Beyond the Easter Vigil: The Secret to Keeping New Catholics Catholic
Cultivating a real experience of discipleship, making a decision for Jesus Christ, and being integrated into parish life are seen as key elements for keeping Order of Christian Initiation of Adults converts engaged in the life of the Church.
SAN DIEGO — Five years ago, Joseph Holmstrom entered the darkened St. Brigid’s Catholic Church on the Easter vigil as an atheist.
After experiencing the beauty and pageantry of the time-honored vigil, Holmstrom turned to his wife, Amanda, a devout Catholic, and said, “I want to become Catholic. I want to experience the richness of the wholeness of Catholic faith with you, including the Eucharist.”
Today, the former atheist is now an active, engaged Catholic member of St. Brigid’s. He and his wife have led some small groups in the parish, and Holmstrom is a lector at Mass.
Every year, tens of thousands of men and women come into the Catholic Church through the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (formerly known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or RCIA). But what makes these new Catholics stay after the Easter vigil, where they receive the full sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist?
Holmstrom’s story reveals that OCIA succeeds in forming new Catholics for the long-term when the program’s focus is not just catechetical instruction, but on making disciples of Jesus Christ and integrating them into parish life.
Holmstrom said St. Brigid’s OCIA program provided him with an opportunity to look at the Catholic faith through adult eyes, centered on an invitation to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple.
“One thing that the OCIA team at St. Brigid’s does very, very well is to not only say, ‘Hey, you’re going to become Catholic, but [also] let’s dig down into what that really means,’” Holmstrom said. “And they’re using Scripture to portray what being a disciple and what evangelism looks like, within our Catholic faith.”
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than 35,000 adults were baptized in the U.S. in 2019, with more than 53,000 coming into full communion with the Catholic Church (with confirmation and first Eucharist). Most of these will have taken place at the Easter vigil.
While Christians who come into full communion with the Catholic Church do not need to go through OCIA like catechumens who were not baptized, many of them do, and so they are received at the Easter vigil together. However, one common myth is that 50% of them will be gone by next Easter vigil. While mileage may vary at the parish level, overall, CARA’s analysis of available data shows that the Church is actually doing far better retaining converts, and engaging them, than it does with “cradle Catholics.”
A CARA analysis on the “1964 Blog” said 84% of the 4 million Catholics who entered the Church since 1986 are still identifying as Catholic and tend to be very active in the faith. CARA found that Catholics who went through OCIA make up 6% of the Catholic population, but they make up 50% of parish ministry staff and parish volunteers.
CARA also pointed out that 62% of Catholics who went through OCIA still attend Mass at least once a month, compared to 48% of cradle Catholics.
Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, CARA’s executive director, said it stands to reason that Catholics who go through OCIA would be doing better comparatively than Catholics who have taken the faith they received as children for granted.
“As adults, they’ve made this very deliberate, positive choice to join the Church,” Father Gaunt said. “That comes with a whole new enthusiasm.”
As Father Gaunt pointed out, U.S. Catholics live in a highly mobile society. Catholics who go through OCIA and don’t remain at their first parish may actually just be relocating.
But when they resettle, he said, “they don’t always reconnect.”
The strength of a community’s welcome and support, he added, could make the difference for continuing to practice the faith through a life transition.
More broadly speaking, a parish’s retention level of OCIA converts — or even knowledge about where they are going — is connected with how well these new Catholics are integrated into the life of the parish community.
Father Gaunt also noted that CARA found, in a separate study on including Catholics with disabilities, that integrating people into parish life had a “virtuous cycle” that made people stay and attracted more people.
“There’s more attention, then there’s more people; and there’s more attention, and there’s more people,” he said. “So you see the positive effect.”
If anything, Father Gaunt said, parishes should be learning from what OCIA is doing well and how they can engage “cradle Catholics” in that transformation, such as through small groups.
“Parishes that are successful in terms of having a multitude of small groups that parishioners can easily be a part of, find that kind of new energy and engagement,” he said. “It prevents people from being passive members of a parish.”
At St. Brigid Catholic Church in San Diego, OCIA is a year-round experience.
