The Light of Easter: How to Keep the Fire Alive in Converts
Every Easter vigil, dioceses across the United States welcome thousands of new converts into the Catholic Church through RCIA. But how a parish’s RCIA efforts prepare and support new converts to be disciples of Jesus Christ makes a critical difference as to whether those new converts choose to stay in the Church — or go.
WASHINGTON — When Kristen Studebaker decided to inquire about becoming Catholic at her local Catholic church, she was looking for a church home. What the former evangelical and Presbyterian discovered in her experience of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) was an invitation to embrace Jesus Christ in a deeper relationship than she had ever known.
“I never knew that Jesus was actually with us in the flesh,” she told the Register.
Studebaker’s pastor, Father John Riccardo of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Plymouth, Mich., emphasized getting to know and love the Person of Jesus as a disciple; then he introduced RCIA participants to the Church’s teachings and related them back to following Jesus. Studebaker said she remembered the retreat the catechumens made before her reception into the Church at the Easter vigil, where her general confession was “the greatest blessing,” and the exposition of the holy Eucharist heightened her desire to receive Jesus in holy Communion.
But when RCIA concluded, and Studebaker had entered the Catholic Church, her Easter joy was quickly followed by a neophyte’s fear: What happens next?
“After the Easter vigil, I was pretty despondent because I did not want this to end,” she told the Register.
However, Studebaker’s journey continued because she had a sponsor who was committed to accompanying her on her journey of faith and became her friend, encouraging her and introducing her to opportunities to live out her new life as a Catholic in the parish and the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“I truly think that to keep candidates interested in the Catholic Church is to take them by the hand and show them that there is so much going on and so much to do. … She was really instrumental in helping me be interested and inspired me,” said Studebaker, who got involved with the outreach efforts of St. Paul Street Evangelization. “There’s just so much that the Catholic Church offers, ever so much more than what I experienced in the evangelical church.”
Every Easter vigil, dioceses across the United States welcome thousands of new converts such as Studebaker into the Catholic Church through RCIA. But how a parish’s RCIA efforts prepare and support new converts to be disciples of Jesus Christ makes a critical difference as to whether those new converts choose to stay in the Church — or go.
Two Essential Parts
The formation of Catholic converts has two key components that actually bridge their reception into the Church. The first part covers the stages before reception into the Church: the period of pre-evangelization and pre-catechumenate, followed by the catechumenate (the centerpiece of RCIA). Then, after initiation into the Church — most converts are received at the Easter vigil — follows the period of deepening knowledge and study of the faith called the mystagogia.
One of the essential — and perhaps overlooked components of a successful RCIA process — may be the pre-catechumenate stage.
“The ‘Inquiry’ and the ‘Catechumenate’ are two distinct, but related, evangelizing processes,” Deacon Keith Strohm, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for the New Evangelization, told the Register.
Deacon Strohm said the pre-catechumenate is an evangelizing period of inquiry, where the RCIA leader has to help people both discern where they are in their relationship with God and make a decision to follow Jesus Christ before they enter the RCIA process. In his view, Deacon Strohm said, many parishes undervalue the inquiry period when a person calls up the parish and asks about how to join RCIA.
Deacon Strohm said that while he was directing RCIA at Queen of the Rosary parish in Elk Grove, Ill., he observed that converts would “come through RCIA, and we’d never see them again.”
However, by adding a robust pre-catechumenate process, the results flipped, and the parish started to retain eight converts out of 10 that went through RCIA as active, participating Catholics. The key part of this pre-RCIA process was helping inquirers become personally intimate with Jesus Christ. And they did it by creating a year-round process that people could join anytime, with small-group settings and one-on-one discipleship with sponsors who were already committed to being active disciples of Jesus.
“People were coming and choosing to follow Christ, so it really meant something to them,” he said.
St. John Paul II, Deacon Strohm explained, taught that catechesis is intended to help the believer become “intimate with a person that they know.” If the catechumen sitting in RCIA does not know Jesus, he or she cannot become intimate with him, and that is why many will be gone shortly after the Easter vigil.
“If we never help them encounter Christ, then boom, they’re done,” he said.
Grainy Snapshot of RCIA
Finding out what is happening to Catholic converts is difficult: Solid data on what happens to RCIA Catholics after the Easter Vigil is sparse.
A pair of Pew research studies suggest that approximately 1 million converts stopped identifying themselves as Catholic over a recent seven-year period. A Pew “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found in 2007 that 2.6% of U.S. adults, or 5.9 million, said they were converts to Catholicism. But by 2014, Pew’s survey found the number of self-identified Catholic converts had dropped to 2% of U.S. adults, or 4.9 million people. In that year, the number of people identifying themselves as former Catholics increased to 12.9% of all U.S. adults, or 31.6 million people.
During these seven years, U.S. dioceses had reported collectively more than 100,000 people entering the Church every year.
