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Things my wife wishes they had covered in RCIA

Because my wife—an adult convert to the Catholic Faith—knew nothing about the Church, every new thing has provoked wonder or befuddlement, or both.

(Image: NeONBRAND/Unsplash.com)

I am an adult convert to Catholicism, as is my wife. She entered the Church after we were married and knew even less about Catholicism than I did when I entered, which wasn’t much.

Because she knew nothing about the Church, every new thing has provoked wonder or befuddlement, or both. So, for example, when we started going to Mass together, we settled on a beautiful Church where the congregation received communion at a lovely altar rail. She had been to churches where people stood in line and received communion like a mechanical assembly line, so one day, after getting her blessing at the altar rail, she sat back down next to me in the pew and whispered, “That altar rail thing is a good idea. They should tell other churches about that.”

Sighing heavily, I told her that most Catholic churches used to have altar rails, but they tore them out. “Why?” she gasped with a puzzled expression on her face. “To make it more efficient I guess?” I said meekly. “But it doesn’t!” she replied insistently. My wife has no religious background, and she’s not at all what anyone would call “traddy” (she was a Goth-chick slam poet), but she always prioritizes people over process. She recognizes the work of stupid bureaucracy when she sees it, and I have found it is best not to try to explain why some bureaucrat would do something so obviously stupid; best just to leave it alone. So I just shook my head and whispered, “Yeah, well, it’s hard to explain.”

Ever since my wife entered the Church, she has has been filled with questions — things she thinks should have been covered in RCIA, but to her constant exasperation, weren’t.

So, for example, my wife wonders every year what to get our godchildren for holidays. “Why didn’t they cover this in RCIA?” she asks, clearly perturbed that something she thinks other “cradle” Catholics know all about was left out of her Catholic education. I don’t know what to tell her, because although I was given the honor of being godfather to a friend’s baby daughter years before I got married, it never occurred to me to ask whether I should get her a gift on holidays. I pray for my goddaughter all the time. But gifts? Was that supposed to be part of it? They never covered that in RCIA. It’s just not something that ever occurred to me. But my wife gets frustrated with this question every year.

What else?

Here’s one. Is chicken broth meat? I never asked this question because when I was a bachelor, I just opened a can of tuna and threw it on some mac and cheese. But my wife finds this — how to put this? — unacceptable. She thinks soup and some nice bread is a more sensible, civilized meal for Fridays during Lent. But making soup, as it turns out, sometimes involves chicken broth. (Who knew? I always just open a can.) So is chicken broth meat? She wants to be a good Catholic, but they didn’t cover this in RCIA!

Here’s another one. What are you supposed to do with the palms from Palm Sunday after you bring them home and find them on a book shelf several months later? She’s pretty sure you’re not supposed to just throw them in the trash, and there is a rumor that you’re supposed to burn them, but often they just won’t catch fire. And what would you do with the ashes? Why didn’t they cover this in RCIA?

And then there’s the whole business of the religious orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, sisters, nuns, convents, monasteries, and the rest. She is like a child learning the names of all those wonderful dinosaurs. But instead of “This is a tricerotops!” she points and says: “Wait, wait, okay, that’s a Dominican, right?”

She distinguishes “habit priests” from “non-habit priests” — not because she dislikes the non-habit ones, it’s just the thing she notices. She is pleased that she can now identify the Dominican habit, so if she sees a priest in street clothes, and I say, “He’s a Dominican,” she gets perturbed. “But Dominicans are habit priests, right?” “Yes,” I explain, but there are provinces of Dominicans where they don’t always wear the habit or clericals. They prefer pink button-down oxford shirts and loafers. “They didn’t explain that in RCIA,” she says exasperatedly.

How about shoes, she wants to know. Can you wear open toe sandals to Mass? Some women say “Sure!” but others are aghast. So what is it? Heels? Flats? Dress sandals? She just wants to know. But there was nothing about it in RCIA.

My wife has been startled to find that priests are real people who do things like eat and go to movies. So let’s say you invite a priest for dinner. What are you supposed to serve? Can you offer him an adult beverage? Like many other people in our culture, my wife had mistaken Catholic priests for a certain kind of Protestant. Priests can drink wine. That’s pretty much an essential (sorry, “accidental”) part of their job. But can you serve priests tacos? Or a pizza? Or must you serve a nicely laid-out dish of chicken and peas or some beef bourguignon? They never explained this in RCIA.

