Saturday, June 19, 2010

RCIA Horror Stories

When I was coming into the Church almost a decade ago, I loved RCIA. I couldn't wait for every Sunday to come, when after Mass my wife and I along with a few other catechumens and candidates would head out behind the parish to the classroom-trailers up on the hillside to have RCIA. We had a very dedicated and knowledgeable RCIA instructor who knew what he was talking about, loved the Catholic faith and was able to bring in a few other really gifted people to teach (some of them had worked or trained under Fr. Hardon). All in all, it was a great experience.

Years later, when I began teaching RCIA, I was pleased to find that my classes almost got unanimously positive responses from the people who went through it; actually, not "almost unanimous," but completely unanimous - I never had a real complaint from anyone.

Thus, my personal experience of RCIA as a student and later as a teacher was very positive and I was never aware that, in most parishes and for many people, RCIA is seen as a waste of time or a downright nightmare. One thing I found very disillusioning about RCIA was that it is presented (at the Rite of Election) as a very ancient process that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. I was made to feel like I was partaking of a very ancient tradition; since I was a baby Catholic, I didn't know any better. But I did notice as I read the lives of other famous converts from even the early 20th century there was no mention of RCIA. Of course, come to find out that RCIA was created basically by committee in 1972 and has very little to do with the ancient Church. When I was told that RCIA was a very ancient tradition, what was meant was that the process of a bishop scrutinizing the candidates for admission into the Church is ancient, but there is of course no direct connection between the modern RCIA rites and anything in the early Church. Perhaps some of the liturgical prayers are modeled after patristic era prayers, but modeling a thing on something of antiquity and the thing actually being from antiquity are different matters altogether.

One horror story I heard from RCIA concerned a young woman who wanted to convert from Protestantism. I knew this woman - she worked at a local Christian bookstore. I used to go in there and try to get her to come to my RCIA classes; she said she was very interested in Catholicism and wanted to look into it but just wasn't sure. She was very sincere and seemed like somebody who was disinterestedly seeking the truth for its own sake. Well, eventually I stopped running into her after she quit the store, but I later found out that she did indeed decide to respond to the grace God had given her and seek entry into the Catholic Church. She went to the nearest Catholic Church and signed up for classes. After a few RCIA sessions, she began to feel like she wasn't getting anything specifically Catholic out of the class; it was a bunch of generic Christian stuff, like God is a loving God, Jesus forgives, etc. Finally, she asked the instructor, "Why should I specifically be Catholic over any other Christian denomination?" The instructor told her, "That's for you to figure out, not me." She got upset and said, "So you can't give me one reason why I should be Catholic and not go back to my Protestant congregation?" The instructor shook his head and said, "You are thinking too much in terms of black and white and right and wrong. That's not how Catholics think." Disgusted, the woman quit the classes and went back to her Protestant church, where I believe she happily remains to this day.

Now, what are we to make of this? This woman, a devout Christian, may now live and die in the Protestant church. Is it her fault? Will God hold her guilty of the sin of heresy or schism? For heaven's sake, the woman wanted to be Catholic. She went so far as to seek visible, full communion witht he Church; then some half-cocked RCIA instructor chastised her for thinking in terms of black and white for asking the very reasonable question, "Why should I be Catholic?" It is my guess that on the day of judgment the woman will fare better than the RCIA director.

I heard another RCIA tale where a older couple, who had basically studied themselves into the Church, were going through the classes because they had to and the nun teaching them said that contraception was a matter of conscience. The catechumens (who knew more about Catholicism than the nun) brought in Humanae Vitae and tried to discuss it, but the nun raged at them and said, "Who are you to judge what other people do?" In this case too the persosn left the classes, but fortunately they found their way into the Church through some other avenue.

RCIA is right up there with Youth Groups and Social Justice Ministries as an example of things done poorly in the vast majority of parishes. Why is RCIA so bad almost universally? Well, RCIA itself is not a bad program; as I said, I had a great experience with it and the people that have entered the Church under me have as well. It can be done well. The problem is with the people who wind up running these things, and the pastors who refuse to allow orthodox Catholicism to be taught. In most (but not all) parishes, RCIA is in the hands of women who came of age in the 1960's; if you don't believe me, do a Google image search of the term "RCIA director", or have a look here.

