RCIA, Rite of Christian Intiation of Adults, Catholic converts, New Evangelization

Running the Gauntlet: One Convert's Experience of RCIA

by Mark Shea

When my long-time friend and fellow convert, Sherry Weddell, asked me to write about what would make RCIA a better experience for converts, I was naturally drawn back to those months a decade ago when she and I went through the process together. Since my wish list for RCIA will make a lot better sense if I regale you with that tale, I shall jump right in.

I am a “double-jump” convert to the Catholic Faith. I was raised Nothing-in-Particular (with a cloudy pagan regard for “the spiritual” and a deep disdain of “organized religion”). Then, at the age of 20, I had a sort of classic “born again” experience after an encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. I found that the people who had introduced me to Jesus were the non-denominational Evangelicals and charismatics on my dorm floor at the University of Washington. Putting two and two together, I concluded that this was the Christian community God had given me and that it was my task to learn from them, love them, and receive the love of God through them.

So learn from them I did. I became a member of this community (which eventually coalesced into a small church in North Seattle) and from them I learned the basics of the Christian faith-trust, prayer, love, good works, fellowship, discipleship, and Scripture study. I regard this time with them as my personal “Old Testament”: that period of preparation for the full reception of Christ which was to come when I later became a Catholic. Again and again, I found that things in my own Evangelical background anticipated the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Christ who is fully revealed there just as the teaching of the Old Testament anticipated the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ.

At the same time, there is a peculiar ambiguity about my Evangelical background, for just as the first Christians (Jews all) had to undergo a certain “paradigm shift” in order to see that the Old Testament was really pointing to Christ, so as an Evangelical, I found that there were often things I had to either unlearn or, more accurately, learn to see in a new way in order to comprehend Catholic life, teaching and worship.

As an example, Catholic theology is, for Evangelicals, positively bestrewn with great ideas that are couched in frightening language. To pick one such idea at random, take the notion of “merit.” Here is a term which, to the Evangelical ear, seems to disturbingly confirm all the fears of a Protestant heart: “Catholics get their salvation the old-fashioned way, they earrrrn it!” Yet, upon researching this troubling term, I discovered (courtesy of Hans Urs von Balthasar) that “merit” is simply a term that expresses what Evangelicals today mean by “fruitfulness under the influence of grace”. Since this sort of confusion is a recurring factor for Evangelicals approaching the Church, I began to make a little list of “cognates” that could make Catholic theology intelligible to me in my “native tongue” of Evangelicalism:

Apostolate = Ministry
Venial sin = stumbling
Mortal sin = backsliding
Formation = discipleship
Indulgence = gift of mercy
Temporal punishment = discipline
of the Lord

I mention this difficulty of translation because such subtle differences in language show that conversion involves much more than a change of theology. It involves a change of culture and a change of community as well. For the Catholic, mastering such subtleties is as necessary to survival as making a good first confession. But on with my story.

My entry into the Church was, to be frank, hindered by two really bad experiences of catechesis. The first was simply the experience of catechists who were afraid to catechize. In my first RCIA, the priest and deacon were soooooo solicitous of my “feelings” and so hesitant to tell me what the Church believed, lest they offend whatever Protestant, secular, up-to-date sense of Baby Boomer entitlement I might imperiously assert, that it was like pulling teeth to get them to tell me what the Church taught. Much time was spent assuring me that the Old Testament was (and I quote) “like a Paul Bunyan story” and that pretty much anything I felt like doing was subject to my conscience (and apparently to nothing else). Meanwhile, I was trying to squeeze from them some hints about what the Church’s doctrine was so that I might attend to deciding whether or not I could believe it. It was intensely frustrating.

Shortly after this, a friend told me of another RCIA she thought was very good. I enrolled in this and found the other extreme: a priest who read from The Catholic Catechism by John Hardon. Period. That’s all he did: read from the catechism. If you asked him a question when the text puzzled you, his upper lip became sweaty, his eyes darted around the room like a trapped animal’s and he…re-read the passage he’d just read and said (in a pleading voice), “There. Now do you understand?”

Somewhere in between these two extremes (I wished) was an RCIA that could present the living Tradition of the Church in a way that was faithful to what the Church teaches and yet was capable of expressing that teaching in contemporary jargon when necessary. As it happened, in order to find out what the Church taught and get my questions and objections answered so I could make an intelligent decision, I was compelled to form a “study group” along with Sherry and several other convert wannabes. (This was the reason I found myself inventing things like the list above.) Eventually, after peppering a local pastor with numerous questions, Sherry and I were delighted when he decided that we didn’t need to finish another RCIA before becoming Catholic. In the end, we were received in Advent of 1987, which I did not know was unusual.

What this all adds up to is a heartfelt desire to see the Church at the parish level get its act together catechetically. With the advent of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the content of catechesis is well covered and every RCIA would be well served to model its teaching on it. So at last I share my short wish-list for RCIA and beyond and answer the question with which I started, “What would make RCIA a better experience for converts?”

1) An RCIA split into a two-track system as recommended by the US Bishops, one for Christians from other traditions and one for the unbaptized. These the two groups have substantially different approaches to the Church; the former group is, in fact, already in a kind of union with the Church.

2) For RCIA to incorporate something like a survey of the gifts and talents of the candidates from other Christian traditions with an eye to plugging them into some form of service in the community. It’s not enough to just get information about the Faith. You have to become part of the community and use your gifts in a way that matters.

3) Further, I’d love to see Mystagogia more heavily emphasized-that crucial period of education in the faith after Easter. Too often, new Catholics are just left flopping like gaffed salmon on the shore of the great Catholic ocean after Easter, as though baptism was the end, rather than the beginning, of the Christian story. (See Community and the Newly Baptized.)

4) Finally, I’d love to see the office of godparent (yes, it’s actually an office in the Church) taken seriously by giving godparents training in what the Church teaches and in what their office actually entails. At present, godparenting is sort of like being a best man or maid of honor: you stand up, you mime some sort of ceremony, you give the guest of honor a tie clip or a toast, and that’s it. I would like godparent (and in fact the whole community) to take seriously the task of helping the newly baptized not only learn the Faith but find their place in the community. That has the potential to be a deeply thrilling cooperative effort!

I offer all these ramblings, not in a critical spirit, nor in ingratitude for the enormous gift of the Church, but out of a desire to see us Catholics take full possession of the “riches of his inheritance in the saints”. The Catholic Church is sitting on top of the richest vein of spiritual treasure in the universe. I want to see us mine it for all it’s worth, and a good place to start is at the beginning, with those who are entering the Church!

Since he entered the Church 12 years ago, Mark has written three highly praised and insightful books (This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence; By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Holy Tradition; and <-Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did) plus scores of articles for Catholic periodicals. He works as a writer, editor, and speaker for the Catholic apostolate E3mil (www.e3mil.com). He lives with his wife, Janet, and four sons in Seattle, and attends Blessed Sacrament parish.