by Carl McColman, St. Thomas More, Decatur
This year my wife Fran and I begin our third year as RCIA directors at our parish. It still feels “new” to us and we continue to be humbled by how enormous a responsibility this is. We find we must continually rely on God’s grace and guidance, which, in balance, seems to be a good thing!
We are both RCIA Catholics, having entered the Church in midlife after being raised as Protestants and then spending many years exploring various forms of new age spiritualties. For us, RCIA meant both coming home to Christianity but also embracing a new way of being Christian, as Catholics. We learned so much during our RCIA classes, and when we were confirmed, it soon became obvious that we still had much to learn.
Twelve years later, when our pastor, Fr. Mark, asked us to consider taking on the task of directing RCIA at our parish, we were simultaneously honored, thrilled, and daunted. Although we were blessed with a wonderful team in place helping us with catechesis, recruiting and forming sponsors, and hospitality, we still had so much to learn.
To make things even more interesting, Fr. Mark asked us to limit the Easter Vigil to those receiving all three sacraments of initiation. Confirmations of candidates who were already baptized would take place at other times. That one simple request inspired us to learn all we could about RCIA. The more we learned, the more we came to understand that, at its heart, RCIA is meant to be a journey of faith, and that such a journey is unique to every person.
How can we, as RCIA directors, balance the needs of the many people who come to us, seeking to learn about (and possibly enter) the Catholic Church? In our first year, we had a person with a master’s degree in theology, another who had attended Catholic High School (as a Protestant), and still others who had almost no background in even the most basic teachings of Christianity — including a Muslim woman who, having married a Catholic, now was exploring what it would mean to follow Jesus, not as just a prophet, but as Lord. How can a single RCIA program meet the needs of people with so many varied backgrounds?
We came to realize that our program needed to be much more than just a “Catholicism class.” Naturally, introducing our candidates and catechumens to the doctrines, precepts, sacraments, and spirituality of Catholicism is essential to RCIA. But just as important — and arguably, even more important — is creating a safe and welcoming environment where each student can reflect on what Catholic faith and practice means to them and how the riches of Catholicism can support their own journey of faith.
To do this well, we needed our program to combine elements not only of religious instruction, but also group spiritual direction, personal faith sharing, silent and vocal prayer, and journaling prompts, all of which point to these overarching questions: How is God at work in your life? How can the treasures of the Catholic tradition support you in your ongoing journey of faith?
After our first year, we also began to see that RCIA truly needs to be a year-round program in the parish. This is still a work in progress, but by next summer we aim to have completed our transition to a year-round program. That means: 1) We will be able to accept new inquirers on an on-going basis, 2) catechumens will be expected to complete a full year of catechesis prior to being baptized, and 3) candidates will, on an individual basis, prepare to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in the context of a Sunday Mass, when together we discern that they are ready to make that step.
Even as we implement year-round RCIA, we can see further ways we hope that RCIA will evolve in our parish. We hope that everyone in the program will recognize that at the heart of RCIA is an invitation to become integrated and involved in parish life. We emphasize that attending Mass and participating in the dismissal and weekly reflection on the lectionary is as important to the RCIA journey as participation in RCIA classes. We are still reflecting on how to better support sponsors. We see the sponsor relationship as truly being central to the RCIA experience, and so we hope to equip our sponsors with the tools they need to truly be companions in discernment as their “sponsees” reflect on their journey of faith and their interest in Catholicism.
After only two years, Fran and I have already learned so much. Increasingly we see RCIA as a ministry of hospitality, of welcoming inquirers and students with a sense of joy and respect. We recognize that even those who decide not to receive the sacraments at this time can still be blessed by the RCIA program, so our main focus is not on “making people Catholic” so much as “supporting everyone in their walk with Christ.” Most of all, we try to never lose sight of the fact that it is God who calls people into the Church and the Holy Spirit who guides them on their way. Our job, therefore, is simply to be humble servants of a process that is, at heart, the call of love in the lives of the men and women we serve. What a privilege this is!