I think ultimately the Church ought to reconsider the whole idea of RCIA; it is too bureaucratic, too cookie-cutter to fit the needs of everybody. It often fails to address the core philosophical-spitritual needs of the person (as evidenced by the very low rate of people who remain in or join the parish after completing RCIA - in most parishes about 10%, though happily higher in mine). Prior to Vatican II instruction was more individualized; a person might take three months or three years of instruction depending on his specific level of understanding - and most of the time it was taught by a priest. Most priests these days delegate this to lay volunteers or employees because they are far too busy because there are far too few priests to go around; but those are another set of problems, though not unrelated.

In the meantime, let's get some younger people heading up our RCIA programs - people who know and love Jesus Christ, who were not around for the insanity of the 60's and who want to pass on the truth to others - people who know that the truth itself is transformative and that what the world desperately needs is persons who will boldly stand up and say, "Yes. There is a right and wrong. There is a true and false, and this is the Truth..."

Anything less is building on sand.


Anonymous said...

Great post and too true. I went through RCIA in the '90s and am now a director. One area that I think needs work is in the pre-catechumenate. We're a small, rural parish and can't run the program year-round, so we have a pretty limited amount of time (and personnel) before we begin the catechumenate every year. For years we've spent the first few weeks in "discussion". Basically, we end up with several weeks of talk therapy and conversation. I'd love some suggestions on what we could do to make this more worthwhile and structured. Anyone have some ideas?

Boniface said...

Anonymous - See my post that I put up for Tuesday, June 22nd.

David Kaemmer said...

I just started in RCIA class. Last night we were given bibles and introduced to scripture. The teacher said the bible is all truth but not necessarily all fact. Examples she gave were from the creation account in Genesis and also Moses parting the red sea. She suggested that it could have been God telling Moses to cross when the tide was up and that way the tide would come back on the Egyptians. I got an overall feeling that the Bible itself was a storybook. I come from a Protestant background and the whole class last night was very disturbing to me. I really want to try to become Catholic so our family can go to church as a family but I often wonder if i'm wasting my time. Is what i am learning in this parish consistent with Catholic belief? I found some of your posts online and liked them enough I'd thought I would comment here. Maybe you can help.

Boniface said...


This woman has no idea how offensive this stuff is, especially to Protestants who are raised to "rightly" revere the Bible. She is wrong about what she told you. For example, in the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII,
Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, we are told specifically in no. 20f:

This woman is not giving you the truth. Unfortunately, you might have to just suffer through it, since it is the means of getting admitted to the Church. Just keep studying and praying on your own, and use for your reference the saints, catechism and writings of the popes...if something she says sounds fishy, disregard it because it probably is nonsense.

Boniface said...

Woops...I didn't give you the quote. here is is:

Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 20f: “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred... For all the books which the Church receives as Sacred and Canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not True. This is the ancient and unchanging Faith of the Church... [T]hose who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error.”

Anonymous said...

I am.currently going through RCIA. i have found it uninformative, and tefious, giving no real reason to become Catholic. To say I am frustrated would be a supreme understatement. The Parish priest is new to the Parish and is aware of my concerns and is very upset about the older female who is DRE and not vrry sufficient at it. Thank you for your.candor.

Boniface said...


I feel your pain. Maybe introduce your priest to these free RCIA notes and outlines on my other site that are done from a very orthodox perspective.

GoldRush Apple said...

>In the meantime, let's get some younger people heading up our RCIA programs . . . .

What qualifications do you think a potential RCIA teacher needs? I'm starting to treat my faith seriously and I feel that RCIA might be a calling in the future. An an MA in theology? Just the given courses given by my parish? I have a pontificate institute a few hours away and they have classes & degrees geared towards the layman which, besides my own self study, prayer and reflection, I think might aid be in teaching - just giving another aspect to pull from.

Boniface said...

Hey Gold Rush,

You definitely need a good degree of knowledge, and solid knowledge; a lot of RCIA training programs for catechists are bunk. I think the only prerequisites are a good amount of knowledge on the particulars of the Catholic Faith, and a stable faith life. I would say you should not be teaching RCIA if you yourself have not been practicing your faith regularly for less than 5 years. An MA is not required - in fact, it might hurt you depending on where you get it from.

David Kaemmer said...

I finished RCIA in 2011, it was not easy but worth it (see post above 10/6/2010). The Catholic Church is a treasure worth whatever it takes. Not all Catholics are like what you are experiencing. I hope you can either find help somewhere in your program or switch to a better RCIA. I requested a different sponsor which helped a lot. I also contacted the Coming Home Network and was able to get a second sponsor who I have become lifelong friends with. I briefly tried another RCIA but discovered the program at my Parish was actually better.