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RCIA and effective evangelization

RCIA as it exists in the United States has become a sacred cow, unable to be critiqued, and buttressed by an entire quasi-clerical phalanx.

Catechumens hold candles during the Easter Vigil March 31, 2018 at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Historically, the 40 days of Lent are focused on catechumens (unbaptized candidates), while the 50 days of Easter are focused on the neophytes (the newly baptized). The means by which most catechumens (and those from other Christian traditions) come into the Church is the Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Actually, as the name implies, RCIA is a liturgical ritual, not a program of instruction, per se. However, the two realities have generally merged in concept and reality, at least in the United States. Regardless of that situation, Eastertide is an ideal season to reflect on the Church’s outreach to future members and new ones.

The work of evangelization is a hallmark of Catholicism, so much so that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared as a mere truism that “the pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature” (Ad Gentes, n. 2). In 1990, St. John Paul II devoted an entire encyclical to the topic – Redemptoris Missio. Unfortunately, Pope Francis has consistently condemned “proselytism” as “solemn nonsense,” but in such a way as to conflate it with evangelization. Proselytism is rightly condemned as it employs unfair and dishonest techniques to attract people to a religion. Evangelization, on the other hand, is a work inspired and driven by the Christian virtues of truth and charity.

Like many ineffectual ecclesiastical programs of the alphabet-soup variety (e.g., CCD, USCCB), it is identified by its initials; RCIA has become a sacred cow, unable to be critiqued, and buttressed by an entire quasi-clerical phalanx – although its track record, for the most part, has been a less than stellar success.

But, first of all, honesty compels us to admit that faulty catechesis is not unique to the 21st century, as clearly demonstrated by St. Paul’s experience with the Ephesians (cf. Acts 19:2). That said, a catechesis of “feel-good” has dominated the contemporary scene for half a century, with disastrous effects on nearly three generations, not only of converts but of cradle Catholics as well. In 1996, Archbishop Jerome Hanus, in his capacity as head of the bishops’ subcommittee for the implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, highlighted the signal failure of RCIA, what must be considered a serious pastoral worry, which led to the publication of “Journey to the Fullness of Life” in 2001. While things have improved in some places, the overall picture is still rather bleak.

The first difficulty is that the vast majority of “instructors” in RCIA programs are manifestly unqualified. In the “bad old days,” while many potential converts made their initial contacts with the Church through committed laity (my own father was one of those lay evangelists), the work of catechesis was carried out by priests. Now, all too many priests are “too busy” to engage in this work, quite content to slough this task off onto well-meaning but theologically challenged lay people. These are very often the same priests who no longer visit the sick, passing on that responsibility to “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion, thus denying the sick the “accompaniment” of a priest as well as access to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis. In the 1950s and into the 60s, no convert would ever be able to say that she had not been carefully schooled in the Church’s moral teachings.

A closely related problem is that RCIA classes are grounded in a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. What serious educator would ever throw a Southern Baptist, High-Church Anglican, and atheist or agnostic into the same pool? Of course, if you’re not teaching doctrine but only sentimentality, I guess that model does work. However, in an age of a supposedly heightened personalism, this approach is the very opposite. Aligned with this lack of personalism is a strange rigidity: if Presbyterian Pete didn’t enroll in the parish program by the magic date of September 10, he must wait outside the gates of Paradise for another year.

Two decades ago, a Greek Orthodox woman came into my orbit: married in the Church to a Catholic man, children in Catholic school, steeped in the theology of the Fathers of the Church and Cardinal Newman. “Why are you not a Catholic?” asked I. “Our family schedule doesn’t allow me to commit to a weekly RCIA class, and no priest will allow me to make a profession of faith in the Catholic Church without it!” Talk about stupidity! Will you be surprised to learn that after four sessions with her, I received her into the Church? That said, there is the other extreme, whereby potential converts are living in invalid marriages – a fact only discovered the week before their scheduled reception into the Church.

In addition to the lack of true content in these programs, there is next-to-no follow-up. Sometimes, this is not the fault of the parish, which may indeed offer some sort of “mystagogy.” However, if the convert learned nothing for a year, why should that person presume that something worthwhile would be offered afterwards?

Not a few DREs (that is, directors of religious education – another example of the alphabet-soup Church) seem intent on keeping candidates out of the Church as long as possible. Perhaps this is just the extension of the interminable “discernment process” favored by some vocation directors, who seem to think that their vocation is to keep young men out of the seminary as long as possible, rather than bring them in.

Another frequent mistake is receiving converts from other Christian communities into the Church at the Easter Vigil. The documents clearly state that this should not be done, as it suggests a certain common status between the non-baptized and the baptized. Besides eviscerating the Easter Vigil of its true meaning, this can likewise be perceived as an ecumenical insult, equating “separated brethren” with pagans. This is often done so as to have bodies to receive into the Church at Easter, since the majority of parishes probably do not have candidates requiring baptism. A baptized Christian coming into full communion with the Catholic Church can be received at any time.

The huge elephant is the middle of the ecclesial living room is the major decline in converts over the past several years. Anecdotal evidence from pastors reports waning numbers in RCIA programs. Is this yet another aspect of the “Francis effect”? I believe it is, as is the case with many other “vital statistics” of the Church over the past several years. Many converts came into the Church during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI because they saw in Catholicism that “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” held up by St. Paul in his First Epistle to Timothy (3:15). Many of them (especially clergy) left comfortable existences in a debilitated but affluent Protestantism, sacrificing everything because they saw in us an indomitable commitment to the truth. Those individuals are scandalized by witnessing within our ranks the very confusion they thought they were escaping by “swimming the Tiber.” “Why did I enter the Church?” is their question. Yet others remain outside the visible bounds of communion because they ask, “Why should I enter?”

Truth be told, we must get our own house in order, so as to be that “missionary Church” identified by the Fathers of Vatican II and promoted by St. John Paul II. The quintessential convert of the Anglophone world over the past two centuries was undoubtedly Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. Many years after his conversion, he asserted: “The Church must be prepared for converts, as well as converts prepared for the Church.” The Church prepares for converts, first of all, by speaking with a united voice on matters of faith and morals, and then she offers those attracted to those teachings an effective means of committing to those truths. Converts, on the other hand, must realize that while the Catholic Church is the best reflection of the Kingdom of God on earth, she is not the Kingdom in its fullness; that experience awaits us in the Kingdom’s definitive arrival with the Lord’s Parousia. There is no “perfect” Church here on earth because there are not “perfect” Catholics.

Editor’s note: This homily was preached on May 14, 2019 at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City. It has been edited here for length.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 121 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

13 Comments

  1. Just curious, what constitutes an “invalid marriage” so that a person cannot be received into the Catholic Church? I was a non-observant Jew married to another non-observant Jew when I converted. Is my acceptance into the church invalid?

    • I imagine that what he means is Christians who are divorced and “remarried.” Christian marriage is indissoluble.

    • @LeslieBresnick
      I think you’re seeking an answer to two different situations. First, without knowing the details of your marriage, and not being an expert in Canon Law, my guess would be that the Catholic Church would recognize your Jewish marriage as valid. Secondly, if you have already converted to Catholicism, I assume you fulfilled all the requirements of conversion and discussed your particular situation with a priest or the pastor. If he approved and you were baptized into the Faith, you’re a Catholic and I don’t think that can or should be undone or viewed as “invalid.”. You marriage might be viewed as unusual or irregular, but I don’t think it’s a show-stopper. But again, I’m no expert. Are there any Canon lawyers or priests out there who can shed light on Leslie’s situation???

      • I thought the all omnipotent Catholic Church calls for religious freedom while trying to evangelize all other religions. Don’t they cry for the same? St. Pope John II was very vocal about ecumenism and extending a friendly hand to our non-Catholic brethren. I would say that both words are mutually exclusive. Isn’t that a dichotomy of mind?

  2. Excellent article. I would add that’s there’s no standardized text book that is used to teach the Faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church should be used but each diocese is different, and even within a diocese every parish is different — some teach the Faith and morals more vigorously than others. The result is that many Catholics believe things the church doesn’t teach.
    For 50+ years the Catholic Church has tried to be everything to everybody, with the result being that most Catholic Churches have become Protestantized with Catholics who unknowingly hold Protestant beliefs and make the sign of the cross. Sadly, many are totally unfamiliar with the CCC because their pastors have never given a homily about it and probably have never read it themselves. Instead we hear homilies about God’s unconditional love (not in the Bible) as if there is no accountability and no consequences to what we believe or how we act. No wonder the church and the RCIA programs are rudderless; udderly adrift in a secular society that exerts a greater influence on the Church than the Church exerts on the secular society. “Come Holy Spirit…”

  3. “The first difficulty is that the vast majority of ‘instructors’ in RCIA programs are manifestly unqualified.”

    With regard to the RCIA, being “unqualified” is indeed the first qualification for an “instructor.”

    “Not a few DREs (that is, directors of religious education – another example of the alphabet-soup Church) seem intent on keeping candidates out of the Church as long as possible. Perhaps this is just the extension of the interminable ‘discernment process’ favored by some vocation directors… ”

    Or a function of the psyches of people on power trips who enjoy being lay priest/priestess insiders. They cannot “absolve” yet they can “retain” (as in delay). They not only have dinners with the pastor or even the Bishop. They frequently share “guffaws” (a bogus substitute for Christian joy) in mandatorily public spaces…like right in church or even the sanctuary …the vestibule or parking lot. But really, how can one deny despite the distinctions made between “proselytization” and “evangelization” the current aversion, yes aversion the Bergoglio Church has about someone…(suspenseful music)… becoming a Catholic? In all fairness, this spin on the Great Commission precedes him at the Church Top …though not at the current full blast level of vintage 1970’s Jesuit aversion (Rahnerian anonymous Christian fundamentalism, an actual preference for non-believers, the crazy wisdom that apostasy is actually believing).

    “A baptized Christian coming into full communion with the Catholic Church can be received at any time.”

    The above cannot be said enough. It’s the Easter Vigil…not the Look-How-Many Easter Show. Believe me I get the impulse besides number displays to make things “more special” for these people. Though not in the same league/category I know of one parish where on every All Soul’s Day…those families who lost a loved one during that year are the featured families that process with candles etc. Yes, I get the pastoral/communal aspect and the suffering of people who recently lost loved ones…but is All Soul’s Day primarily about grief? Does this satisfy the need for follow up and show those in the pews watching this procession others have lost loved ones like I have lost loved ones though “the souls in Purgatory” never really gets mentioned or emphasized? Is the response, “”Well this is the time for this, a good place.” With regards to the Easter Vigil…if you’ve been baptized in the Trinitarian formula…but wait…the blurring between the non-baptized and baptized abides in a phrase “the people of God” not just at the Easter Vigil. It’s in the same playbook as “human dignity.”

    Yes, not just ex-Protestant clerics who lost income but regular folks Muslims who could still end up dead might also ask Bergoglio…why did we convert then?

    There is only one phrase for me to describe “our approach” at this point: willed derangement.

    God bless you, Fr. Peter. Many thanks.

    • I just went through the excruciating dog and pony show that is the RCIA at St. Helen’s in Georgetown. I was Lutheran, my husband was Nazarene. We reluctantly went along with the forced RCIA because we were told we had to, in order to become Catholic.

      The program, such that it was, was a combination snarkfest put on by Catholic volunteers who thought they know more that anyone else, and snotty latin language games.

      Mis-information was given. We were insulted several times, especially me. The whole thing was painful and disheartening.

      At the end, when I register with the Parish, only my husband was welcomed. I was actually told, by a deacon, that I should not have used Dr. as my salutation and that it would have been better to just accept being a wife.

      I was devastated. I was confused. Indeed I questioned why I wanted to join such a misogynist mens club.

      Upset, I called the Diocese. I was assured that it was not Catholic Doctrine, it was not diocesan standard, but perhaps local culture. The ma. In charge of family life added “besides, you probably file income tax with your husband as head of house.” Seriously. He said that.

      I asked the parish to remove me from registration. To date, many months later, I have yet to receive a response. How am I supposed to trust any of them – priest, deacon, RCIA director – with my spiritual well being?

      Right now, I am visiting other churches for Masa, while looking for one that stands by the catechism.

      Something needs to be do align colloqial propaganda with the catechism.

  4. Sorry for a bit of imprecision. When I mentioned “invalid marriages,” I was referring, for example, to the discovery at the last minute that a candidate had been in a previous valid union and was now in a second (invalid) union. The discovery of such a situation ought to occur at the very outset of one’s enrollment in RCIA; indeed, the parish priest and/or director of religious education ought not permit such a person to embark on the formal conversion process unless and until it is possible to declare null the previous union.
    The situation of the first questioner here is entirely different. Presumably, her union to another Jew was a natural (non-sacramental) marriage. It is not clear whether she was still living with that man; if she was not and was subsequently in a second union, she would have had to petition for a Pauline Privilege, dissolving the first union in favor of the faith, thus enabling her second union to be convalidated in the Church.

  5. Fr. Peter accurately describes many of the weaknesses of RCIA. As with most human efforts it’s easy to find problems and inadequacies. What is the proposed solution? On a note of Hope, let me add that as an RCIA teacher for 30 years I have been privileged to see the power of the Holy Spirit transform the lives of Candidates and their families.

    Jesus is still keeping his promise to those asking seeking and knocking. Those still laboring in this mission of the Church are Blessed to be able to witness the profound love and Mercy of God every year. I would ask that those that see weaknesses to get involved in this vital mission and help to improve this work of God.

    • I’ll propose a solution. Let’s begin by carefully reading the RCIA statute and following it. Most of the errors and wrong-headed practices detailed in the article result from those in charge failing to follow the statute.

  6. I have two faithful Catholic RCIA instructors calling me out on this article I posted.
    One questions was if Fr. Peter has actually been a pastor in a parish…

  7. I was disappointed with this article. The author put down a lot of people and was incorrect about various things. Namely, the author said that “the documents” of the Church state that Candidates and Catechumens should not receive their sacraments at the same time at the Easter Vigil. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults book “Approved for use in the dioceses of the United States of America by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Confirmed by the Apostolic See” states very clearly in paragraph 409 that Baptized individuals SHOULD receive the rest of their Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass and go through a prolonged preparation period before that. In the following paragraph, 410, the instructions state that “These adults will complete their Christian formation and become fully integrated into the community by going through the period of postbaptismal catechesis or mystagogy WITH the newly baptized members of the Christian Community.
    The author also said, “What serious educator would ever throw a Southern Baptist, High-Church Anglican, and atheist or agnostic into the same pool?” I WOULD!!! Firstly, we are teaching the faith, and that means passing on the same doctrings to EVERYONE. Secondly, that class would be so enriching to all! The questions of the athiest would remind the southern baptist of sooooo many things he or she has taken for granted. The thoughts of the High-Church Anglican will also help that athiest and Southern Baptist recognize aspects of faith they may have never thought of but were commonplace to the High-Church Anglican. On top of all that, the class begins to blend as a family as they grapple with Church teachings and strive to grow closer to Christ, and THAT is what Jesus intended for us all – to be ONE in the COMMUNITY together. Anyway, I found this article disappointing. I have led so many people to Jesus and the faith over the past 25 years teaching in both RCIA and Catholic evangelization in the streets as a lay person, and I found that this article was not that good. God bless you all.

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