When someone asks you the question – ‘What exactly is RCIA?’ – what do you reply? Maybe you say something like: It’s a series of liturgies to welcome people into the Church; or it’s the way the Catholic Church forms people to join the Church; or even it’s a process that we go through to join the Church. Another way of trying to answer the question is to outline the principles underlying RCIA. There are ten of them and the following briefly describes each one.
The first two principles are that: God is at work and that Jesus is at the heart of the process. When a person seeks to join the Catholic Church they are responding to the grace of God in their lives and are being guided by the Holy Spirt to embark on a journey of faith. As a person hears the Gospel story and meets other believers they get a ‘glimpse’ of who Jesus is and recognize Jesus as the ‘light of the world’. The heart is moved to conversion.
The third principle tells us that: RCIA is how the Church welcomes new members. It is the normative way that adults become members of the church and the RCIA book provides liturgies and guidance on formation for people as they journey towards the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, & Eucharist) at the Easter Vigil.
But this journey takes time so the fourth principle emphasizes that: Growing in faith takes time and the Rite provides a series of steps enabling this growth. In the beginning the ‘enquirer’ is in the ‘period of evangelisation’, asking questions and hearing the Gospel. They are then accepted into the ‘Catechumate’ through a liturgy called the ‘Rite of Acceptance’. This is where the ‘catechumen’ discovers what it means to be a follower of Christ in the Christian community. There is no fixed time limit on these first two stages, A PERSON CAN TAKE AS LONG AS IS NEEDED which can be more than a year.
The catechumenate finishes on the first Sunday of Lent at the ‘Rite of Election’ which leads into the stage of ‘purification and enlightenment’ – a time of preparation for the Sacrament of Initiation. After which is the period of ‘mystogogia’ which reflect on the experience of the Sacraments.
A key stage in this process is the Catechumenate where: Catechumens become apprentice disciples of Christ, the fifth principle. The four areas of formation in this stage are: an understanding of the faith of the Church; taking part in the liturgy; integration into the life of the Church, and being a witness to faith through Christian living. All this is the responsibility of the whole community (the sixth principle) who can be involved in all kinds of ways: bringing people to Church; praying for the catechumens; offering Sponsors or Godparents (principle eight). A sponsor accompanies the enquirer up to the Rite of Acceptance, after which they become a Godparent. They are part of a team supporting the journey (eighth principle) which also includes the parish priest, catechists and others who have different roles throughout.
The ninth principle is understanding the rite and adapting the model. The model can be used for other catechesis: for children, for uncatechised Catholic adults, and for those baptised into other denominations who wish to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Then finally the principle that transformation is ongoing. The Catechumenate was restored to the Church following the second Vatican Council and the current English edition was mandatory in 1988. But the landscape is changing, we are still learning how to implement the Rite and to do’ the Catechumenate. Are we responding to God’s call in the lives of people of today?
To be called to be witnesses to Christ and share in someone’s journey of faith is an enormous privilege and hopefully the more we understand the key principles underlying RCIA the more effective we can be in this ministry.