A few, hastily sketched out, preliminary ideas for such a time as this . . .
Six years ago, we brought out a landscape designer to look at our tragedy of a back yard and get her suggestions for what we could do with it. She gave it a once over and said "there's nothing here to save". Oookay . . .
She wasn't saying "Abandon all hope, ye who live here". She was saying that the climate here is profoundly different than in Seattle and you can't go about creating a garden high in the Rocky Mountains the way you could in moist, misty, moderate Puget Sound. You have to amend the soil differently and put in irrigation systems and consider how you are going to deal with that dazzling sun, those hail storms (4 this month!), and those 0 temp days and blizzards in mid winter.
If you don't, your seeds and bulbs which do contain the power and grace of life will behave like the seeds in the parable of the sower. 1) They won't germinate at all; 2) they will come up and be scorched by the sun and die; 3) The birds will eat them; or 4) they will be choked by the dozens of noxious weeds who are just waiting below the surface for a little water in order to emerge and choke everything in sight.
Or you could give up your old assumptions and expectations and take the trouble to learn how to create a environment in this very different climate that will nourish and protect what you plant and enable them to flourish, blossom and give glory to God.
Thank God, we choose to jettison what we thought we knew and learn all over again how to garden. You can see the result here.
That is exactly what I am seriously proposing for our approach to RCIA. Revisiting our working assumptions and practices from the ground up because our spiritual climate has changed so profoundly since 1960. (I know this will sound incredible to some readers but the Second Vatican Council didn't cause that cultural change which has impacted nearly everyone on the planet - 83% of whom are not Catholic and two thirds of whom are not baptized.)
I'm not referring at all to changing the liturgical aspects of the process but am suggesting, in as strong terms as I can, that we completely rethink how we approach the initial inquiry process and the task of genuine evangelization and the proclamation of Christ that is the indispensible foundation for all that is to follow.
“It is a time of evangelization: faithfully and constantly the living God is proclaimed and Jesus Christ whom he has sent for the salvation of all…
From evangelization, completed with the help of God, come the faith and initial conversion that cause a person to feel called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God’s love. The whole period of the precatechumenate is set aside for this evangelization, so that the genuine will to follow Christ and seek baptism may mature.”
RCIA Study Edition, 36, 37
1) I'd begin with year round RCIA: potentially the most powerful evangelizing structure that is widespread throughout all dioceses and the vast majority of parishes.
2) And I'd begin the RCIA process with a true year-round Inquiry process that moved parallel to the actual catechumenate. Not a few weeks of "mini-catechesis" but a process without a specific timeline where spiritual seekers can ask any genuine spiritual questions they have and wrestle with them in all their complexity: emotional as well as intellectual, relational as well as doctrinal. A process whose end is first and supremely "personal adherence to Christ', which is the foundation upon which the temple of the Christian life can be built.
3) Build in regular one-on-one interviews with each candidate - a long one just before they enter - and short (30 min?) ones periodically through the entire experience. In these private talks, focus on the whole person and their lived relationship with God - whatever it has been to this point in their life. In the first session, In addition to the usual church and sacramental background, the bulk of the time would be given to exploring two questions: Can you describe to me your lived relationship with God to this point in your life? If you could ask God one thing that you were certain he would answer right away, what would it be? And listen intently. Ask clarifying questions - but don't catechize. In later interviews, you listen for "Are they receiving the help they need to move closer to Christ and his Church? Do they have important questions or issues that we haven't (or can't) address in the group sessions? What do they need prayer for?
4) Building trust, rousing curiosity about Jesus Christ and his basic gospel (not fine points of Church teaching) and increasing openness to him in all areas of our life would be the non-negotiable heart and soul of this inquiry process. This is the time to shatter the traditional Catholic reticence to speak of our relationship with God.
As one enormously successful and experienced RCIA Director told me: "My job during the inquiry process is to help people fall in love with Jesus. My job during the catechumenate is to help them fall in love with the Church."
But first, we have to help them fall in love with Jesus. First, we make disciples in the inquiry period Then we form and catechize those disciples in the catechumenate.
" . . . the aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturation stage...the period in which the Christian, having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself; "
Catechesis in Our Time, 19
5) Separate the issues of marriage and entering the Church entirely. They must be dealt with separately. Remove the "We have set a May date for our wedding" deadline and the "I'm just doing this to satisfy my future in-laws" dynamic at the very beginning. Both are issues of discernment and discernment doesn't work on a pre-determined timeline.
6) Resist the temptation to move people into the formal catechumenate prematurely. They need to have moved from an essentially passive place to active seeking before they are ready to move into the formal catechumenate. At that point, catechesis is not longer a set of abstractions but answers to questions they are really wrestling with as men and women who are seriously considering following Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.
