There Are Good Reasons to Support the RCIA – A response to an essay at NCR

When I read Fr. Thomas Acker’s article at NCR, “Is OCIA the only template that one can use to join the Catholic Church?” I was struck by the fact that he used the story of the apostle Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian court official (Acts 8:26–40) as “an early event in Church history” to critique the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which is the normative process for the Catholic Church today. In Father Acker’s retelling, the story ends: “They never saw each other again.”

Is that really what he thinks of as a “best practice”?

The missionaries who worked for the revival of the catechumenate in the decades before the Second Vatican Council were very clear about several things. First of all, they knew that you could baptize a lot of people but that didn’t mean you were going to retain them. Plenty of missionaries produced converts. The numbers were high! But they left as quickly as they came, reverting to their former ways. These quickie conversions could not be counted as success stories. Second, just as “it takes a village to raise a child” the missionaries discovered again and again that it takes a community to make a Christian. Communio is not an optional bonus added on to “personal conversion.” It is essential to conversion itself. Relationships are essential. These hard but durable truths found expression in the revival of the ancient Christian practice of the catechumenate.

Americans, who are always convinced that they can do things faster and more efficiently than other people, for a long time relied on “convert classes” as a means of initiation. This model dispensed with the role of the local community. You were given the catechism. You got the “Catholic answers” to life’s questions in eight or ten lectures, and if you were still willing to sign on at that point, you got your sacraments. The priest was all-important. He taught the class (or provided individual “convert instruction”) and he bestowed the sacraments. Other than that, you were on your own. Basically, it was an assembly line approach, well-suited to the individualism and clericalism of the culture of American Catholicism in the industrial age.

When the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults came along in 1972 it was a profound challenge. Rather than treating the parish as a filling station where we come for pastoral services, the RCIA invites seekers to come and explore but also to stay, to belong, to become part of a people of faith and prayer, worship and mission. We are still struggling to make that shift in mentality real. Pope Francis has asked all Catholics to become “missionary disciples” but many parishes still don’t know quite what that means. There’s a tug of war between the old, individualistic and clerical approach, and the new more holistic approach that undergirds the RCIA. What Father Acker is advocating as an alternative model isn’t really new. It’s very similar to the convert instruction of days of yore, only based on a reading course he constructed.

Here’s the bottom line. The Church today asks us to conduct ourselves in a particular way in Christian initiation because the way we initiate is a fundamental expression of who we are. If we are the Body of Christ, a people called on a journey together, it makes perfect sense that initiation should be a gradual process conducted in the midst of the faith community. If we are a liturgical people, it makes perfect sense that this journey should be punctuated and deepened by liturgical rites celebrated within the worshipping assembly. Conversion rests upon the mysterious presence and action of God. This is a deeply personal call. But it is not an individualistic one. As Pope Francis observed in Fratelli tutti [32], “No one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”

Given all this, a reading course could never be adequate to the task. Sure, it would be easier. And if we remain in an individualistic and pragmatic frame of mind, it may seem like a good idea. For that matter, we could even go out and baptize people on street corners with no preparation at all. But that would not answer the call of the Gospel to “go and make disciples.” That command of Jesus requires a more organic and holistic response from us.

Sadly, Fr. Acker also recycles some misconceptions about the RCIA in his article. For example, there is no such thing in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults as the “September to April program” that so many parishes have canonized. Nor is there a “conversion season.” It’s just not there. If someone comes along and says “Hey, that’s too rigid!” they are criticizing what some people have made of the rite, not what the rite actually has asked of us.

What does the rite ask for? It looks more like what Pope Francis has suggested as the “way” or “path” of synodality. The rite asks us to listen to the stories of seekers and put those stories into dialogue with the liberating Word of God (evangelization). It asks us to gradually incorporate newcomers into a community that truly walks together by faith (through liturgy, catechesis, sponsorship, and apostolic works). It asks us to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst (discernment of readiness), to celebrate richly, and in everything to honor the rhythms of the liturgical year that lead us to Easter. Finally, it asks us to savor the mysteries of the Easter sacraments through the great fifty days and beyond (mystagogy).

This is a heck of a lot more work than a reading course, but it is also more engaging on so many different levels. And it is packed with more life than a school-year program could ever contain. Most important of all, what we do in Christian initiation then becomes the template for what the neophytes will do for the rest of their lives as Catholic Christians: listen to the Word of God proclaimed by the Church and let it challenge them; share faith with their brothers and sisters in the present day and let it strengthen them; experience the joy of discipleship and let it inspire them to go out and change the world. These are the results we are looking for, not enrollment in Catholic schools or beefing up the parish census (these byproducts are fine, but they are not the goal).

To return to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch—a beautiful story that synchs with the RCIA in multiple ways—Luke ends his story by telling us that the newly-baptized Ethiopian “went on his way, rejoicing.” The journey continues for him, but now he goes on his way not in confusion or ignorance or carrying the burden of being excluded because of who he is, but in joy, transformed by grace. This is precisely the agenda of Christian initiation.