She has a host of other questions, enough to keep her continually exasperated. Why don’t they have people practice taking communion on the tongue, both kneeling and standing, so that it’s not so clumsy the first time you do it? Why does no one tell you that you should take off your glasses before the priest sprinkles you with water? How do you find a good Mass in a nice Church when you’re out of town? And why it is so hard? Why are so many Catholic churches so ugly and the music so terrible?

Yeah, well, it’s hard to explain. Probably why they don’t cover it in RCIA.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 43 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

40 Comments

  1. Very sweet article, Dr. Smith. It must be fun to see the Church through your wife’s new eyes.

    She seems like a very pragmatic woman. How wonderful that she longs for beautiful churches and beautiful music.

    But of course you no doubt took the opportunity to inform her that the Mass is not primarily an aesthetic experience, but rather a personal one — that Person being Jesus Christ.

    And please let her know that, yes, chicken broth is considered meat.

    Also, hopefully your diocesan clerical food outlet is nearby so she can access some official Catholic priest food the next time you entertain Father.

  2. I hope this is meant to be entertaining, and I hope nobody takes it seriously. Everything you need to know was not taught in kindergarten, and the RCIA is the Catholic version of kindergarten. I, too, am a convert, and I don’t remember any of this being taught in my RCIA class 52 years ago. I am fortunate to live in the Denver metropolitan area, though, and have completed a four-year Scripture study in the Catholic Biblical School. Last year, I finished a two-year study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offered by the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary Lay Division. I have learned the true essentials of the Catholic faith. Many years ago, I completed a Catechetical certificate to teach religious education, and I have worked for the Church in a variety of ministries. It’s obvious that much of what your wife is asking is really peripheral to the faith and to what we need to know about Catholicism. Maybe she should start by reading your books?

    • I found this article to be spiritually amusing. At the age of 15, I started to take my faith seriously. The questions the wife asks here are very similar to the questions I asked. I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia at my local library and always found the answers. I see now that God had and has given me what I wanted and that is to seek the Truth. Christ has always opened His Truth to me as I sought it. This couple is on the right path, I pray they never stop seeking Christ in His Catholic Church through their questions. Through prayer and seeking in the right places they will discover great treasures along the way.

    • I see that the faculty at both the Catholic Biblical School and St. John Vianney are still allowing the occasional obtuse student to sneak past the goalie.

  3. Blessed palms (and pussy willows!) can be made into a dry floral arrangement. They can also be “hung” behind the crucifix/cross you mostly likely (hopefully?) have on your wall.
    .
    The parishes in my diocese (historically quite “liberal”) take up a collection of palms a couple of weeks before Ash Wednesday. Dried palms burn quite well, so if a person is having an issue burning them at home, I suspect they are not truly dried.
    .
    Chicken broth is meat (chicken soup is a medicine). Canned vegetable broth is available, and many good recipes can be found online to make your own.
    .
    All good useful stuff above, especially about the religious orders. I am going to guess the existence of “Eastern Rite” Churches was also absent.
    .
    One topic that ought to be mentioned, and given considerable time, in RCIA is contraception. I was fortunate enough to have heard Dr Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s talks on the subject before I did RCIA, as the issue was not mentioned in RCIA or even in marriage prep. I naively believed Catholics understood and had faith in their own teachings.
    .
    The other topic not covered is disillusionment. Especially recently, I would like a Declaration of Nullity from my Confirmation, as I often feel like a victim of bait and switch.

  4. I’ll try to help with the godparent-gift problem. In my cultural background (Flemish), godparents seem to be expected to give a gift to their godchild on occasion (yearly?). This custom is only intermittently surviving in my family, from what I can see. I suspect it is even weaker in the homeland, as baptism itself seems to be threatened. Commend your wife wife for doing her part in bolstering the latter, far more important, part. Blessings.

    • Gilberta, In my culture Baptism, has now become all about money. The GodParents are expected to pay for a huge celebration, paying for food, drinks, and entertainment. The Godparents are expected to give the Godchild expensive gifts on Birthdays and Christmas, not to mention money during the year. I have one Godson who has disowned me as his Godfather and he’s not shy about telling others what a bad Godfather he has. He says it straight out, “He never gives me money”. I fear ever being a Godparent again.

    • That might depend on which “Church” you belong to, and time in the Liturgical year. It might even depend on the Eparchy. Chicken broth is an “animal product” and would not be approved to be consumed on at least Good Friday in my Eparchy.
      .
      Considering the abundance of foods from which to consume, this is a area ripe (no pun intended) for clarification and simplification.

