Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thoughts on RCIA

Any person who has ever wanted to join the Catholic Church after the 1960's has had to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). This was seen as the restoration of the ancient catechumenate of the third and fourth centuries and had as its purpose the catechesis of new Catholics to ensure that they were well versed in the articles of the faith. The issue was addressed by the Second Vatican Council, which called for the reinstatement of the catechumenate. Bishops' voted on restoration of the catechumenate with a vote of 2,165 Yes's, 9 No's, and 1 null. In 1966 the provisional ritual was distributed followed by the 2nd draft in 1969 which was distributed for experimentation. In 1972 the Vatican promulgated the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults and in 1986 the US bishops approved US additions to the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults and National Statutes and a national plan of implementation. The current RCIA program as we now know it was not implemented in the United States until September, 1988.

Being involved in the RCIA process for several years, I can confidently say that it has its pros and cons, largely depending on who happens to be teaching the classes and what kind of curriculum is being followed. I follow the traditional division: Creed, Sacraments, Commandments, Lord's Prayer (and I also through in some miscellaneus stuff, like Church history, etc). This is the same formula followed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is the traditional pedagogy of catechesis, going at least back to Augustine and much earlier.

However, I have often inquired into other parish RCIA programs and found the most arbitrary arrangements of material. One I saw in a parish in southeastern Michigan had a set up that was something like this:

Week 1: First Commandment

Week 2: Second Commandment

Week 3: Baptism

Week 4: Social Justice Issues

Week 5: Social Justice Issues (part 2)

Week 6: Social Justice Issues (part 3)

Week 7: Creation

First of all, is there any pedagogical order to this arrangement? It seems completely arbitrary. Secondly, it is obvious by the insistence on Social Justice (and yes, they really did spend three weeks on this) that this was probably a platform for the RCIA teacher to lecture on her support for illegal immigration, Marxism, etc. Now, if the RCIA teacher is following a good pedgogical form (which is mandated by Catechesi Tradendae) and is presenting the faith in an organic matter, seasoned with solid references to explanations from the Catechism, Scriptures, the Fathers, the Councils, Popes and Saints, then RCIA can be a very positive and formative experience. But it can also be the time where people can come to think the faith is just lame, or be inculcated in false doctrine. I was recently informed that years ago at my parish, a group of women used to burn fires at Advent, throw dirt into the air and pray to the North, South, East and West. Would any Catholic do that if they had proper formation?

Another issue with RCIA is the rites surrounding the acceptance of the catechumens into the Church. I was recently asked by a priest to write a brief article on the history of the Rite of Acceptance. As I began researching this rite, I quickly discovered that it had no history. Sure, it employed a few elements found in the ancient Church, mostly signing catechumens with the sign of the cross, but this is such a common Catholic gesture that it is hard to build a case of continuity on the sign of the cross alone. The manual for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults cites only one magisterial document for precedent: the 1965 document Ad Gentes, hardly a distinguished pedigree in Tradition (even Ad Gentes, which the RCIA manual cites, itself cites Lumen Gentium more than any other document, though in fairness it does make mention of several encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI).

The rites surrounding RCIA were completely invented out of thin air. In their case (unlike the case with the Novus Ordo) there was not even an attempt to assert that they were in continuity with an older, established Tradition; they were simply made up. This is not fair to unknowing persons entering the Church who (like myself years ago), believe errantly that they are going through an ancient and hallowed process by going through RCIA. Little did I know that what I thought was an ancient rite was only mandated when I was in 3rd grade!

I understand that RCIA cannot exactly just pick up where the Church left off, since for many centuries there was no established catechumenate, as they had in the ancient Church. But that does not mean the Church had no forms set up for people entering Her. One thing I would like to see changed is for more priests to get involved in RCIA (unless, of course, they are teaching heresy, in which case I'd like them to stay the hell away from it!). I think the period ought to be longer: a few months, even nine, is not enough to saturate a person in Catholic doctrine and spirituality. There ought to be more retreats and less classes on social justice. We should return to the practice of giving these people a ton of exorcisms (still maintained somewhat in the Three Scrutinies).

For so many Catholics, RCIA comes across as a bad experience. I pray that God would send catechists out there who can make RCIA both a period of intense spiritual formation and of great joy.

See here for a related post on how to put together a successful RCIA program.


Anonymous said...

Each year, at the Easter Vigil, we can reflect on two numbers. The first is the number of those who are coming into the Church.

The second, sadly, is the number of those new Catholics who have left since the previous Easter.

Our local bishop.... should I say, loco bishop... once remarked that "...yeah, it is worth than that, probably more than half who leave...."

Yet he offered no solution.

RCIA should only be a beginning. Serious sponsors and continuing education are a must. Afterall, in 2000 years the Catholic Church is still learning about Truth..... Truth which is not something, but Somebody.

Who are we to think that we can learn it all in an RCIA experience.... no matter how smart we might be.


Alexander said...


First off I would like to thank you for the offer of writing here at your bog. The reason I don’t post much is because I usually cannot think of anything to post about that someone else has already covered or can do better (some subjects I would love to post about but do not have sufficient knowledge) also there is sometimes some time constraints. I know that’s the perfect reason to join a blog with many posers but I was planning some things with my blog later on, so I think I’ll stick with mine for now. But I will keep the offer in mind.

Next, I would like to offer you and Anselm an invite to a forum where I moderate (if you are already not signed up there in the first place):

Here we talk about issues like Vatican II, new Mass, ecumenism, and many other things. Your input would be appreciated even if you could just post a few things from time to time. Just post an introduction in the introduction forum and I can give you access to such areas. We’re a pretty close knit group, its very nice getting all sorts of help from these people.

Finally I was wondering what to do about someone I know. He wants to join the Church but has a learning disability. He is not stupid, he can understand things when I explain it to him its just that he has a hard time retaining some information especially when he reads it (he has failed his temporary license test like three times for example).
If he were to go through RCIA I don’t know how well he would do. I assume I should talk to a priest about this but I was wondering if you or anyone else here has come across this problem. Is it possible that he could forgo RCIA if I taught him? I know him very well and I have ways of helping him retain information and understand things more than anyone else.

Boniface said...


I'll register today