Mark Grey, a researcher for Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, noted in CARA’s research blog “1964” that no one has yet come forward to sponsor CARA to perform a follow-up study tracking what happens to these Catholic converts.
Right now, he added, any discussion of RCIA retention is based completely on anecdotes, pointing out that one RCIA director informed him that half of that parish’s RCIA converts left within the year. Others, Grey stated, have written CARA saying it is as high as 90% leaving the parish within the year.
Grey’s own on-the-spot speculation was that the situation may not be that dire: Based on CARA’s surveys of Catholics in the pews, it appears that 84% of Catholic converts, or 3.4 million, who went through RCIA since its inception in the 1970s, still identify themselves as Catholic. In any event, he noted that convert Catholics tend overall to be substantially more involved in Catholic life than lifelong Catholics.
However, Grey’s “back-of-the-envelope analysis” is still not all that encouraging for RCIA directors trying to form healthy, practicing Catholics in their parishes. Surveys show 62% of Catholic converts attend Mass at least once a month (compared to 48% of Catholics baptized as infants) and found that 54% of Catholic converts go to confession at least once a year (compared to 24% of lifelong Catholics).
Accepting Jesus Christ
Giving catechumens the teachings of the Church before the discovery of Jesus Christ personally will lead to failure in RCIA, not success, no matter how good the teacher or the program materials are, Adam Janke, program director of St. Paul Street Evangelization, told the Register.
Janke, who leads RCIA at St. Mary Church in Williamston, Mich., told the Register that he has learned from experience that genuine conversion and acceptance of the Church’s teachings only come after those in RCIA first make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
“At RCIA, we started challenging them: ‘You’re not joining a social club. … Ultimately, you’re asking the question of who Jesus is and what the cost of discipleship involves,’” Janke said.
Janke said RCIA leaders have to be honest: Often, people seeking entry into RCIA are doing it to please their future in-laws or spouses, not out of a conviction to follow Jesus Christ through his Church. Some people do leave when they are challenged with the Gospel — and Janke respects their integrity in doing so — but most stay and will reach the point of conversion if done this way. Then, lifelong discipleship follows.
Giving Mystagogy Its Due
Many RCIA leaders are grappling with how to do a much better job of immersing the new converts into mystagogia, the deepening of faith in the newly baptized and confirmed Catholic (called a neophyte) following entry into the Church.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, that post-baptismal period of catechesis is supposed to deepen one’s understanding of the Scriptures, the sacraments and the Church’s teachings. However, the minimum time expected for this period is fairly short: The USCCB said it should last at least until Pentecost. In fact, the bishops’ conference noted in a 2000 study that mystagogy was “the weakest area of RCIA’s implementation.”
Deacon Strohm indicated that length may be too short. He explained that neophytes need a “rich experience of mystagogy” to sustain them as they practice following Jesus through prayer, Scripture, fellowship and other opportunities.
“They need apprenticeship in the life of discipleship,” he said.
At St. Timothy’s Church in Mesa, Ariz., Deacon Jim Beattie said the parish is trying to do more to build up the mystagogia period.
Deacon Beattie and his wife, Sandi, coordinate the parish’s adult RCIA course, and he said they try to provide opportunities for the new faithful to become active members of the parish. Many feel this “need to serve” as part of their relationship with Jesus. The parish’s “Called and Gifted” program helps neophytes discern where God may be calling them to use their particular gifts and talents in their life with Christ.
They also make sure the neophytes understand that a Catholic is never done learning about the faith. The deacon said they give them the tools they need, such as a Bible, Catechism and other catechetical materials, walking them through how to use the resources.
“So, in those days and weeks afterward, as they start getting nudged by the world, they have the resources to go back into, look at, study and really just continue in their own faith,” he said.
Deacon Beattie explained continuing education at the parish also means being flexible to work with the Holy Spirit and adapting to people’s needs: They host presentations on Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, but some find the “C2: Continuing Conversion” program is more helpful in learning more about the faith.
And a “celebration dinner” brings the new converts together with old converts, creating Catholic fellowship.
But he added that the parish is constantly looking for ways to keep improving the formation offered to converts.
“We’re here to feed the sheep,” he said. “You can never go, ‘It is finished.’”
But helping neophytes persevere in faith also requires the commitment of godparents and sponsors who will accompany them in the process of deepening their faith.
At St. Mary’s in Michigan, Janke said he puts sponsors and godparents through a training process, so they understand this is part of their duty.
“We’re trying to foster friendship,” he said of encouraging new Catholics. “If they are loved, they will continue to grow.”
Kristen Studebaker said the “Called and Gifted” course she took after her reception helped her discover a calling to evangelize others. But she said the enduring friendship she had with her sponsor — who was open to questions and guiding her as a neophyte through periods of uncertainty — sustained her, along with the warm support of other Catholics, both before and after her entry into the Church.
“Everybody always said, ‘Welcome home.’”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a
Register staff writer.