The program gave a person like Holmstrom, who had an “awakening” movement after the Easter vigil, an opportunity to sign up within a couple of months, instead of waiting until the fall, the typical timeframe for starting OCIA catechesis. “We receive people whenever they come,” Lee Hulburt, who leads OCIA at St. Brigid, told the Register.
Hulburt said the parish bases its OCIA program on the lectionary, instead of a curriculum-driven model, in order to keep people focused on the Christian journey as a life of discipleship.
The focus on discipleship is the basis for inviting them to go deeper into the study of the faith and grow in it.
“We make that clear all along: that this is initiation into a life of discipleship, not a graduation, or a ‘check-the-box’ situation,” St. Brigid’s Hulburt said.
The approach recognizes that those entering OCIA may be at different places in their faith journey.
Hulburt said the personal approach allows for group participation, but also meeting one-on-one to assess where initiates currently are and understand their needs, their interests and what is going on in their lives. It also gives Hulburt an opportunity to invite them to connect into the parish community, with either their “Connection to Christ” small groups or with other ministries, activities and devotions.
“That way, they feel like they’re part of the community, and they’re growing into the community,” she said. Hulburt said this approach helps ground them in the community and keeps them going as they continue to follow Christ.
Hulburt said the parish’s pastor opted for this relationship-based approach, away from a “heavy didactic” approach, in order to make sure that they were going beyond simply catechizing converts. “We want to make disciples — not just Catholics, but disciples on mission,” Hulburt explained, citing the personal focus on “more investment of time and engagement with these people and supporting them and accompanying them towards a life of discipleship.”
Sean Lavell, pastoral associate for mission and discipleship at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Minnesota, told the Register that even accounting for married people that move out of the parish, he has seen a positive uptick in adult converts staying engaged in the Church after the Easter vigil.
Lavell explained that when he started leading OCIA five years ago, “we had a really good program; but I looked at this as ‘my job is to help this group of people become Catholic.’”
“After that first year, I realized I was selling them short,” he said, speaking of reassessing the approach with a clear mindset.
“My goal is to help them on their path to heaven, to help them become holy, to become saints, and help them to become Catholic. And that changed how we did OCIA at Our Lady of Grace.”
Lavell said, looking at the program with new eyes, that the parish staff realized what the missing piece was: “We need to evangelize, and we need to help them have a relationship with Jesus.”
Now, OCIA begins with approximately eight weeks of talking about Jesus and the Father’s love, in addition to talking about how the Holy Spirit works in the initiates’ lives. The parish makes use of the ChristLife.org “Discovering Christ” program for OCIA and has a retreat focused on the Holy Spirit.
“And then we invite them to make the decision to follow Jesus,” he said.
Lavell said “immense fruit has been born from there.” Following Jesus becomes the context for discussing the Ten Commandments and the Church’s magisterial teachings. And they help people keep focused on how they’re going to grow in relationship with Jesus as his disciple.
Lavell said making a decision for Jesus can change everything in a Catholic’s life.
In the earlier approach, Lavell told the Register, “The vast majority of them, who hadn’t made that decision before OCIA, they don’t make it during OCIA,” as, without this conscious decision in OCIA to live as a disciple of Jesus, conversion was not manifesting itself in their lives.
Through the new focus, he said the parish sees lives converted to Christ and greater acceptance of the Church’s hard teachings that run counter to the prevailing culture, and they also see growth in initiates’ prayer life.
“I certainly notice a difference,” Lavell said.
Kasey Devine, who went through Our Lady of Grace’s OCIA process, told the Register that coming into the Catholic Church at the Easter vigil was “the best day of my life, outside my wedding day.”
But he said that one critical aspect of growing in his newfound Catholic faith was the encouragement of the priests and OCIA leaders to go deeper and do something with discipleship.
That “call to action,” he said, really helped.
Devine is now involved with the Knights of Columbus and supports the OCIA program.
“There’s the whole idea that it’s not just ‘me and Jesus’; it’s ‘we and Jesus,’” he said.
“And I think that ‘we’ part is crucial to staying committed to the faith and to growing.”