What RCIA Means for Catechumens and Catholics

Fr. Mike Liledahl

What RCIA Means for Catechumens and Catholics

Many of us were baptized as babies and raised Catholic. We may have had periods of our lives when we fell away from the practice of our faith and returned, but when this happened we were still Catholic. Apart from going to confession, we didn’t have to go through any formal process or initiation to join the Church.

Even though most of us were raised Catholic, there are a significant number of people who enter the Catholic Church as adults, either because they were not baptized as babies, were baptized in one of the Protestant churches, or were never part of any faith to begin with. In fact, you may fall into this category. But for most of us, we don’t really know the full process of becoming Catholic as an adult because we haven’t had to go through it. 

What is RCIA?

What is the process of becoming Catholic as an adult like? What does it entail? What is the historical practice of the Church in regards to adult converts? Finally, how can you help those people who are going through this process right now? This article will help answer these questions and hopefully give you a new perspective.

First, a little bit of the technicals: the process of an adult becoming Catholic who is not Catholic is called the RCIA process. RCIA stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.  There is a separate process called the RCIC, which is for children, but let’s keep our focus on adults for right now. When we speak of “adults” we mean adults in the sense of having reached the age of reason, which the Church puts at the age of 7. This is the age the Church considers a person to be able to reason things out, and to make choices while being aware of consequences. This is the same reasoning behind having children make their first confession at the same age. Unless you can make a choice about your action you cannot commit a sin and thus wouldn’t have need to go to reconciliation. Children under the age of 7 can simply be baptized with the consent of their parents as you would a baby.

This RCIA process lasts a significant period of time. Oftentimes the shortest programs are 9 months, but they can even extend to mandatory periods of two or more years depending on the bishop and pastor of a particular diocese or parish. There are generally three distinct periods of the RCIA process- although one, the last one in particular, often is neglected and needs a serious revival.

The Inquiry Stage

The first stage is called the inquiry stage- this stage should be pretty obvious based on the name; it’s where the initial inquiry begins. The reasons that a person wants to become Catholic vary from person to person as does their level of knowledge about Christ and his Church. At this stage, the person thinking about becoming Catholic may begin to ask some of these questions and get some answers. The goal is essentially to inquire enough to have enough information to make a decision to proceed forward with the process. The final decision to become Catholic doesn’t need to be made at this point, but one should be on the road to making this decision to move beyond the inquiry stage. It is not uncommon for this stage to last for a long period of time for some people- some people are very cautious in this stage and progress slowly, this is not a bad thing, just how that person is moving toward receiving the sacrament.

The Catechumenate Stage and Coming Into Full Communion

After the inquiry stage one officially becomes a Catechumen and enters a period called the Catechumenate. This is a period that may look a lot like the inquiry process, for in this stage the emphasis is on catechesis, or learning about Jesus Christ and the Church. Often times this stage is done in classes with other people in the catechumenate and can be led by a priest or somebody else from the parish who is knowledgeable about the faith. In many parishes, there are others taking these classes who are baptized Catholics, but also want to learn more about their faith. This process can be summed up simply by stating that the goal is for the person entering the Church to be able to recite, believe and profess the Nicene Creed, the profession of our Christian faith.

Whether a person is being baptized or are already baptized and coming into the Catholic Church, they will be asked to profess the Creed and they should know what they are committing themselves to when they profess this creed. 

At this stage of formation, the Catechumens attend Mass only through the conclusion of the reading of the Gospel and the homily at which point they are dismissed to further their studies. In fact, the Mass before Vatican II did not use the term “liturgy of the word” but rather called this part of the liturgy the “Mass of the Catechumens” because it was the part which catechumens were allowed to be present.

This stage lasts until the Easter Vigil Mass, which begins after sundown the night before Easter Sunday. It is at this Mass when the adults will be baptized and welcomed into the Church. After being baptized, the person will be confirmed and receive their first Holy Communion.  It’s certainly a big deal, and one of the reasons that many of the faithful like to attend this Mass, to be able to share in these people’s joy at this momentous occasion in their lives.

Don't Forget The Mystagogy!

The final stage of RCIA takes place after the person has been baptized and confirmed, and is called mystagogy and is a period of time to reflect upon the great Sacraments they have received as well as to receive further education about different aspects of the faith, especially on the Sacraments and the Mass. This stage is the one that oftentimes neglected, even though it is a vital part of the process!

Historically, this process has been in place in this exact way only since the middle of the 20th century, but the principles for the process - the period of the inquiry and catechumenate and even the mystagogy -- have a long, historical precedent. From the earliest days of the Church processes were in place to initiate people who wanted to become Catholic. As Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe and most people began to have their babies baptized the need for the process died away. It wasn’t really until the great missionary efforts of the Church began that large numbers of adults seeking to become Catholic drove the need to reinstate the process.

How Catholics Can Help Catechumens

Now that you know a little about the history and process of the RCIA program, the question that needs to be asked is this: how can you support people going through this process? The first answer is that you need to pray for these people. People in the RCIA process are in great need of prayer (as we all are) but I think Satan is working overtime to try to get these people to not go through with the RCIA process and be baptized. We all need to spiritually support them with our prayers.

Other things we can do is to introduce ourselves to them when we see them at our parishes and welcome them to the Church and to the parish. Oftentimes it can be intimidating for a person to join such a large group of people, many of whom already know each other, and so the small act of introducing yourself and welcoming them can go a long way. 

If you are able, something you may consider doing is helping out with your parish’s RCIA classes. If you are knowledgeable about the faith and are comfortable sharing about your faith, you can be a big asset to the class and can help people in the process. Maybe you realize you don’t know as much about our Catholic faith as you’d like. That’s ok, too! You can still help out at the classes by showing up and learning more about the faith yourself. The witness of baptized Catholics seeking out opportunities to learn more about their faith can help these people with their process.

If you have the chance to do so this Easter, I encourage you to go to the Easter Vigil Mass and witness the new Catholics who are entering into our Church by baptism, confirmation, and first communion. Try to imagine all that they went through to get to the point. The Church is alive and growing and these people are proof of that!