Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)
RCIA is bringing the “Good News” alive in the modern world …
The letters “RCIA” stand for the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults”, the document flowing from Vatican II which guides the process by which adults are initiated into our Roman Catholic community. The RCIA describes a process in which men and women are guided and cared for as they awaken in faith and are gradually introduced to the Catholic way of life.
The RCIA process is a series of carefully planned stages, marked by liturgical rites in the presence of the whole community, in which new Catholics embark on and join us in a continuing and deepening conversion into faith and discipleship. The RCIA takes the distinctive history and spiritual needs of each person into account, differentiating between the baptized and the unbaptized, the catechized and the uncatechized. The needs of mature, practicing Christians from other faith traditions are considered on an individual basis.
The RCIA draws its model from the “catechumenate” of the ancient Church. Becoming Christian in the early days of the Church involved a sharp break with the surrounding culture. New Christians entered into the joy of new life and a life-sharing community of faith, but also entered into a way of living which demanded deep commitment and entailed great risks. In the modern world, our faith also demands deep commitment — our beliefs and the beliefs of our society are often in tension. The Church revived the catechumenate — embodied in the RCIA — because new believers in the modern world need careful preparation and caring support as they enter into the mysteries of Christ and the commitment of Christian living.
Conversion: a Journey of Mind, Heart and Spirit
Awakening to Christ and seeking out the Church through the RCIA comes about in a variety of ways. The first step for some is a sense that “something is missing” — a sense, perhaps provoked by some crisis, that there is more to life than what they now have or a better way to live than how they now live. For many others, the journey begins because of a relationship with a Catholic — a close friend or a potential spouse. Still others are drawn by seeing the example of a Catholic life well lived, or by exposure to a Catholic writer like St. Augustine, Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day. Whatever the reason for the awakening and decision to seek, the RCIA process is the first step on a lifelong journey of intellectual, emotional and spiritual conversion.
In her book Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion, Emilie Griffin reflected that “conversion” is the process of “turning over one’s life and energies to God.” While we know that the concept of “turning” is apt — the root image of conversion is the proverbial “one hundred eighty degree change” — we also know from our own lives and experience that conversion is an ongoing, lifelong process of personal spiritual growth as well as a social process in which we strengthen and draw strength from others. The RCIA recognizes both the ongoing quality and the communal nature of conversion, providing an intellectual and spiritual framework and a faith community in which an individual’s conversion experience can be understood and supported. Caring for people in the midst of this life-changing experience is the goal of the RCIA ministry.
Preparation: Awakening, Growth and Formation
The full RCIA process consists of four periods of awakening, growth and formation marked by celebration of three major rites involving the whole parish community.
During the first period of the journey, the inquiry period, seekers ask hard questions about Christianity and receive truthful, life-sharing answers from Catholic Christians. The informal discussions during the inquiry period help the seekers link their personal life stories to the Good News as witnessed and lived by the Roman Catholic community.
As each inquirer desires to continue the conversion journey within our faith community, he or she is invited to experience the first major rite of the RCIA process, the Rite of Acceptance. Several times each year at Sunday Mass, inquirers enter the second period of the journey, the catechumenate, by being marked with the sign of the cross on the ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet — a symbol of both the joys and the costs of Christian discipleship.
Into the Catacombs
The word catechumenate means “time of serious study” and inquirers who become catechumens — those who have not been baptized — or candidates — baptized Christians who have not been confirmed as Roman Catholics — join us at Sunday Mass during the Liturgy of the Word, after which they move to the parish hall to continue reflecting on the Scriptures. The length of the catechumenate varies according to individual need. The norm is a year or more.
Our catechumens and candidates do not travel alone during this period. Sponsors are chosen from the parish community to act as spiritual companions, providing personal support, sharing experience of Christian life and helping make the catechumens and candidates feel “at home” with Catholic religious practice.
The catechumenate period ends when a catechumen or candidate is ready to begin the third period of the journey, the period of purification and enlightenment, which coincides with Lent each year. On the first Sunday of Lent, catechumens travel to Holy Name Cathedral to celebrate the second major rite of the RCIA process, the Rite of Election, while candidates receive the Call to Continuing Conversion.
Purification and Enlightenment
The period of purification and enlightenment is a time of final preparation for initiation. The period is one of prayer, fasting and reflection for both catechumens, now known as the Elect, and candidates. During this period, the Elect experience scrutinies and exorcisms, special rites which seal their break with evil in preparation for baptism.
The candidates and the Elect are initiated through the third and consummating rite of the RCIA process, the Sacraments of Initiation, at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. On that night, when light drives out darkness, joyful sounds fill the silence, and we proclaim and renew our resurrection hope, the Elect culminate their long journey to initiation in the waters of Baptism — then, with the candidates, the newly baptized are sealed with the oil of Confirmation and share the bread and wine of the Eucharist as full members of the Roman Catholic community.
Initiation begins the fourth period of the RCIA journey, the mystagogia, which means “leading into the mysteries”. The newly initiated meet weekly between Easter and Pentecost to explore and confirm the Easter experience. From Pentecost until the following Easter, mystagogia continues with intermittent meetings. Mystagogia is the final stage of the RCIA process, but it is in turn the beginning of a pilgrimage of lifelong, continuous conversion in full communion with the Roman Catholic community of Christians.
by Thomas Scharbach
Used with permission.