Tuesday, February 24, 2009

RCIA and Discernment

I have been enrolled in a local Catholic catechises class since last September. This class, known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, is designed to train unbaptized people who wish to become Christian, as well as baptized Christians who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. By design, it culminates in the Easter Vigil, at which the appropriate initiatory sacraments are administered: Baptism if not previously administered, Confirmation, and the Eucharist.

Enrolling in the class was a difficult decision, but staying un-enrolled seemed no easier. I wanted to enroll because I believed I needed to be put in a more consistent pattern of training for my own discernment about the Christian Church. Prior to that point, studying Catholicism had been too easy to walk away from, then rush back into, only to walk away again upon becoming desolate over some foreign teaching or other. It was difficult to enroll, though, because I had anxiety that the momentum of the class toward the Easter Vigil would make the outcome all but inevitable.

How has it turned out? Well, I'm not even sure. I do know that there is a certain momentum toward the Vigil. But several fellow candidates are not intent on joining, so the momentum is not inescapable. The consistency of weekly study of Catholic teachings has been beneficial, even if I had previously exposed myself to most of those teachings. There has been less of a focus on the discernment process itself than I had hoped, but given that this is a one hour / week class, my hopes were misplaced.

I have been able to focus particularly on discernment itself, i.e. reflecting on God's will and calling for His people and for me in particular, through other means. Meeting with my protestant pastor and with the priest who teaches RCIA has been challenging and enriching. Best of all was a three-day silent 'retreat' I was able to attend, taught by a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, which used the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. There is nothing quite like shutting up for a few days, and committing oneself completely to prayer. Staring Catholicism, particularly Marianism, in the face for that weekend was a struggle. Here, like with my RCIA class, I did not walk away with a clean and easy answer. Discernment, like movement, is a process, and I have had to accept the necessity of patience.

So here I am, a day away from Lent and a few weeks away from the Easter Vigil, uncertain of what I will do. As a baptized Christian, I could enter at another time by making proper arrangements, so I needn't have a "now or never" perspective. I have a growing perception of how difficult Faith is, and how easy Doubt is: I can call all foreign truth-claims into doubt, and huddle in my little corner of familiarity, ignoring the forces pulling me out. Faith is so easily shattered, ever vulnerable but for the Grace of our exceedingly gracious God.

No one said this would be easy.


The Catholic Journeyman said...

Your journey with knowledge is a long one, looking at your blog archive. As a Catechist and RCIA teacher, I dont run into many Catechumens or Candidates that have enough Faith knowledge to write about it, so you are likely left with much hunger after the majority of RCIA classes.

While I cannot speak for RCIA Instruction broadly, our Parrish uses USCCB criteria and admittedly it is accurately labeled as "Catholicism Lite". So when the process has a diverse knowledge among the class, the base material may seem elemental to some and produce intellectual frustration. This puts you at a higher risk of un-enrollment, as you say...understood. I tell those Candidates that they may be in the class for purposes of sharing their already fruitful knowledge with other class mates who may need it.

Marcus Grodi tells his story that he imagines finally reaching the pearly gates and asking Jesus for blessings and acknowledgement for all the years he has flown from Ohio to Alabama to evangelize Jesus' good news on EWTN. He then hears Christ say that was well and good however, that was not the primary reason Christ lead him to host the Journey Home, the primary reason was to evangelize the sinner sitting next to him on those 100 plus plane fight opportunities every year. Christ having hand picked his seating accordingly.

Not long ago, before and even sometime after Vat 2, the RCIA process was a 3 year effort, first year was discernment alone. That length of full communion lead to its own problems with those who were accelerated in spiritual development to begin with.

Please remember, the momentum to Vigil, and the doubt possibility increase as we get closer to Easter, every year, as the Devil begins attempting influence over us using our weaknesses, our over-analytical minds and even our surroundings. The last thing he wants is another Catholic with his belt loaded Divinely.

I pray for your discernment direction and guidance for His will in your journey.

Thos said...

Dear Dave,

Thanks for the encouragement and prayers!

"Not long ago, before and even sometime after Vat 2, the RCIA process was a 3 year effort, first year was discernment alone. That length of full communion lead to its own problems with those who were accelerated in spiritual development to begin with."

I did not know this, and find it fascinating. It seems very Catholic to devote time to discernment (maybe even to some philosophy) before plodding ahead with lessons. I can even see that the current model is a bit of an aberration. (I'm most sympathetic to cutting down excessive lead-times too, so maybe some personal tailoring is what is needed.)

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

I'm sure that the RCIA program that you are involved with is filled with folks who are genuine in their desire to help. Unfortunately, RCIA is not meant for Christians like you. It is meant for pagans.

As an informed Catholic, I find it embarrassing that you are being made to endure a program designed for heathens. I'm also cringing at the level of catechesis that you are enduring. It must be pure guts and grit that keeps you in your seat every week. I'm sure that there are times when you just want to teach the class yourself.