7) Make sure all the members of your RCIA team and all your sponsors are intentional disciples. If they aren't, recruit new team members and work at making personal discipleship the norm of your team. If your RCIA team is made up of disciples, they will model, talk about, and radiate the reality of discipleship to your inquirers and catechumens. Do not give into the "my fiancee will be my sponsor" idea. Train your team and sponsors to
a) Listen to and recognize pre-discipleship levels of spiritual development and how to respond helpfully
b) How to share their own witness of what Christ has done in their life
c) What is the "Great Story" and how to tell it. The "Great Story" (as Fr. Robert Barron calls it) is the kerygma, the core of the Gospel about Jesus' incarnation, life, teachings, miracles, relationships, death, resurrection, and ascension on our behalf - and how he is calling us to respond. To commit their whole lives to Christ, they have to come to know him and every team member has to be able to tell the Great story and then how his or her own personal story relates to the Great story.
d) Help them discern and exercise their charismsbecause they are channels through which Christ's love, mercy, truth, beauty, and provision is made present and they are enormously important in building an effective team of evangelizersl Specific charisms are particularly useful to people at certain places on their journey. Hospitality to build initial trust in the Christian community, evangelism to help people lower their defenses against the possibility of change, etc.
8) Train "Ananiases" - sponsors who can be true spiritual mentors in the those critical early days after baptism or reception. Who can share their own relationship with God, help and encourage the new Catholic in basic spiritual disciplines, help them root in the community, and have someone to talk to about their experiences and feelings as they begin their life as a Catholic.
9) Create a reinforcing "cycle" of evangelization in the parish by sponsoring one of the many effective parish-based evangelization processes which are aimed at the evangelization of those who are already Catholic. A well structured inquiry-RCIA process can work very synergistically with other evangelization activities in the parish. Some will come of those retreats ready for RCIA.
If we focus on evangelizing those who are in RCIA today, the graces unleashed will change the dynamics of the rest of the RCIA process - including Mystagogia - and begin to change the entire spiritual climate of the parish itself.
I have posted before the story of one RCIA Director (Corinne) who did go back home after Making Disciples and revamped the parish RCIA process. Corinne wrote:
“When we got back from Making Disciples last year, Doug and I went through our old RCIA outlines and basically threw most everything out,” Corinne told me. “We began asking ourselves, ‘Where do we want people to be spiritually when they are baptized or making a profession of faith?’” They decided that they needed to change their inquiry process to focus more on building trust between the members of the RCIA team and the inquirers and to make it clear that the purpose of the RCIA process is to help people become conscious, intentional followers of Jesus. It also meant greater care would be taken in selecting sponsors for the catechumens and candidates – a process that they are still working on.
Whether she’s working with an individual, or part of a team working with a group of inquirers, Corinne says the initial focus is on “building a level of trust with them and then introducing Jesus and the possibility of having a relationship with him. We let them discover Him as a person and how he relates to each of us as individuals.”
Many of the people who enter inquiry have a Christian background. “Some of them who have had an evangelical background already have a relationship with Jesus and want to go deeper, but a lot of the people from mainline Protestant churches haven’t considered the relational aspects of their faith… What we’re going to share with them is the story of Jesus, who really lived. When we do this, so much more of the Catholic faith comes alive… We’ll talk about salvation history, the incarnation, the relationships Jesus had with the apostles and other people; how others sought him out… and how Jesus is the center of the life that comes from God the Father.”
Not only does the inquiry process focus on digging in to the stories in the Bible, people from the St. Thomas More community, including those who recently went through the RCIA process, are invited to come to the inquiry gatherings to share how their lives have been transformed by knowing Jesus.
“Charlotte [not her real name] came from a mainline Christian background. What got her interested in Catholicism was that her son ran with a kid who was Catholic. Her son stayed with them on over Saturday nights and went to Mass with them. That impressed her that their faith was important to them. She went through the RCIA process and when she started to have a relationship with Jesus, she decided to quit her job with Planned Parenthood.”
As the process continues, the questions of the catechumens and candidates become more and more a part of the weekly gathering. The team concentrates on keeping the focus of the responses on Jesus. “There’s a total openness to seeing how Jesus is the center of all we do as Catholics,” Corinne said. “Your Catholic faith will lead you to follow Christ and if you’re following Christ you’ll want to be Catholic.”
With a greater focus on Christ and the call to conversion, Corinne and her team have noticed the catechumens and candidates were noticeably hungry for solid catechesis. They continue to ask great questions as the team introduces the basics about sacraments, doctrine, and the Church’s social teaching after the Rite of Acceptance at the beginning of Lent.
Last Easter, four adults were baptized, confirmed and received first eucharist, while four others made a profession of faith. Doug and Corinne, through their conversations with them and observing their behavior, knew that all eight were either intentional disciples or seeking to become disciples. “I thought one of the guys was still seeking, but during his confirmation at the Vigil, he almost keeled over. His sponsor had to hold him. Since then, he’s cut a Christian rap CD. He’s on fire with faith and is just exciting to be around. He knows and loves Jesus and Mary!”
As Corinne puts it, “the proof is in the pudding.” All eight of the neophytes are active in the faith community. They’re helping with music at Mass, as lectors, and one fellow – sort of a blue-collar truck driver type - is leading a men’s Bible study. During mystagogia, a period of time after reception of the sacraments of initiation in which the neophytes discuss the effects of the sacraments in their lives, the eight of them were introduced to the charisms and instructed to be on the lookout for their appearance in their lives both inside the parish and in their secular pursuits.
So far this year 17 young adults and adults are journeying through the RCIA process at St. Thomas More, including two adults who “shopped around” various parish RCIA processes and settled in with Corinne, Doug, and their team. Corrine tells her pastor, Fr. Joseph Sergott, OP, that sending her and Doug to Making Disciples, “was the best money he’s spent!”