (a) the ritual text is wordy and contains only one prescribed gesture: the signing of the book, which cannot be done very easily in a large diocesan liturgy with hundreds of elect, (b) because others were encouraging the use of liturgical dance with the book, which seemed off the mark to me, symbolically, and would be prohibited in many situations, (c) because the Book of the Elect has deep roots historically and theologically, and yet the books themselves were being treated casually and without due reverence; if we want what the book represents to be honored, we have to treat the book with due honor.

      In the early church, under persecution, the authorities who wanted to exile or imprison or kill Christians would burst into a church and demand the books. If your name was in the Book of the Elect, on “the rolls” so to speak, not merely your name but your life was on the line. This is the same book, not physically but symbolically, that we carry in the rite. Scripture speaks in eschatological language of a book kept by God; this is also part of the “weight” of the symbol. Thomas Aquinas discusses it. Honor to this book is honor to the people whom God has chosen to bear Christ’s light in the world.

      The procession with books is decorous and suited to the scale of a cathedral; whether its import is grasped is up to the preaching and catechesis around the event.

    4. @Jordan Zarembo:
      Jordan, one person’s parade is another person’s procession. Procession has a deep history in both Jewish and Christian liturgy. I have difficulty seeing the procession of the candidates for a rite as vanity. That said, any liturgical rite “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity” (CSL 34). I’m not sure noble simplicity is quite the same thing as “austerity,” however.

  5. Jordan, the RCIA process is absolutely not for baptized Christians who have the knowledge and faith you described. Such people are explicitly excluded from RCIA in the documents themselves, and are to be received into the church as quickly as possible.

    1. @Terri Miyamoto:

      Thank you, Terri, for your correction.

      Perhaps the second paragraph was gratuitous and not in keeping with the subject. Even so, it does reflect my opinion, however misplaced in discussion.

  6. Sorry for the double post, as I may no longer edit.

    “Austerity” would be, in effect, a parish church directly modeled on a Cistercian abbey chapel. Here is only the clarity of the human voice in chant, no organ. Affirmation, in the Mass and Office, would not be informed by facades of emotion but always by voice and gesture impelled by the effervescent mind.

  7. Rita, thanks for posting this. We got an e-mail yesterday asking about recidivism among neophytes because Catholic Radio reported that the dropout rate is “anything from 50% – 70% in the first 7 years following an Easter Vigil.” It always astounds me that “news outlets” make such unsupportable and outlandish statements with no shred of verifiable evidence. What problem are they trying to solve?

  8. Happily the church has a place for people who gain sustenance from a wide variety of styles of worship.
    The trick is to rejoice in that diversity.
    “Many mansions” etc.

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