In many parishes around the United States, classes for those interested in joining the Catholic Church are beginning. The process by which these potential Catholics are formed is called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes the program as a multi-step “journey,” the length of which depends on the individual and his readiness to enter into communion with the Church:
The period of the catechumenate can last for as long as several years or for a shorter time. It depends on how the person is growing in faith, what questions they encounter along the way, and how God leads them on this journey. During this time, the catechumens consider what God is saying to them in the Scriptures, what changes in their life they need to make to respond to God’s inspiration, and what baptism in the Catholic Church means.
Here at Catholic Answers, the apologists often get questions from individuals going through RCIA about how the program is working in their parish and what they are being told about their progress. Let’s look at a few of the common questions.
Why do I have to go through RCIA if I’m already Christian?
RCIA is primarily intended for the sacramental initiation of adults who haven’t been baptized. That’s why the USCCB document referenced above and other Church documents that discuss RCIA usually refer to the program as a catechumenate and to the participants as catechumens.
Nonetheless, many parishes choose to prepare both baptized Christians and unbaptized non-Christians in the same RCIA program. Baptized Christians are called candidates because they’re seeking full communion with the Church. In some cases, parishes also include adult Catholics who haven’t received confirmation; they’re called confirmandi. In the case of adult Catholics seeking confirmation, they’re able to go to confession and to receive Communion while participating in RCIA.
Usually, these arrangements are a matter of convenience for the parish and offer the opportunity to those being prepared to begin to get involved in parish life. Also, it can be burdensome on parish staff when inquirers ask to be prepared outside the program the parish has in place, since to do so would require splitting limited resources. For these reasons, it’s generally preferable for candidates and the confirmandi to participate in RCIA if asked to do so. If they have a serious reason for needing to expedite their entry into the Church, they may ask the pastor for an alternative arrangement.
What can I do if the RCIA program isn’t orthodox?
When I was in RCIA in 1996, a facilitator passed around copies of the Nicene Creed. She said, “I never include the word men when I say the Creed at Mass.” Then she dropped her voice and said, conspiratorially, “But I can’t teach you to do that.” I looked up from the copy I was reading and pointed out, “You haven’t included the word men on this sheet.” She looked at her copy, then laughed and replied, “Oh, I must have inadvertently left it out when I typed up the Creed since I never say it at Mass!”
RCIA programs vary in quality depending on the knowledge and orthodoxy of the people entrusted to prepare the class. While it’s possible for a student to note obvious errors in a polite way, as I did in that instance, and to bring up serious questions about orthodoxy with the pastor, for the most part it’s a good idea not to count on RCIA to teach you all you need to know about the Catholic faith. Take what’s good from the program, set aside what you find to be problematic, and expect to continue your education as a Catholic on your own. If you have questions about what you’re being taught, you can cross-check with online resources such as Catholic.com and the Vatican’s web site.
It’s almost the Easter Vigil and now I’m being told I can’t become Catholic because I’m divorced. What can I do?
Every Lent, Catholic Answers receives phone calls from people in RCIA who are frantic because an RCIA director, parish staff member, deacon, or priest is suddenly telling them they can’t be baptized or confirmed at the Easter Vigil after all because of a marriage impediment. After a year of preparation—sometimes two years!—it’s deeply disappointing for them to suddenly be turned away from the baptismal font.
This could be avoided if parishes addressed marriage issues at the start of RCIA, instead of at the end of the program. If you’re considering entering RCIA, I recommend bringing up your marital status at the start of the process to the RCIA director or the pastor. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to get your marital situation evaluated and your marriage regularized, if necessary.
But if you’re being told right before the Easter Vigil that you can’t be received into the Church, I urge you to make an appointment with the pastor right away. Many times, parish staff pass on incorrect information to those in RCIA because they don’t know how canon law applies to someone’s situation. If the pastor is unable to help, I recommend calling your diocese for a referral to a canon lawyer who can assess your situation and be an advocate for you with the parish.
Does everyone in RCIA have to become Catholic?
RCIA isn’t the spiritual equivalent of boot camp. There are steps to the process that allow participants to discern where they’re at in their journey and if they want to continue. If at any point along the way a person decides that he’s not ready to continue, there’s no obligation that he do so. He may continue in the class if he wishes to learn more about the Church without formal commitment, or he may choose to drop out (and return later, if he wishes).
What do I do after RCIA is over?
After being received into the Church, many RCIA programs include post-baptismal classes for the new Catholics known as mystagogy, which is intended to provide continuing education in the Catholic faith and to help new Catholics get their footing in parish life. As with other aspects of RCIA programming, the quality can vary. My RCIA class just had a farewell potluck after the Easter Vigil.
Whether or not your parish offers a substantive mystagogy as part of RCIA, you need to continue to learn your faith. If you’ve gotten to know your classmates well, you might suggest to them that you get together for a “new Catholic study group.” If that’s not feasible, perhaps you can ask your sponsor if the two of you can read a book on the faith together. The important thing is to keep learning and exploring your faith. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen … is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!” (1253).