An Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
This past Sunday, my parish celebrated the beautiful first ritual of the extended Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)—the “Rite of Acceptance.” During this first ritual, the “Rite of Acceptance,” individuals seeking to enter the Catholic Church express to the whole parish their desire for faith. In return, the parish affirms their desire and they advance from being considered “inquirers” to being considered either catechumens or candidates—a distinction which will be discussed later—in dedicated pursuit of conversion and the sacraments.
Years ago I participated in this rite as the sponsor of a dear friend who had decided to become Catholic and seek full communion with the Church. Being raised Catholic myself, the opportunity to experience some element of the journey of an adult entering the Church at a later age was such a blessing for me. Of course, I knew that there was no age limit on becoming Catholic and I knew and witnessed that every year at the Easter Vigil, many adults were experiencing the joy of becoming Catholic. Still, in spite of this factual knowledge, I had never considered the true depth of an adult’s journey toward Christ’s Church. As we approach Lent—an important period in RCIA—and Easter—a feast during which many adults throughout the world will come into deeper union with the Church through the receipt of the sacraments from varying stages of faith journey—it is fitting to consider RCIA. This article will take a look at its history, its practice today, and the significance it has for those participating in the Rite personally and for those of us participating in it as existing members of parishes and of the Catholic Church.
History of Catechesis and RCIA
In the Gospel of Matthew we find the Great Commission. Christ sends forth of the Apostles as missionaries with the command
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; NASB)
Beginning with Our Lord’s earliest command that “all nations” be initiated into His Church and throughout the history of that Church that followed, it is natural that many coming to faith and entering the Church would be adults. Very early in Church history, therefore, there were established processes of instructing and ministering to adults as they journeyed toward baptism and the other sacraments. The term “catechumen” is used today to mean exactly what it meant in biblical times when St. Paul writes to the Galatians regarding “the one who is taught the word (Greek: catechumens)” (Gal. 6:6; NASB). Church Fathers St. Justin Martyr (2nd century A.D), Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), St. Augustine (5th century A.D), and many others reference periods of instruction and preparation for the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation) during the period known as the “catechumenate.”
So, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us:
From the time of the apostles, becoming a Christian has been accomplished by a journey and initiation in several stages. This journey can be covered rapidly or slowly, but certain essential elements will always have to be present: proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion.”
The catechumenate was especially important and prominent in the early Church since, first, as previously mentioned, many (perhaps most) entered the Church for the first time as adults; and second, the early Church experienced several periods of severe persecution and it was critical that those entering the Church be well instructed in the faith for which they risked their lives. As time wore on infant baptism became more common and the persecution of Christians was lifted, the catechumenate appears to have received a bit less dedicated attention and development. That is not to say that it disappeared—as a missionary faith, the Church has always had some method of providing instruction and preparation for the sacraments. However, the conscious and focused development of a universal approach to the catechumenate faded somewhat following the Middle Ages.
The CCC acknowledges that the catechumenate was reinvigorated and RCIA established much later when “the second Vatican Council restored for the Latin Church "the catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps." The rites for these stages are to be found in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).”
This initiative of Vatican 2 has resulted in the RCIA programs, the pathways into the Church for adults seeking after Our Lord, that we have in our parishes today.
The Stages and Rites of RCIA
The process of catechetical, ascetical, and liturgical preparation that is included in RCIA can be broken up into several stages, marked by some very beautiful rites.
Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate
During the period of evangelization, or precatechumenate, those interested in joining the Catholic Church are considered “inquirers.” Their draw to the truth and beauty of Catholicteaching has moved them to inquirer further into the faith—both its doctrines and its practice. This is a time for inquirers to receive preliminary instruction in the gospel message and Church teaching and to meet one another and other Catholics who are fully initiated. It is the start of the journey and the beginning of faith formation and foundation.
Period of the Catechumenate
The Rite of Acceptance, which was just celebrated in my parish, marks the beginning of the Period of the Catechumenate. During this rite, the parish community welcomes the catechumens—those seeking baptism as well as the other sacraments of initiation--and candidates—those who have been baptized into another Christian faith and seeking full communion with the Catholic Church—into the official period of preparation. During this ritual, catechumens and candidates receive the sign of the cross on all their senses, their hands, and their feet as a symbol of the rededication of themselves to Christ and the Christian journey. They publicly express their intention to follow Christ and respond to God’s call.
The period of the catechumenate is a time for deeper instruction and learning about Church teaching and tradition. The candidates and catechumens are guided in how to begin cultivating both their knowledge and their practice, and encouraged in developing their prayer and spiritual lives. "This catechesis leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also to a profound sense of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate."
There are two other important rite that take place during the period of the catechumenate: the “Rite of Sending” and the “Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.”
During the Rite of Sending, which also occurs near the beginning of Lent, the parish community expresses their support of the catechumens and candidates through a blessing and then “sends” them forth to receive the “Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion” from the bishop or archbishop.
The catechumens and candidates will in fact soon after appear before the (arch)bishop to participate in the “Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.” This rite marks the end of the period of the Catechumenate, as the Church as a whole, represented by the (arch)bishop acknowledges their readiness for initiation. During this rite they express their will to be received into the Church through the sacraments of initiation. Following this rite, they are known as the “elect.”
Period of Purification and Enlightenment
The period of Purification and Enlightenment coincides with the season of Lent and is the final period preceding the initiation of the elect into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. During this period, the elect joins the rest of the Church in penance and sacrifice as they prepare themselves spiritually reflecting especially upon the process of purification and conversion.
On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, the elect undergo three “scrutinies.” These are rites meant to encourage self-reflection, repentance, spiritual healing and deeper conversion. The scrutinies are oriented toward a strengthening of the elect in their resolve to leave behind sinful ways and commend themselves entirely to the love of God.
Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation
Finally, at the Easter Vigil, the elect are initiated into the Catholic Church through their reception of the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation. Again, those who have been previously baptized in another Christian church enter into full communion of the Catholic Church and celebrate the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. It is a joyful occasion for the whole Church. However it does not conclude the RCIA process. There is one final stage that the newly initiated Catholics must complete.
Period of Postbaptismal Catechesis or Mystagogy
This final period lasts throughout the season of Easter following the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. It is a time of reflection during which the new Catholics can meditate upon their initiation and seek to deepen their understanding of the Christian faith and way of life through the new experience of being fully practicing members of their Catholic community.
Significance of RCIA for Faithful Catholics
Most of the RCIA rituals are celebrated during the mass at our parishes. I highly recommend attending masses that will allow you to be witnesses and participants in these rites. They are frequently identified in the Bulletin. Otherwise a quick call to your parish office will likely make the information available to you. It is a truly beautiful and humbling to witness the coming to faith of our adult peers. To see the workings of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit in the lives of others is such a reminder to us all that God is in pursuit of each of us. It is further a reminder that the call to conversion and the journey toward sanctity is ceaseless and it emphasizes the important role of the sacraments in our lives. Finally, it leaves a profound impression of gratitude for the gift of the Church; our community of the faithful that supports and uplifts us in our search for God and truth; and the grace we receive through the sacraments.