  5. Like His flock, (on Good Shepherd Sunday), the local practices and customs of priests, the musical skills or lack thereof of the parish, etc.. reflect the flock and the individual. Sometimes it is due to indifference or mismanagement; sometimes the resources are not available. Each parish supports itself, with some support from the Diocese in different forms.

    Sometimes I get the feeling Jesus is more present (and appreciated) in the poor parishes with things askew.

    Jesus started with the basics, like most “experts” do, and preached in the dust. Your Mrs. can take great comfort in the fact He was definitely a ‘down-to earth’ person, who connected with both the sinner and the righteous wherever He went – whether they acknowledged Him or not (didn’t He instruct the disciples to “shake the dust off their sandals” if admonished?) He certainly was the Great Communicator.

  6. Nice play on words: “She has a host of other questions, enough to keep her continually exasperated.” If we (and your wife) truly understand about the consecrated “host”, then we are alrady ahead of the 71 percent of Catholics, including RCIA members, who haven’t a clue about the Real Presence.

    As for all of the secondary questions. Just explain that the whole purpose of the post-Second Vatican Council invasion was to replace all that stuff (and more) with banners and kumbaya. When a Protestant minister complained that Catholics still “worship” statues, the long-suffering Catholic priest retorted that “no we don’t, we worship banners!”

  7. Wonder , gratitude and yes , some befuddlement too can all be delicacies for life long Catholics too ( who might have become a bit jaded and cynical as well ) , in getting to know the Divine Will revelations through writings of S.G. Luisa .
    Many who frequent some of the ‘ basic ‘ Catholic web sites could have missed same . Once one begins to chew on same slowly we can hear the wisdom and loving focus given to the Divine Will , in the ( ? renewed ) Holy Mass prayers through the efforts of St.John Paul 11 ; on line info and good books also –

    https://www.ltdw.org/other-publications.html

    The desire to exchange the self will with its nothingness and rebellions for the goodness and glory of the Divine Will – a desire that can unite all in the goodness of such an intention .
    The Corona virus likely has helped many to realize how ephemeral all our so called knowledge is , that there is always more to gaze at with awe and wonder at
    The Father , as the little children in the Divine Will .

    Blessings ! 🙂

  8. The Author Replies:

    My apologies. Clearly I wasn’t funny enough. I thought of this article as a humorous, good-natured, slice-of-life piece. My wife is a gem. Seeing the Church through her eyes — a reality which was heretofore totally unknown to her — has been a delight.

    She certainly understands that Christ is the center of the liturgy and the faith of the Church, but she is also practically minded. She wants to be a faithful Catholic, by for her (and for many converts), this is a little like learning to live in another country and culture. You don’t want to mistakenly keep your shoes on in a house in Japan if everyone is supposed to take them off. If you grew up a “cradle” Catholic, you might not think about it, but there were hundreds of details you were taught almost by osmosis. We converts have to catch on to these things by watching carefully and asking people. The problem is, we don’t always get the same answer.

    So, over the years, the joke that grew up between us and a few friends has been the silly question: “Why didn’t they cover this in RCIA?!!” The obvious answer is because they needed to talk about Jesus’s death and Resurrection and the importance of faith in the Triune God, among many other things. But then, what ARE you supposed to do with old palms?

    Yes, I did make a few little digs at some silly contemporary innovations, such as people tearing out altar rails (as just one obvious example of the many things that were stupidly and ignorantly torn out). But please understand, “ugliness” in a church has nothing to do with too little money. It is almost always a case of too much money, a taste for architectural Modernism, and a desire to be seen to be in the avante-garde of cultural tastes — only it’s the same “avante-garde” that has been dominating art and architecture since the 1920s. What would be “daring” and “avante-garde” now would be a traditional beautiful church building.

    One thing that is interesting about my wife is that, although she is not “traddy” (as I suggested above), she is also (due to her Goth chick, slam poet past) allergic to anything that smacks of being too obviously “yuppy.” When she goes into Modernist churches, she sees them for what they are: monuments to the elite, yuppy establishment masquerading as something for “the people.” The problem is similar to the one with so much modern church music. People say it is “for the young people,” but of course the young people hate it. Modernist churches are supposed to be good at making Catholicism more relevant to modern secularists. They don’t. It just drives them away. If you want disaffected teens back in the Church, throw away the plans for the odd Modernist box with its theater-in-the-round seating, get rid of the guitars and piano, and get Duncan Stroik to build you a beautiful church and then hire someone to do Gregorian Chant.

