by Nick Wagner
Many RCIA teams and catechists are rightly concerned with teaching the dogmas and precepts of the church to their seekers. However, recent research has shown that it is almost impossible to teach complex ideas or make meaningful decisions without engaging people’s emotions. In other words, seekers will only think about and remember ideas that they care about in their hearts.
Are you discounting your seekers’ emotions?
This understanding of the role of emotions in the learning process is not what most of us grew up with. Experts in education used to believe that emotions interfered with learning and that teachers would be successful if they kept feelings out of the curriculum and the classroom. That belief has changed over the last 20 years as scientific studies have shown the close neurological link between emotion and cognition.
Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says, “Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills. Instead emotions, such as interest, anxiety, frustration, excitement or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the skill itself” (emphasis added; https://www.noodle.com/articles/why-emotions-are-integral-to-learning-mary-helen-immordino-yang).
This link between emotion and cognition is reflected in the RCIA. Although the RCIA was written long before the current scientific understanding of the role of emotions in learning developed, the Vatican II reformers had a sacramental understanding of the centrality of emotion in learning the faith. They wrote:
A suitable catechesis is provided by priests or deacons, or by catechists and other members of the faithful, planned to be gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year, and solidly supported by celebrations of the word. This catechesis leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts [cognition] but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation [emotion] in which they desire to participate. (RCIA 75.1)
How to let the rite be profound
So how do we, as RCIA team members, provide “a profound sense of the mystery of salvation”? We can take a clue from the catechumenal masters of the early church. In the fourth-century, the church developed what it called “awe-inspiring rites” to initiate seekers into the faith. Jesuit theologian Edward Yarnold wrote that the original Greek could just as easily have been translated as “spine-chilling rites.” He said the church’s goal was “to inspire religious awe, to make these rites the occasion of a profound and life-long conversion” (The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation, ix).
Teaching a sense of awe is just as important as teaching the dogma that is revealed by the awe. The way that we teach awe is by immersing the seekers in spine-chilling liturgical experiences that bring them into intimacy and communion with the divine presence.
It is important to realize the centrality of the rites in the conversion process of the seekers. Whenever we combine, shorten, or eliminate rites for pastoral reasons, we have to ask ourselves if we are really providing a pastoral benefit. If we expect our seekers to learn the dogmas of the faith, we will first have to provide a profound sense of the mystery of our faith.
Reprinted with permission from the blog TeamRCIA. Nick Wagner, director and founder of TeamRCIA.com, is a graduate of Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary.