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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