I hope that you will take advantage of some spiritual resources that the Catholic Church offers other than the ones aimed at heathens. Finding a solid Spiritual Director would be important. Finding a solid source of catechesis at your level would be as well. Finding faithful worship is central. I would recommend spending time in prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Pickup a rosary and use it. Perhaps you are able to find the fellowship of other Christians who love the Lord and who are seeking the fullness of faith.

I hope that your experience with RCIA will not discourage your pursuit.

Amy said...

I would also add a note of caution since Lent is about to begin. It's our time in the desert, and I always experience spiritual attacks during Lent. It happens during Advent as well, but not to the same extent that they occur during Lent. Since you're at a time when you're discerning something so important, I would expect there to be a great many spiritual attacks over the next 6 weeks.

Also, there have been times when the RCIA process was as long as 5 years. The point is to make sure that you know what you're committing to and that you're properly prepared to receive the sacraments. It's not something that should be taken lightly, so I'm glad you're not in a program that's pushing (or rushing) you into the Church.

St. Michael the Archangel said...

I believe that the above written comments have hit the nail on the head. I have been intrigued myself to sit in on a few RCIA classes and possibly help lead them. My parish priest plays a special role with the lives of his parishioners and future Catholics. He attends most of these meetings, stays long afterwards for a question and answer session, and sets up private spiritual direction for anyone that wants to discuss their faith and their doubts about the faith. He even goes out personally to visit these people, and calls them on their birthdays!! =)

Ok.. I think the man is a saint.. but if he heard me say that, he would prob throw a book at me.

My advice to you is, ask your priest to be your spiritual director and if he doesn't have the time, ask him to recommend someone to you.

The Devil is always looking for doubt or confusion and he will use that against us to turn us away from our path of discovery to God. I can personally vouch for that, given that during my 3 day retreat with you.. I got a ton of grace - however when I got home.. I faulted and doubted.. which the devil used as means to try and take my vocation from me.

I will keep you in my prayers, I know that these RCIA classes can be mundane, don't let that stop you from delving deeper into the mystery of God - use the devil as motivation to love God deeper, discover his faith fuller, and continue to follow in his footsteps.

God Bless,


Thos said...

Gil, Amy and Michael,

Thank you for the words of encouragement. I should make sure I'm clear that I have been blessed by an excellent parish and priest running the RCIA program. I understand that it's a bit of a 'cookie cutter' program that everyone goes through, so naturally lacks a certain amount of personal tailoring. I'm not above it though! And the priest has been good about meeting one-on-one with the folks in the class too.

Michael, hang in there! I'll keep praying for you. Remember: Thy will be done...

Peace in Christ,

Stacey said...


I attended RCIA with my husband when he joined, and it seemed everyone just assumed I was going to join as well. Our parish was somewhat smallish, and the priest liked to bust out a lot of old initiation traditions. I remember before the first one, everyone was supposed to go up in front of the church, and they had my name tag all ready and were trying to push me out the door and up front. I looked at my priest with a rather deer-in-the-headlights expression and blurted something like "I'm not joining!!" He was only slightly taken aback, and everyone went on with life as usual. I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you're not ready, then give it some more time. Joining the Church should be a joyful occasion, not a doubtful one.

On a different note, my RCIA class was a little less than fulfilling and certainly less than orthodox at times. Maybe they should have two levels? The well informed group who want serious discussion and a deeper understanding, and the "pagan" group that is clueless about most things Catholic. Although, when I went through it, I was fairly clueless, and it wasn't as useless as people might think.

Enough from me now :)

Thos said...

Dear Stacey,

Nice to hear from you.

People (myself included) are full of opinions on how RCIA should be run. For the (non-existent) record, I try to refrain myself from opining too much about the way it should be. What follows is meant in that spirit.

Two levels as you suggest may be a solution, or perhaps since there are so many baptized (so Christian) non-Catholics coming in (at least in America), they should only use RCIA for those for whom it was designed: catechumens.

It's good that you were able to recognize where yours was unorthodox. I have been blessed to not have that problem, but then again I travel pretty far to the parish where I am attending, and for that very reason.

The nice thing about Catholicism is that one can recognize aberrant behavior. The Church stresses free consent in decisions such as entering it, entering marriage, or the like. So RCIA that uses strong-arm tactics, or applies pressure through the use of presumptions, has run amok of an important principle. I would have freaked out early on and left if I felt that was going on.

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

Regarding levels in RCIA. There should only be 1 level, that of the pagan who does not know Christ and His Church. Everyone else has no business in or near RCIA.

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate approved in 1986 by the NCCB and confirmed by the Congratation for Divine Worship in 1988 clearly state: "Those baptized persons who have lived as Christians need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community and should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate." Art. 31.

Further, "it is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil lest there be any confusion of such baptized Christians with the candidates for baptism, possible misunderstanding of or even reflection upon the sacrament of baptism celebrated in another Church or ecclesial community; or any perceived triumphalism in the liturgical welcome into the Catholic Eucharistic community." Art. 33.

