Many Catholics have heard the initials RCIA used within their church but often do not fully understand what this program is. It is important for all Catholics to know about this program since all Catholics have a place within the program. I would like to take some time to briefly talk about what the program is and then give some reflections on it. I came in to the Church through the RCIA program about 44 years ago and today, as a Deacon, I run our parish RCIA program. I see it as a source of real life to me and to so many others. RCIA simply stands for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The program is the way that adult members learn about Jesus and His Church and then come in to it.
One of the principal ways that all Catholics are involved in RCIA is through their witness. Hopefully the life we lead and the faith we share make others interested in our Lord Jesus and in His Church. When we touch others through our own lived out faith it makes them want to learn more about the faith. RCIA is a way that they can do that. We often have people that were never baptized and never lived out the Christian faith. We also have people who have been baptized and have lived out the faith in a Protestant Church. Some of our RCIA people were baptized Catholic but never received Confirmation and Holy Communion. Some have received all the sacraments and have left the Church but have now returned. RCIA is for all of them.
It is impossible to put a time limit on the RCIA process. How much time we need is based upon the needs of each member in the group. For some, several years may be involved. For others it may be less than one year. We divide the RCIA program in to four distinct groups. Let us take a look at these four groups:
1 – INQUIRER: This is often known as the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate. Here we preach the basic Christian message and explain the role of the Church in living out the Christian life. We use this time to try to teach and inspire. We also use this time to discern whether the person is ready to make the formal step of becoming a full Catechumen.
2 – CATECHUMEN: When the RCIA team discerns that the inquirer is ready to make a faith commitment, we have a ceremony in front of the Church community at a Sunday mass where the inquirers make a decision to become a full Catechumen. The inquirer declares their intentions to the community and the community welcomes them. The process of further teaching continues by the RCIA team and the Church community continues to pray for them.
3 – ELECT: On the first Sunday of Lent, the Catechumens attend a special diocesan celebration where the Catechumens publically express their desire for baptism to the diocesan bishop. Their names are recorded in the Book of the Elect. Instructions continue during the days of Lent. There is usually additional prayer and spiritual direction given to the Elect leading them up to the Easter Vigil service. At the Easter Vigil the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist are given to the Elect in front of the Church community. The Elect are now fully initiated in to the Catholic Church. However, their training continues.
4 – NEOPHYTES: The newly initiated Catholics continue their training with RCIA during the Easter season. This is known as a time of MYSTAGOGY. It continues to the Feast of Pentecost. The neophytes share their experiences of the Easter Vigil and continue to learn more about the Catholic faith.
As I mentioned earlier, some people come in to the program already baptized and with different levels of faith experience. Some need Confirmation and Holy Eucharist; some need just confession and a profession of faith. Depending upon the circumstances, these people can also receive these at the Easter Vigil or at a later date. Pentecost is often used.
The RCIA program tries to deal with each individual’s needs. Some people may need more time than others and some may need to straighten out difficulties like previous marriages. The good RCIA leader and team learn to deal with the various needs of the person apart from the training within the program. It is a program that calls people to follow Jesus within His Church community. The Church community has to realize that they too are part of this process. They help the Inquirer, the Catechumen, the Elect and the Neophyte through prayer and example. I have seen that the community itself grows in a positive direction due to their contact with the RCIA people. It is truly a program that brings life, not only to the individual, but also to the community.
When I did my RCIA process, it was quite different from ours today. I (my wife came also), and another candidate, met weekly with our parish pastor and he taught us. It was good for me, and I became very close to the pastor through it. Today we have a team of several individuals and during our sessions we take turn doing the instructions and we emphasize group discussions. We also spend time reflecting on the Sunday reading. One thing that we added is to discuss where we have seen the Lord working in our lives during this last week. This has proved quite fruitful. RCIA must help its people come in to a relationship with Jesus, as well as His Church.
As a person who has taught in the RCIA program for many years, I can tell you that the program continues to help me grow in my own faith. It is very heartwarming to see people grow in their faith and in their love for Jesus and His Church. Please make sure that you pray for all those who are part of the RCIA program. It is a real blessing to the Church.