    So yes, I do have those thoughts. But here, I was just trying to be a little bit funny. As G. K. Chesterton understood, perhaps better than anyone else, all this wild stuff we do in the Catholic Church, it’s funny! Joyously funny. Just today, as we were parking to go into Mass, having found a bunch of open parking spaces right at the front of the lot(which is unusual), a friend said to me: “This must be a Catholic parking lot. Everyone is parked at the back.” Being Catholic is fun. And delightfully odd. I wish everyone enjoyed it.

    • Randal Brian Smith. I took your article seriously and I still take it seriously. There has been a great loss of Faith among Catholics and we owe it all to the officially condemned Modernist heresy. Try reading reprinted classics and you will discover the Church as your own personal Treasure.

    • I too am an adult convert that had an awesome sponsor. She not only supplemented what I didn’t get in RCIA but introduced me to tons of books that built up my faith and answered a lot of my questions.
      I came to realize that RCIA is just the beginning of the journey, which will last until I rest in the Lord, so after seven years I’m still learning about catholic culture.
      We have a banquet of knowledge we can access in the Church, praise be to God.
      Looking forward to Shrove Tuesday…pancakes! 😄

    • With sarcasm being a second language for me, I immediately recognized the humor in your cute piece about your wife. I am a cradle Catholic, 12 years of Catholic schooling, and I still find myself asking (myself)these sorts of questions.

  9. Ah yes, altar rails, jingling bells to wake the sleepy, etc.
    Would it have been better at the Lord’s Supper, (the first mass), if Jesus had altar rails to keep the disciples at bay, especially while he had his back to them?
    It seems that given so many years of history separating us, from His time here on earth, many people of today might answer, “yes”.

    • They might answer “yes,” and it would show that they were utterly clueless.

      At the Last Supper, they were all on one side of the table, facing the same way.

      Bells are not to “wake the sleepy” but to help recall any thoughts that might be wandering.

      If you don’t like altar rails, you must really get in a snit about the iconostases found in Eastern churches, whether Orthodox or Catholic. After all, we wouldn’t want anything to set the altar area off as special in any way, would we.

    • I never saw the hunting guide lead his clients by facing them. Maybe doesn’t quite apply, however, the priest leads his congregation in the adoration of God. He is not the there to give us a show, which is unfortunately too often the case—together with his side remarks and chuckles. I see it several times a month.

  10. Can someone tell me whose idea it was to tear out the alter rails. Among the dumb things that happened due to V2, I think that had a terrible effect.

    • GR Mike, to the best of my knowledge, tearing out altar rails (and kneelers, statues and crucifixes, and vandalizing altars, and replacing pews with padded lounges, and replacing beautiful religious art with puerile so called “modern art”) was never mandated or even expressly permitted by any written document. And certainly not by the documents of Vatican II.

      But for some reason the vast majority of parish priests in the 1970s decided to do it, and most parishioners were so ingrained in the habit of going along with Father’s wishes without question or protest (or were too young and/or ignorant to know better) bases on the flimsiest of barely plausible (and false) arguments like “Vatican II said there must be no separation or real distinction between priests and people”. Those priests are mostly now dead, God have mercy on them.

    • Grand Rapids Mike, According to Pope Benedict XVl Vatican ll and after Vatican ll are two totally different things. He goes on to say he was at every Council Session and not once was the Communion Rail ever even mentioned. Yet after the Council Priests all over the world in the name of the Council began removing the Communion Rails. A Bishop is said to have offered the suggestion at the Council to dismantle the Church and start all over. Card. Ottaviani blasted him. Pope Paul Vl is said to have called on that Bishop rebuking him telling him never to make such a suggestion again. Ironically what that Bishop said about dismantling the Church is exactly the message all the Council Fathers got and practiced after the Council. Sadly it seems Pope Paul Vl went right along with it. The Council bore no good fruit only bad fruit. Just look at the past 55 years, nothing good has come from the Council, only massive confusion, the dethroning of Christ in short a whole new Religion.

  11. I’m an RCIA leader and we do actually cover some of these in RCIA. If not, your wife’s RCIA sponsor or godparents/ Confirmation sponsor/s should be able to answer them, if the right people have been chosen.

  12. The underlying problem — the overwhelming problem — here and with most Americans who identify as Catholic is failing to distinguish between religion and culture. That’s especially difficult for us because we live in a country dominated culturally by Protestants, and Protestantism is entirely a matter of culture, without any theology at all.

