History of the Archdiocesan Forum for the RCIA

By Terry Zobel, St. Thomas Aquinas

The timeline below tells the story of both the Archdiocesan Forum for the RCIA in Atlanta and the development of the RCIA at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Alpharetta, GA.  Together these parallel events shed light on how the RCIA process often evolves in a parish and how support networks like the Archdiocesan Forum have helped.

Finding our way- early on, we were just trying to figure out what to do. 

  • 1972 – The Provisional Text was the source of information for RCIA.  This was the predecessor of the current Rite of Christian Initiation.
  • 1974 – Bob Zobel, my husband, was the first adult at St. Thomas Aquinas to be received into the church.  Raised in the Episcopal Church, Bob was prepared in our pastor’s living room—one-on-one using a popular and progressive catechism called Christ Among Us.  When Fr. (later Msgr.) Dan O’Connor felt Bob was ready, he pieced together a few things from the provisional text, which was written only for Catechumens—not Candidates.  The entire parish came to celebrate his reception into the Catholic Church.
  • 1979 – I started working at St. Thomas Aquinas as the Adult Education and Evangelization Coordinator.  Part of my responsibility was the “PROGRAM” for preparing adults to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation.  By this time, there were more people attending, but the “classes” were still taught by the pastor.
  • From what little I knew about the RCIA at the time, I added some people into the mix to provide hospitality, to facilitate discussion and to attempt to move it beyond a lecture and to add the essential element of community.
  • In Atlanta, Fr. Louis Naughton, who was a one-man office for liturgy, he kept the priests informed about the rules and regulations regarding the Sacraments of Initiation but no formal RCIA training or guidance from the Archdiocese.
  • The real driving force and inspiration that awakened this diocese to the potential and power of the RCIA was Anita Willoughby, who in conjunction with the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, began to offer gatherings to inform us about the Rite and to begin to envision its implementation.
  • At the same time, the North American Forum for the Catechumenate was offering week-long immersion workshops called “Beginning and Beyond” Institutes to give people the vision of the RCIA so that practitioners could begin implementing this wondrous gift to the Church.
  • Other Christian denominations were curious about all the excitement in the Catholic Church about initiating new members—wondering if perhaps there might be something for their initiation processes. Anita had an idea:  What if we had an ecumenical Beginning and Beyond Institute here and invited Protestant churches to attend?
  • In 1985, at Emory University, Anita pulled off an amazing event.  With the North American Forum, she pulled together a “Who’s Who” roster of people as presenters:
    • Fr. James Dunning, the founder of the North American Forum
    • Dr. Christianne Brusselmans, born in Belgium, who was a Catholic religious educator, catechetical advocate for children and a pioneer in the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation in the United States 
    • Fr. Peter Ball, an Episcopal priest from London who was an active member of the European Conference on the Adult Catechumenate and the North American Forum on the Catechumenate
    • John Westerhoff, once a minister in the United Church of Christ minister who became an Episcopal priest and educator
    • Dr. James Fowler, a professor at Emory who developed what is known as the Stages of Faith
  • This was my first Beginning and Beyond Institute and my new pastor, Fr. Jim Fennessy, attended it with me. We spent an amazing week with Episcopalians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ –you name it! It was after that experience that the Atlanta Forum was born.
  • In 1988 the RCIA was officially promulgated in the United States.  Here in Atlanta we were way ahead of the curve nationally!
  • This local forum did all kinds of things.
    • offered workshops
    • took responsibility  for the Rite of Election and the Mass of Thanksgiving with the Archbishop during the Easter season.
    • conducted networking meetings
    •  consulted at parishes for the purpose of fostering and encouraging the full implementation of this beautiful rite.
  • There was a brief period when the connection of the Forum to the Archdiocese paused, but we continued to meet and to do what we could.

Today, we once again enjoy the benefits of working with the Office of Formation and Discipleship and once again are able to offer workshops, conduct networking and consult.  The Rite of Election is now the responsibility of the Office of Divine Worship.