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RCIA Comes of Age — And Not an Easter Too Soon


April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 10:00 AM


If this Easter is anything like the Easters of the past few years, the Catholic Church in the United States will welcome more than 154,000 adults into the fold, or more fully into it, on April 8.

The total nationwide tally isn’t yet in, but here’s a bellwether: The Dioceses of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., are preparing for more than 900 catechumens and candidates each. And the Archdiocese of Atlanta alone expects some 1,500.

For the majority of those entering the Church, a bishop’s sacramental act marks the culmination of a journey of many years, ending in formal preparation known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Unfortunately, since the rite’s reinstitution following the Second Vatican Council, it has been marked by a lack of quality materials, weak training and, in some cases, poor execution in many parishes.

The good news is, it has lately been undergoing a rebirth of its own. Hence, say many, the great numbers of adults entering not just a church but the Church this Easter Sunday.

Up until 22 months ago, many parishes and dioceses had a rather helter-skelter approach to RCIA. Some parishes had no RCIA program at all. Some depended on one-on-one meetings with a priest. Still others made use of one of several independent books to try to teach the faith. With the publication of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry’s RCIA Participant’s Book, along with its accompanying manuals for catechists and leaders, a doctrinally sound, content-rich program is available.

It was a decade in the making.

Approximately nine years ago, the now-retired director of catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Barbara Morgan, began developing a systematic RCIA program. It was piloted in a half-dozen parishes of the Archdiocese of Washington, -------D.C., under Cardinal James Hickey.

“It had a phenomenal effect on those parishes across the archdiocese,” says Ann Lankford, director of catechesis and evangelization for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis. “Those coming into the Church were much better formed and understood the bigger picture of the faith and were more inserted into the life of the Church, the community and the life of prayer.”

Encouraged by what he saw, Cardinal Hickey asked Morgan whether her materials could be published. It took the creation of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry, the prodding of other bishops and further refinement to bring the project to fruition. While several dioceses had field-tested the materials, they first became widely available in 2005.

The program is designed for systematic and organic catechesis. It features citations from Scripture and the Catechism.

The participant’s book is actually a boxed set containing 380 handouts covering the entire deposit of faith. One advantage to this presentation is that all of the content is photocopy-ready. The handouts are available not only unbound in the box, but also on CD-ROM, making it easy for a teacher to copy whatever lesson or handouts he or she needs for a particular student or lesson.

There is also a catechist’s manual. This contains 60 doctrinal lesson plans, offering a structured way of preparing for and presenting the catechetical portion of an RCIA session. In 2006, a leader’s manual was also published. This provides a comprehensive aid for RCIA leaders looking to integrate the full liturgical, catechetical and pastoral aspects of the RCIA process.

The program has received high praise.

“This comprehensive presentation of our faith is an excellent resource for any parish RCIA team and adult religious-education program,” says New York Cardinal Edward Egan.

He ought to know. Along with Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori and Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers, Cardinal Egan served as a consulter on the project.

While the materials can be used as a stand-alone system, the Association for Catechumenal Ministry also provides training for clergy, RCIA teams and catechists.

Catechists say that, as important as good materials are, there’s no substitute for committed leaders to teach and run RCIA programs.

“You need the support of a knowledgeable pastor,” says Jay Boyd, a former RCIA leader in the Diocese of Baker, Ore. “You might have folks who are not living a Catholic life. If that’s the case, they may go through RCIA, but then never come back for Mass. It doesn’t stick.”

Statistics bear that out.

According to Ann Lankford, director of catechesis and evangelization for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., well over 50% of those who come into the Church through RCIA aren’t practicing their faith within one year of their initiation. She said that’s often the result of “unsystematic, unorganic and unorganized” catechesis.

One of the problems, says Bill Keimig, director of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry, has been the lack of training available.

“Part of the reason that RCIA has been poorly implemented since its reinstitution is that those who have been ordained have never been trained in the practical application before now,” says Keimig. “Even now, 20 years after its mandated implementation, most seminaries don’t have any practical, in-depth training for seminarians on how to really make an RCIA process work well in a parish.”

The Association for Catechumenal Ministry is trying to change that. It has provided training for seminarians at the North American College in Rome and at Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. They have also provided training at Maryvale Institute in England and, in June, will be conducting training in Australia.

“Cardinal Pell sent someone to observe our seminars in England,” explains Keimig. “There are typically many converts following World Youth Day. Cardinal Pell said, ‘We need our parishes ready to receive them and many are not.’”

Firm Foundation

Directors of religious education are trying to move beyond decades of poor catechesis that some have described as an era of “Kumbaya and collages.”

“There’s a hierarchy of truth. The teachings build upon one another and are interconnected,” says Lankford. “You have to build a house with a foundation.”

One of the advantages of the materials provided by the Association for Catechumenal Ministry, say those who have used it, is that its usefulness extends beyond RCIA.

“I’ve made the materials available to all of our school teachers, religious education teachers, the principal and our priest,” says Jean Volkmuth, director of religious education at Sacred Heart Church in Staples, Minn. “When they’re doing a lesson and want more, they can come to me for the handout.”

Keimig says the program has other non-RCIA uses as well. He’s aware of at least three religious orders using the materials to train their novices.

“The Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist use it, and a cloistered Carmelite convent in South Dakota uses it,” says Keimig. “They’ve said it’s the best thing they can find to systematically teach the faith.”

Universal Appeal

Demand for the program is surging. In just four months following initial publication, the program had been sent to 14 countries, including England, Spain, France, Guam, Malta, China and some countries in Africa. It’s now in 26.

“We’ve had sales in every diocese of the United States and every province in Canada,” says Keimig.

Several dioceses have implemented the program diocese-wide. It’s being used in Bridgeport; Denver; Duluth, Minn.; Fargo, N.D.; Harrisburg, Pa.; LaCrosse; Peoria, Ill.; Wichita and Lincoln, Neb. and is soon to be adopted in dioceses in Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Arizona.

“It was mandated by our diocese during the 2000 Synod,” says Lankford. “It’s being used pretty widely in many different ways.

“It’s spreading by word of mouth,” she adds. “People at the grassroots level are hearing about this and taking it upward.”

Keimig says RCIA done well can serve as a paradigm for all catechesis.

“Teaching for conversion, when done as it should be, is a powerful thing,” he points out. “When it’s well implemented, there is nothing better than the RCIA for making lifelong Catholics. It’s an engine for conversion.”

Register senior writer

Tim Drake writes from  St. Joseph, Minnesota.