It’s rather embarrassing whenever someone asks me as a convert to recount my experience in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Even though it wasn’t all that long ago (1995–96), the experience was so forgettable that I remember only two incidents.
The first incident was when one of the facilitators was teaching us the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. She handed out printed copies of both creeds, then proceeded to tell us why she always omitted the word men (as in “for us men and for our salvation”) when she recited the Nicene Creed at Mass. Then she said in a conspiratorial tone, “But I’m not allowed to teach you to do that, of course.” I had been reading through the creeds while she spoke and suddenly looked up. “But the word men is not here in the Nicene Creed,” I pointed out. She looked at a copy and then laughed. “I must have inadvertently left it out when I was typing up the creeds, since I never include the word when I recite the Creed!”
The second incident was with another facilitator. Having gathered us together in a circle—rather like kindergarten, except we were seated on sofas and not on mats—this gentleman held up two chocolate-chip cookies. He asked if any of us could pick out which cookie was the low-fat cookie. I sighed and volunteered a guess. I kid you not, the man affected an amazed voice and asked me how I knew. Impatient for this pointless exercise to be finished, I snapped, “Because it looks like a low-fat cookie.” He handed me the fat-filled cookie as a reward for my correct answer and then asked if I would be willing to share it with the lady seated next to me. Did I mention that it seemed like we were in kindergarten?
I think it fair to estimate, conservatively, that 95 percent of my education in Catholicism came through self-directed study of books and other materials I found through Catholic Answers.
Fast-forward a decade.
Part of our work in apologetics at Catholic Answers requires learning about other religions. Such study is vital so that we can answer questions that are submitted by people who need information so they can talk to non-Catholic friends and family. Each of us tends to pick an area in which we have a personal interest and that will be helpful for our work. For example, after 9/11, one of my colleagues in the department put a great deal of time into learning as much as he could about Islam so that the apostolate could publish a special report for our supporters. In my case, one of my interests is modern Judaism.
By 2007, I had done a lot of personal research on Judaism, reading as many books on the topic as I could. But I felt something was missing. I thought it might be a good idea to study Judaism with a teacher rather than relying on my own opinions on what I was reading. About that same time I noticed that a local synagogue was offering a brief overview of Judaism to the community. I signed up. During the overview, the rabbi teaching the class mentioned that anyone interested in further study could join his Introduction to Judaism course, which was a prerequisite for conversion to Judaism.
I had no interest in converting to Judaism, but I was interested in a more substantial introduction to the teachings of Judaism so I asked the rabbi if I could audit the class (making clear to him that I was not going to convert). He told me I was welcome to attend.
The class was informal in the sense that we were gathered around a table. The rabbi’s style of teaching mainly consisted of asking the class questions for further discussion, in a mutual exchange of ideas. (I was reminded of the child Jesus learning from the rabbis in the Temple.) There was no written work to be handed in, but considerable outside reading was expected. And this was only what I experienced in auditing the class.
Had I actually been preparing for conversion, I’d have been expected to take an additional class in introductory Hebrew, meet individually with the rabbi for personal counseling and assessment of my progress, and begin incorporating Jewish practice into my life (such as observing Shabbat and kashrut). Once the rabbi determined a candidate for conversion was ready, that candidate would then appear before three rabbis, forming a bet din, who would convene to render judgment on the potential conversion. The candidate would be expected to answer questions from the rabbinical court regarding his understanding of Judaism, his reasons for seeking conversion, and his ability to live a Jewish life. Then, and only then, would he be allowed to undergo ritual circumcision (if the candidate was a man) and immersion in a mikveh (men and women).
Those converts who wished to have a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah would then enter a far more rigorous course of study after conversion.
Since that time I have long wondered why Catholic adult conversion programs are not similarly demanding of their students.
To be fair, there are some signs of hope. The North American Forum on the Catechumenate, the lay-run ministry that for over 30 years trained RCIA directors and facilitators like those I encountered in the 1990s, has been shuttered for lack of funding. Other lay Catholics, disgusted at the lack of substance in most RCIA curricula, have started to create a more demanding curriculum for the benefit of converts in their own circles of influence. More must be done though.
The fact is that adult Catholics crave solid teaching. If they don’t find it in the Church, they will look for it elsewhere. How can I be so certain? Well, there’s one more thing you should know about that introductory class in Judaism that I audited.
I was stunned when I realized that practically every single adult in that class who shared his or her personal story had come from some kind of Catholic background.