RCIA horror stories and thoughts on teaching RCIA. And of course, the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website has been offering free RCIA lesson plans for over two years.
In light of the many issues relating to RCIA, folks have asked me over the years about possible alternatives to RCIA. What sort of leeway do we have in the modern Church to stray outside the current norm when it comes to initiating converts into the Church? What other alternatives are there for receiving people into the Church other than RCIA?
First of all, it must be noted that there is really no legitimate way to "get rid" of RCIA. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is mandated from the highest levels of ecclesiastical authority and there is no Diocese in the West where it is not pushed by the local Ordinary. Attempts to abolish or ignore RCIA will be met with stern resistance from even the most traditional minded bishops.
That being said, there is nothing prohibiting pastors from using their own discretion to bring persons into the Church in unconventional applications of the norms. Thus, we are not talking about something to replace RCIA, but other non-conventional ways of adapting it to parish life that are better or more closer to tradition. These sorts of adaptations and options are allowed in the current legislation - and Lord knows how the modern Church loves options!
The authoritative document, also called Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, lays down a basic framework for how initiation should proceed and what liturgical commemorations are appropriate, but leaves pastors free to adapt the content of this process based on their own pastoral judgments. The document is primarily concerned with liturgical celebrations and makes only the vaguest statements about what the actual instruction is to look like. Look at the incredible leeway the document allows when discussing the actual nature and content of instruction:
"The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful" (4)
All we are told here is that it should be gradual and take place within the "community", which judging by the context of the document, means that the stages of initiation should be celebrated liturgically.
"The second period, which begins with this entrance into the order of catechumens and which may last for several years, includes catechesis and the rites connected with catechesis." (7)
Here we are simply told that there should be "catechesis"; presumably the how, when and why of this is left to the discretion of the pastor.
"During this period, a more intense spiritual preparation... is intended to purify hearts and minds by the examination of conscience and by penance" (25).
"After this last stage has been completed, the community along with the neophytes grows in perceiving more deeply the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives" (37)
Again, what does it look like to help the neophyte grow in "perceiving more deeply the paschal mystery"?
"[A] period of postbaptismal catechesis is of utmost importance" (39).
Again, we are simply told that there ought to be catechesis but what it should look like is left up in the air, presumably to be adapted to the needs of each community and even individuals seeking entrance into the Church.
The point is that there is no fixed formula for what RCIA is supposed to look like, and the document itself states that part of the Council's vision was the "adaptation to local traditions" of the process of initiation. Therefore, we are on very solid footing when we suggest that RCIA need not look like the beast we have come to know it as, with weekly classes, RCIA "teams", lame reflections on the readings, service projects, etc. The contemporary experience we have come to know as RCIA is simply the method most parishes, following the USCCB, have adopted for implementing the directives of the RCIA document. But it need not be so, and there are viable alternatives.
First, let us look at the Traditional way.
In the pre-Conciliar days, reception into the Church was a very private affair. A candidate would meet with a priest who would examine his motives and remind him of the responsibilities of becoming Catholic. if the candidate had no objections and cleared this first stage, he would begin to "take instruction" as it was called, which consisted of weekly meetings with the priest who would instruct him in the basics of the faith whilst continuing to assess and candidate's spiritual state. After an indeterminate amount of time - maybe six months, maybe two years, depending on the candidate - a small Mass would be said at which the candidate would be received into the Church. It could be at any time of year and was often on a feast day chosen by the candidate. The Mass was usually a daily Mass, small, and attended mainly by family and friends invited by the candidate.
Note the very appropriate union between the intellectual and the spiritual. The candidate is instructed by a priest who is capable of both instructing and assessing spiritual problems - and vested with the authority to take remedial action in either if need be. How different this is from the lay-dominated RCIA program today, where the layman teaches but with no competence or authority to judge the spiritual readiness of a candidate, nor the moral or canonical authority to rebuke the scandalous. For example, in the old days, if a candidate was cohabiting with a female, the priest giving instruction would have full authority to deal with the issue. But now, what happens when the layman RCIA director finds out about some scandalous behavior? He usually does not have the authority to kick the offender out of the program, nor the wisdom to really assess the spiritual state of the individual. At best he can quote Church teaching to the offender and pass the complaint on to the priest, who now must intervene, learn the facts, and make a determination in a situation he has just been briefed on about a person he has probably not had the opportunity to get to know personally. We can see at once that from a pastoral perspective, the pre-Conciliar practice was much sounder.
The great thing is, under the current legislation, this sort of initiation is still permissible, so long as the various liturgical rites are celebrated (the vast majority of these rites are made optional in the adaptations of these norms by the episcopal conferences and many are movable - for example, see #53 in the RCIA document on "pastoral reasons" for transferring presentation of the Creed). A pastor with the willingness can still require this sort of individualized initiation - of course, it takes more of the pastor's time and is much more involved, but the formation would be undoubtedly better.
Another alternative would be to have a regimented reading program with less face to face meetings. Instead of weekly meetings with the priest, a monthly book list assigned by the priest, with only a meeting at the end of each month to confirm the candidate's understanding of the reading material and offer further clarifications. I personally helped some folks come in to the Church in this manner.
At other times, a priest may not need to give much catechetical instruction. This is often the case when a very well-educated person "reads" themselves into the Church. In such cases, it is necessary simply for the pastor to assess his level of knowledge and then to ensure that a sufficient time of spiritual preparation is undertaken before reception. It need not be long. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has done all the work and it is simply the job of the pastor to stand aside and admit the individual. It is presumptuous to think that every person - no matter what they have learned and no matter how the Spirit has prepared them - is in need of a 9 month class. Sometimes a person is ready and the pastor just needs to give them a little bit of spiritual preparation.
My point is that we need not feel that 9 months of classes taught by a lay person - or worse, a "team" of them - is the only option under the current legislation. So long as the main liturgical rites are observed, a pastor is free to come up with any sort of arrangements he wishes. And it is the position of this blog that pastors ought to do so.