In Praise of RCIA
I’m noticing something really interesting in comments surrounding RCIA (on this blog and in other conversations). What I’m noticing is a big gap between the American and the British perspective. I’ll try to summarise this general trend (and be warned – ‘I’m-going-to-be-blunt’ alert – this is generalised):
In the UK, on the whole, I think we’ve had a bad experience of RCIA over the last few decades. Many faithful Catholics in this country rename it ‘Roman Catholics In Agony’ and associate it with watery doctrine, lectionary-based “catechesis”, faith-sharing therapy-style sessions, and lots of para-liturgical actions that don’t mean too much to the participants (or – probably – to God) and make you want to squirm.
OK. I hate all of this just as much as the next person. If it results in people giving up (I know some people who have attempted RCIA three times and more), we have a LOT to answer for. If we are obstacles to people coming to Christ and His Church, let’s please stop ‘being catechists’.
However – I firmly believe that RCIA – faithfully, sensitively, attractively done – has been handed to us by the Church as the best way of people converting to Christ – not just a notional conversion, but a full – whole life – conversion.
I come across many who’ve despaired of RCIA who advocate the ‘one-to-one with a priest’ approach. One-to-ones with a priest are excellent – and should be part of RCIA – but alone, I don’t think it’s enough. Like it or not, we are becoming part of the Church (aka a community which is pretty messy), not a private members’ club. Doctrinal formation on its own is not enough. Spiritual formation is also needed (retreats, evenings of recollection); liturgical formation is vital (the rites along the way of the RCIA are outstanding tools of conversion if done well); and pastoral formation (practical help in changing aspects of our lifestyle – often through the help of a parish-given sponsor) is also indispensable.
When I speak about these other aspects of conversion – spiritual, liturgical, pastoral – I am not referring to twigs, tea-lights, hand-holding or ‘Here I Am Lord’. I am talking about a real, radical conversion of life to Christ.
I am aware I come from a privileged perspective of having seen all this being done well. I have seen with my own eyes some profoundly deep conversions that happened only because the people involved stayed in RCIA for a long time (almost always over a year). Not one week of that time was wasted. There was constant, nourishing, deepening catechesis; regular meetings with sponsors and with the priest; opportunities to serve and become involved in parish life. Sometimes they waited longer (we asked them to, and they almost always agreed they needed longer). We also ensured their formation continued after the mystagogia – many plugged into new movements; one group formed a book club; I can’t think of one person who went through RCIA who no longer attends Mass every week.
On the American side of the pond (in my experience), all of the above seems pretty natural. There isn’t the same reaction against RCIA because many parishes have thriving catechumenates.
If you are at a loss to know where to begin – I strongly recommend purchasing the materials from the Association for Catechumenal Ministry – by far, the very best out there. Evangelium is good for a doctrinal approach, but ACM offers the whole package. Whenever I present this approach to seminarians they are amazed – they have rarely come across this before.
This, then, is a plea to the British readers who are still suspicious of RCIA (maybe because of a traumatic experience involving a middle-aged woman taking your hand and asking you to share your woundedness – haha). When it’s done faithfully, RCIA is the best way. One-to-one doctrinal sessions with a priest cannot achieve the same outcome, because the priest is not the whole Church. And doctrine is not the whole Faith.