As Lent begins, we are nearing the conclusion of the season of conversions in the American Catholic Church.
The parishes began the programs of the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults, formerly known as RCIA (or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) in September 2021, and on April 16, countless people will be accepted as full members, receiving Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion. .
Yet, is this the only model one can use to join the Roman Catholic Church?
Since the publication of the RCIA manual in 1974, its methodology and use has evolved in practice from a guideline book open to “adaptations by the minister of baptism” to an almost mandatory manual. This development limited alternative approaches and became a single authorized path for all parochial conversions.
Almost 50 years after the first publication of the RCIA, and with church membership declining significantly, it is important to consider other avenues that can lead to conversion in our rapidly changing world.
The manual and program of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults lasts seven to eight months with weekly meetings. It has four periods, three stages, three public events called “Scrutiny Sundays”, an exorcism, an inscription document, the public dismissal of the congregation before the sacrifice of the mass, the final acceptance and the sacraments on Holy Saturday and the fourth period called Mystagogy. Today the manual does not appear to some as “noble simplicity” and it is long.
For the liturgist it is a masterpiece of detail and direction. For some catechists, it is a maze of pages that are difficult to follow and difficult to present. For many wannabes, it’s a contest of endurance and public appearances that dissuades many before they even begin.
Contrast this with an early event in church history. Deacon Philip was led by the Spirit to walk from Samaria to Gaza. There he met the Ethiopian eunuch, treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. This court officer was in his chariot returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was reading Isaiah. The Ethiopian asked Philip to join him and explain the passage.
Moved by Philip’s presentation, he believed. They came to the water. The court officer asked, “Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?” Philip agreed and baptized him in water. They never saw each other againActs of the Apostles 8:26-40).
People who come to inquire about the Catholic Church are led by the same Holy Spirit. The diversity of these people is great. Some are old, some are young. They come from different ethnicities and from different backgrounds. Some are professional men and women such as doctors, nurses, or business leaders with limited time. Many are day laborers returning home with their wives and children.
No model or setting will suit them all equally well. While the RCIA may be good for some, the program is impossible for others. In my experience, we lose people because the RCIA seems rigid; it doesn’t match a person’s time commitments and the agenda is confusing.
What is used today is two generations old. So much has happened since 1974. Pope Francis reminds us that “we do not live in a time of change, but in a change of times”. There is the rise of the internet, e-learning, satellite imagery at any time of the day or night, social media, the deterioration of the global climate, distant conflicts using drones, migrations massive numbers of people and a global epidemic, to name but a few.
Recently, I administered a parish for nine years and tried an experiment. My background is a doctorate. In science; experimentation is my nature and my education. I tried a directed reading course for those who wanted to learn about the Catholic Church. Our text was Our Catholic faith by Michael Pennock. Twice a year, the parish presented this three-month directed course and usually hosted eight to ten people each time. We met four times at three week intervals for a total of three months.
The parish was medium in size, about 600 families with a parish primary school. I called the program “Immigration to the Catholic Faith”. Eight or ten joined the church at each class and thanked me for understanding their children or spouse better. Attendance at the parish church increased and the parish school expanded.
During these years when I was the administrator, the school grew from 104 to 223 students. Meanwhile, 13 other primary schools in the diocese closed during the same period. The converts were followed by their participation in the weekly mass. The number of parishes at weekend Masses has increased. This conversion strategy had unexpected results.
Our parish had found an improved tool and the results were two to three times better than previous years. We focused on results. However, the Diocese of Youngstown was concerned because we were not following the RCIA manual and guidelines. Each bishop sets the agenda for his diocese. Some bishops place their priority on the rule; others focus on results. Some are themed around unity while others measure growth. We had adapted the wording of the last two paragraphs of the General Introduction to the RCIA manual (RCIA Manual n° 35 ).
As a scientist, my standards of measurement are found in the results. The depth of understanding of a candidate is not judged by the duration of studies, but by the action of the Holy Spirit who manifests himself in discernment. If the Holy Spirit guides the faithful in the Catholic Church as the Spirit guided the Ethiopian eunuch, who am I to oppose the Spirit?
Pope Francis emphasizes results and the joy that accompanies them. I don’t blame bishops who prioritize rule or unity first because I don’t know what shoes they’ve traveled in or where they want their diocese to go. However, it is clear to me that Christ placed his priority on results, mercy and patience. Pope Francis too.
Several priests told me that it was time to bring the RCIA back to the people and develop “noble simplicity”. It doesn’t have to be so long, so demanding, so off-putting. My experiment worked well and the converts were happy. I am not offering this as the only alternative to RCIA. I say quite the opposite! If the RCIA works for qualified catechists, keep it.
I doubt, however, that a single model will adapt “smoothly” to the great diversity of people. I propose that bishops, priests and others be encouraged to explore evangelism beyond the limits of the current RCIA book. Take a risk; the Spirit will guide people of good will. Do not keep the sacraments but promote them guided by the Spirit. Improve the current program and also explore other avenues.