According to the Statutes, Christians seeking full communion should get formation in the Catholic tradition that suits their individual situation. They should live parish life for a period. They should be received by the bishop or a presbyter he designates at any Sunday Mass during the year. Their reception should not be deferred.

It is the height of triumphalism to make baptized Christians who love the Lord to endure the wait and treatment meant for heathens and pagans. It should be stopped immediately.

End soapbox. :)

Joseph said...

Ouch, Gil.

I admit that my RCIA experience was similar to being locked in a room where "Romper Room" was playing for an hour straight (literally, there was one RCIA leader who wrote big words on sheets of paper with permanent marker and spread them on the floor asking each of us to discuss them... who also forced us to sing a slogan repeatedly after the break... "I will be, I will be, I will be, faith for the journey"), but I met some other truth-seekers during it (i.e. Tim Trautman) and we got on famously.

Not only that, I was previously a very prejudiced anti-Catholic before the process began. I needed the extended length of time to get over a few hurdles (authority, the Marian doctrines). I was very prideful and used to my individual "church" when I first entered the process. Had it not been for one of my Catholic friends at work who made it clear that "to be Catholic, one needs to be obedient and humble to authority... once one asserts their own perceived authority over that of the Church, they cease to be Catholic". I needed time to learn how to be humble, something I wasn't used to in my previous religious life. It was a good exercise also to battle with my passions and my predisposition to criticize some of the methods employed at the RCIA sessions. I had to learn to stay focused on my personal studies (and communal studies with other RCIA candidates who were "in the same boat"). I am also afraid that, had I been allowed into the Church too early, I would have been a terrible Catholic. When I was finally confirmed, it was with joyful anticipation for I was going to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord for the first time. Had I come in earlier, I would have stumbled at the incredible lack of knowledge of the Church displayed by almost every cradle Catholic I know and especially some of the RCIA leaders (one of which actually prayed that Pope Benedict would open his heart to allow women to the priesthood). I had an inclination to go Orthodox, but it was because of the time I spent in RCIA, struggling to remain humble through the process, that I began to believe.

So, OK, perhaps the RCIA process itself could have been a disaster for me had I not had a few good Catholic and Orthodox friends reminding me that "they don't represent the Church" when they teach in error and to remain humble, but the time it took me was a good thing.

In my case, as a former anti-Catholic, it was best not to rush it. I have no regrets, and I met some like-minded individuals who I'll be friends with for the rest of my life during the process... as bad as it was at times.

Principium Unitatis said...


Gil said:

It must be pure guts and grit that keeps you in your seat every week.

There were times like that for me. During those times, I was sitting there internally rejoicing (not laughing at anyone, but genuinely rejoicing at the goodness of God) that I was now like a little child, and I had to become like a little child. I knew that God had a good purpose for me to sit through those classes (which I did for a year and a half, in order to wait for my wife). So, during every class, even the most basic ones, I tried to listen as carefully as I could for that thing that God wanted to teach me that evening. I believed that no matter who was teaching it, God could and use it to teach me something that I needed to know. Even if everything seemed like review that evening, I knew that just by hearing it again, it was becoming more deeply imprinted in my mind, and deepened in my heart. Most of all, it wasn't just about acquiring more knowledge. I knew that God was seeking to work humility into my character. The story that kept coming into my mind over and over was that of Naaman. Would he go wash in that muddy river or not? I believed that it was ultimately all about trusting God, becoming humble and pliable in His hands, with joy and not with a "I can think of a better way" attitude.

That said, there were many evenings, especially when priests or deacons did the teachings, when I couldn't take it all in, there was so much to learn. And again, it wasn't just propositional content. The priests communicated, in their very manner of speaking and praying and carrying themselves, a living Catholic faith and devotion. And that was something I couldn't learn from books. I experienced it just being in their presence. It is a kind of spirituality, a dynamism, that is caught more than taught. And it is extremely beautiful. It is Marian. It is full of grace and faith in God. I don't know how to explain it. But I needed that; that was part of my Catholic formation, just as much, if not more than learning the Catechism.

I understand what Gil is saying about the important difference between catechumens and candidates, but candidates need a lot, especially if they are coming from a Protestant tradition that has (by this point in history) deviated so far from Catholic tradition. There is a whole way of life, a whole religious life, into which one has to be assimilated, and that takes time and assistance from others.

I rejoice deeply with you Tom at the beauty and openness of your pursuit of Christ and the truth about His Church.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...


Thank you for your comments. There do seem to be things that cannot be learned from books, and I dare say it is impossible to learn to trust Catholics merely by reading Catholic theology.

Anyway, it's not as humbling or hard to sit through as I had anticipated, thankfully. I don't mind hearing things I've already read about before. I am blessed to have people willing to teach me.

Peace in Christ,