The process of admitting new Catholics to the Church is centred on forming disciples writes Brendan O’Reilly
Infant baptism in the Church has been practised since apostolic times and prior to 1972 if an adult sought baptism the ritual used was the Rite of Infant Baptism. Such adult baptisms were often celebrated privately, with no parish involvement and the adult to be baptised did not answer for their own faith commitment – the Godparents answered on their behalf. This changed with the publication of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) ritual in 1972 and with its adoption by the Irish Episcopal Conference in 1986. The Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults defines the RCIA as “the process designed to prepare adults for entrance into the Catholic Church by the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation” – baptism, confirmation and eucharist.
The RCIA is not a course in Catholicism, rather it is a process or journey, sponsored and accompanied by a community of faith, leading to initiation into that community of faith – identified as the parish. The RCIA concerns itself with the formation of disciples rather than with the imparting of information. This process or journey is marked by four stages (periods of time) and three steps (liturgical rites). The journey involves catechesis, prayer, reflection on the Word of God, attendance at parish liturgical celebrations and practical participation in the life of the local faith community. The journey begins as soon as the adult, or child of catechetical age, expresses an interest and ideally finishes with the celebration of initiation at the Easter Vigil. The journey takes as long as it takes and should be person-centred rather than calendar-centred.
The various numbered paragraphs in the rite explain and indicate the four stages and the three steps of the process/journey.
- The first stage is that of Inquiry or Precatechumenate. This first inquiry stage is the period of time when the first preaching of the Gospel is heard.
- The second stage is that of the catechumenate. This second stage is the period of time which involves thorough instruction and formation.
- The third stage is the period of purification and enlightenment. Ideally, this stage takes place during Lent and is designed as a period of intense spiritual preparation.
- The fourth and final stage is called ‘mystagogy’ – a Greek word which means ‘interpretation of mystery’. This final period “is a time for deepening the Christian experience, for spiritual growth, and for entering more fully into the life and unity of the community” (RCIA 7.4).
The three steps or liturgical rites are interspersed throughout the four stages and are:
Ø The Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens.
Ø The Rite of Election and
Ø The celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation.
My practical experience of the RCIA is based on involvement with the rite in the parish of Ashbourne-Donaghmore, in east Meath. The parish has been involved with the RCIA every year since 2010 and over that period of time 21 people have been initiated into the Church. For this we praise and thank God. “Neither the planter nor the waterer matters: only God, who makes things grow” (I Cor. 3:7).
Over the past number of years various adults, and children of catechetical age, have expressed an interest in joining the Church. Our parish RCIA manual describes the participants as follows:
“There are three main types of participants (called Catechumens or Candidates) in the RCIA programme: those who are unbaptised, or who know very little about Christianity; those who were formed in other Christian denominations, but who are interested in joining the Catholic Church; and Adult Catholics who never completed their reception of the Sacraments of Initiation (Confirmation and/or Eucharist).
In our experience, the Spirit of God provides participants for participation in the RCIA in a number of ways: individuals approach a priest or other member of the parish, house visitation by a priest or member of the Legion of Mary stirs an interest, previous participants in the process evangelise others, older children express an interest in completing their initiation etc.
After the initial approach is made and some paperwork is completed the inquirer is requested to attend Sunday Eucharist. A parishioner may be assigned to accompany the inquirer to Mass on Sunday and the parish hospitality team are made aware of their presence, welcome them to the Eucharistic gathering and to refreshments after Mass.
At a suitable time the parish RCIA team engages with the new inquirer/s and the process/journey described above begins. The parish is involved at all stages in the process: the celebration of the various rites being flagged in the parish bulletin/on the parish website; the celebrations themselves taking place at different Masses in the parish; parishioners invited to sponsor those seeking initiation; prayer cards with the names of the inquirers distributed to the congregation; inclusion of the inquirers in the Prayers of the Faithful and at other prayer initiatives in the parish etc.
Our parish is very fortunate in that in excess of 400 parishioners are involved in various parish ministries and during the RCIA journey participants have an opportunity to experience some of these ministries. This is done so that new members of the Christian community will come to know the parish as a believing, celebrating, active and ministering community.
After their initiation and as part of their period of mystagogy new members are encouraged to be involved in one or more of the parish ministries. In the past, new members have joined the parish music ministry, the family Mass group, the altar-floral society, the Church collectors etc. In this way these new members experience parish, not mainly as a structure, a geographical area or a building but as a community of the faithful in Christ.
Share the Good News, the National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland, reminds us that “the Church exists in order to evangelise; that is, to proclaim in words and action the Gospel, the Good News revealed to us in Jesus Christ, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we are loved by God for all eternity. Everything else, for the Christian, rests on this” (25).
The task of evangelisation is not just addressed to the small percentage of the community who are ordained priests but to the entire community of the faithful. In embracing this task as a parish, we have discovered that if you ask, people will volunteer; if you search, you will find other parishes and agencies that will help you and if you knock on Heaven’s door you will find it already open. And remember festina lente (hasten slowly) and is i ndiaidh a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin (castles are built one stone at a time).
Brendan O’Reilly is a catechetical specialist.