For Newcomers to Church, RCIA Can Be Blessing or Curse

NEW YORK—With the first blaze of Easter candles in darkened churches across the land, and the intoning of Lumen Christi at the Saturday Vigil Mass, aspiring adult Catholics will come forward to declare their faith in the Risen Christ through a ritual rooted in the early Church. Bishops in their cathedrals and priests in their parishes will confer upon them the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist.

Cradle and longtime Catholics in attendance, seeing this ritual for perhaps the first time, will have their own faith renewed by the witness of these neophytes, known to parishioners who have watched them advance publicly through stages of initiation and sign their names in the book of the elect at the beginning of Lent.

Inition programs vary widely in quality from parish to parish

This is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in ideal form. How it actually works in the parishes is another story and has become a source of contention between two camps since the RCIA's gradual development following the Second Vatican Council. Some think RCIA is the definitive step in implementing the Council and bringing the Church to a vibrant renewal through a recasting of the sacraments as communal celebrations and the building of small Christian communities. Others see it as a destructive force controlled by agents of change who neglect or nuance Church teachings to promote subjective religious experiences and agendas such as married priests and women's ordination.

Evidence is available to support both sides, and many views in between. The truth depends greatly on the personal element. How good or bad is the RCIA in this country? It depends on who is implementing it on the diocesan and parish levels, how the program is structured, and who is encouraged to come and remain. Even within the same diocese, the quality of programs may vary.

Royal and Jan Fink were pro-life Presbyterians drawn to the Catholic faith by former Protestant ministers who converted. After studying Church history, the couple, who have nine children, enrolled in the RCIA and encountered a shock. The priest teaching the classes told the aspiring Catholics that they did not have to believe in purgatory, a defined doctrine of the Church. The RCIA team of lay people did not encourage the Finks' thirst for truth and told them that it didn't matter whether or not they became Catholic because all faiths were equally valid.

“We were scared,” Mrs. Fink told the Register. “We knew enough to realize that they weren't teaching what the Catholic Church teaches, but we weren't ready to argue.”

They left the program and eventually found another parish with a trustworthy RCIA. “It was like night and day, but it made us realize one thing,” she said. “We were coming from a small evangelical Church and thought we'd go into the bigger Church of one happy family. You have to be careful.”

RCIA's Origins

The RCIA grew out of Vatican II's call for a restoration of the catechumenate and a revision of the Rite of Baptism for Adults. The idea was to base the process of conversion more in the life of a parish than in private instruction by a priest and a small family baptism ceremony. Texts and an order for the new rite were prepared by the Vatican in 1972, but the U.S. bishops did not approve the use of RCIA in English until 1986; two years later the present order and translations were promulgated. Officially every diocese has implemented the RCIA. Practically speaking, even the bishops' own promoters admit there is much work to be done.

Paulist Father John Hurley last year began a three-year study of the RCIA for the National Council of Catholic Bishops. Surveys have been sent to each diocese and later this year he and his team will conduct consultation days with RCIA directors in each of six regions. The focus will be not only on the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, and First Communions; they will also find out how the rite is being implemented or adapted to meet local needs, how long the average catechesis lasts, and whether those going through the programs are remaining in the faith. Next year Father Hurley will gather the data, analyze it from many perspectives, and present the findings at a national gathering of RCIA directors.

“The bishops want the RCIA to be the primary way of bringing people into the Church, so it's time to see how well the task is being done,” said the priest.

RCIA is structured to recreate, in a limited way, the process of initiation of the early Church, with emphasis on a call to conversion by a parish community and a series of liturgically based steps concluding with reception of the sacraments at Easter. Those who respond to the parish's evangelization efforts represent two main categories: catechumens, who are unbaptized; and candidates, baptized persons who lack either confirmation, First Communion, or both. They are welcomed by the parish in an acceptance ceremony (often on the first Sunday of Advent) in which a priest blesses them and parishioners show their approval.

The catechumenate follows an indefinite period of instruction in Scripture and the teachings and practices of the faith. Depending on individual needs, this could last up to three years, but a number of parishes settle on what Father Hurley calls, “the quick 16-week class and then bring them in” method. The period of instruction includes the Rite of Election on the first Sunday of Lent, when the bishop welcomes the catechumens and candidates and accepts their intention to receive the sacraments as they inscribe their names in a book before families, friends, and parishioners.