    Before you object, think. Doctrinal theology goes out the window with the declaration of personal interpretation, or the institutional stance of heresy in the first place. A denomination predicated in heresy, Lutheran or Calvinist, cannot hold steady. Look for example at the Methodists: they require no declaration of creed whatsoever. No doctrinal theology. Moral theology of course is impossible once you declare that salvation is by faith alone or predestined. So no. Protestantism has no theology. None. Just culture. And its cultural norms are likewise arbitrary and fluid.

    But we have theology, and we have the living Christ in the Eucharist. That should make clear that the style of shoe, for instance, is a matter of local culture; and as such it stops having any importance at the door of the church. You don’t look around for “a good Mass”, not ever: the Mass is the Mass, and Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Too many people forget that these days, or never knew it. I meet a lot of self-proclaimed Catholics who actively deny it. But that’s another problem.

    There’s a lot of culture to learn, though. Basically, all of Western civilization, in all of its diversity and splendor. Americans of any denomination are painfully ignorant of Western civilization. So take your time, relax, and enjoy. You don’t need to know instantly how to identify every single order of clergy, for example. You do need to know the basics of the Faith, doctrine and morals alike. From these everything else flows, and with that knowledge everything makes sense.

    Except for the part about the palms. Yes, they are blessed, they are sacramentals, and they are baffling. I have never understood why a parish of, say, four hundred families has thousands of fronds every year. And no instruction on how to dispose of them! Yes, you’re supposed to burn them and dispose of the ashes respectfully, usually by burying them, or just bury the palm to start with. Neither is practicable for everybody.

    The only practical answer is, “Just don’t take one.” They’re not obligatory, they have no devotional use to speak of, and, as you say, they’re difficult to dispose of properly. If they’re distributed to the people, they should be left in the church so that the staff can dispose of them properly. Although you see lots of them just tossed into the parish dumpster.

    But, yeah, mostly, distinguish between theology and culture.

    • You can return the old palms to your parish before Ash Wednesday. They’re where the ashes used that day come from.

    • Well, when I was a child, on Palm Sunday afternoon we (all 11 of us) all sat around the dining room table and learned how to “braid palms”. It is amazing what beautiful designs one can invent when becoming adept at the skill. It was wonderful as the older children taught the younger children—a great family day. The palms we then kept in our rooms as a reminder of Christ, the King. I taught our children the same and they still appreciate the practice. Below are some simple ways to start. You can even combine all the palms in the family and make a very elaborate design to display in the dining room. I still have one of my paternal grandfathers palms which is more than a 100 years old.

      https://www.mercyhome.org/blog/sunday-mass/how-to-weave-palms/

      https://www.holyredeemerchurch.org/palm-weaving–braiding.html

  13. Present canon law in the Roman rite allows chicken broth. Previous canon law forbade it, and Eastern rites do not permit meat broth or sauces.

    Some of these questions can be answered by a quick search through apologetics websites, but most of them are not germaine to the teaching of the faith, such as opened-toed shoes or what to serve priests.

    The problem with trivializing what you view as disparity is that it risks undermining the deep rationale that underlies nearly everything we do as Catholics. If that deep rationale wasn’t sufficiently explained, that is unfortunate.

    As an RCIA instructor, I am continually trying to improve how to present the aspects of the faith that most cradle Catholics take for granted or ignore. To laugh at them, rather than find out, strikes me as just as problematic as callous disregard, for it yields the same result.

  14. Am enjoying the continuing discussion. See what you’ve started, Mr. Smith.
    Re removing communion rails – I do remember a fair bit of controversy when our communion rail – Carrere marble to which parishioners (many Italian) had contributed) – was removed. I hope this wouldn’t happen today, the removal, that is.

      • I know of people who after a renovation of a Church would go to the dump and rescue Communion rails and other ornate objects from the ransacked Church. Our Lady of Akita foretold, “Sanctuaries will be plundered”. I believe this has been a most grave offense to God.

    • Well, I assumed “up-and-coming” because of the Goth slam poet resume. It could also be that I am getting much, much, older.

  15. Dr. Randall B. Smith, a wonderful sunshine ray in the day is what I call your writing!

    “Why don’t they have people practice taking communion on the tongue, both kneeling and standing, so that it’s not so clumsy the first time you do it?”

    “That altar rail thing is a good idea. They should tell other churches about that.”

    Your dear wife should be invited to the next Liturgical Conference at the Vatican!

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