During Lent, they are asked to examine their consciences, and deepen their prayer in preparation for the sacraments. A period of post-initiation catechesis, or mystagogy, is then required, but many parishes fail to follow up adequately. This is where, critics assert, new Catholics are left dry, with little grounding in the faith, and may drift away. RCIA professionals are aware of the problem.

“If we are weak in any area, it's in this period,” said Sister Rose Vermette RCD, RCIA director for the New York archdiocese.

With the various demands on priests and the many programs in parishes, RCIA can be viewed in a “fill 'er up and drive away” perspective, she said.

“We try to stress that this is just the beginning of your education—not the end. RCIA is not just about receiving sacraments, it's about continuing conversion.”

RCIA supporters usually call it a “process, indicating continuing learning and growth, rather than a program.”

Church Doctrine Misrepresented

Most of the criticisms of the RCIA , however, are focused on the period of catechesis. As the Finks found out, quality of instruction varies from parish to parish. A more basic criticism is of the philosophy that animates many who run RCIA programs.

An article in the February issue of Crisis magazine by a man who had gone through RCIA is indicative of the complaints. The writer asserts that RCIA programs are vehicles for heterodox reformers who present the sacraments as “simply ritual expressions of deeply felt human needs.” Church doctrines are merely codifications of a community's search for God, and Scripture is open to personal interpretation. RCIA recommends Lectionary-based catechesis, which presents the faith according to the cycle of weekly Mass readings, and many dogmas may be neglected because they do not come up easily in the average Lectionary cycle, the writer asserts.

The North American Forum on the Catechumenate (NAF), which conducts nationwide workshops to train RCIA catechists, is heavily criticized in the article, especially the writings of NAF founder Father James Dunning, who died three years ago. Many RCIA directors use Father Dunning's 1993 book, Echoing God's Word, which draws heavily from the work of Father Richard McBrien, the Notre Dame theologian whose book, Catholicism, was declared by the U.S. bishops to be deficient on points of moral theology, and from Father Richard McCormick, an outspoken critic of the Church's teaching on contraception.

Father Dunning's methods would support RCIA critics, but not all programs look to his work for guidance.

“There is a great deal of variation and freedom in how it is implemented here,” Father Timothy Thornburn, chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., told the Register. Lincoln's ordinary, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, is known for his allegiance to Church teaching and his direct methods, such as his willingness to excommunicate members of dissenting groups.

“[The bishop] has made it clear: no one is to be excluded from becoming a Catholic because of the restrictions that an RCIA program may impose,” such as making people wait who seek admission after the program, Father Thornburn said. “Priests are told to be flexible, to make allowances for private instruction.”

The RCIA is not well suited for everyone, he added, and provisions are made for those who feel uncomfortable participating in public rites, or who want to delve deeper into the faith in private instruction.

Addressing the criticism that RCIA programs are often weak on doctrinal instruction, Father Tom Mayefske, RCIA head for the Santa Fe, N.M., archdiocese, said that most Catholics, even through years of Catholic instruction, pick up the content and meaning of doctrine gradually, and some reach adulthood uncertain and ill-informed.

“It is not fair to expect that, in the course of a year, a new Catholic should know better than a life-time Catholic” he said. “RCIA is intended to be an experience of faith sharing, built on the Lectionary. Within that scope, all the truths we believe are contained.”

Despite problems and shortcomings, some dioceses report record numbers of conversions. Last year, New York had more than 1,200 persons baptized or received into the Church—and the number this year is close to that. Cardinal John O'Connor tells every new pastor to maintain the RCIA in his parish or begin a program if there is none.

Though she had a negative experience initially, Jan Fink is glad she went through the RCIA. When she and her husband were received by the bishop with other new Catholics from Atlanta at the Easter Vigil, “I was so moved; it was so beautiful,” she said.

“All the things you just learned came alive and you knew what was going on, with all the symbolism, and the true body and blood of our Lord,” she recalled. “I think every Catholic should be re-taught the beauty of the faith every year.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.