Holy Week is a most incredible time of the liturgical year. Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem followed by the stark contrast of the Passion of our Lord and His glorious Resurrection. But as we walk thru our ‘routine’ of Holy Thursday, and Good Friday and Easter its easy to forget another great victory. At Easter Vigil the Body of Christ will grow as our Catechumens receive the Sacraments of Christian Initiation and the Candidates are received into Full Communion with His Holy Church. As a cradle Catholic, I realized that I really didn’t know much about the RCIA process that brings people to Christ so I thought I’d share a quick summary of what I found.
The Simple Catholic Snapshots:
- RCIA is short for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults
- RCIA is a process where adults (and non-infant children) are brought into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
- Inquiry, Catechumenate, Purification and Preparation, and Mystagogy are the four phases of the RCIA program.
- These four RCIA phases are a good model of basic faith development so understanding them can help us in our Life in Christ.
The Simple Catholic Truth:
I think a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll get right to it. Here is a diagram I created that captures the essence of the RCIA program. Refer back to it as I talk a little about each of the four phases.
Along the top you can see that each of the four basic phases are indicated, Inquiry, Catechumenate, Purification and Enlightenment and the final stage of Mystagogy.
I think it’s really important to understand that well before a formal RCIA period of inquiry can take place a person must be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus. People will be attracted to the Gospel largely by seeing how we live that message. Standing on a street corner vocally witnessing to a stranger may occasionally have merit, but by and large our loudest voice is our outward Love of God and neighbor. The RCIA process begins with us including how we live and how we explain our faith.
When a person shows interest in learning more about the Catholic Faith they can be brought into the formal first phase of RCIA. The sessions cover basic information about the faith, answer any questions and offer an invitation to initial conversion. There is no obligation involved in attending these meetings—they are intended to help a person decide whether they want to continue learning about the faith. Attendees at this stage are known as Inquirers.
The transition from the first phase to the second phase is called the “Rite of Acceptance.” This involves a celebration that marks the intention of the inquirers to continue their journey towards full membership in the Catholic Faith through the reception of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Communion.
This second phase of the RCIA process is called the “Catechumenate” and involves the period of formal training where the “Catechumens” study the faith in greater detail and train for a life in Christ.
The Period of the Catechumenate can be very different depending on how the individual is growing in faith, what questions they encounter along the way, and how God leads them on this journey. During this phase, studies are focused on the Lord Jesus, His teachings, the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Sacraments. In this stage, the catechumens are assigned a sponsor, a member of the RCIA Committee, who will walk the faith journey with them on a one-to-one basis. During this period, the catechumens and candidates partly participate in the Sunday celebration of the Holy Mass but are excluded from participating in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. After the homily, the priest dismisses them with a blessing and they leave with their sponsors to continue study.
[One small point to mention: those inquirers that have previously been Baptized are called “Candidates” to differentiate that fact that they are already included into the family of Christ.]
Here is the graphic repeated just for your convenience.
PURIFICATION AND ENLIGHTENMENT
When a Catechumen and the priest and the parish team working with him or her believes the person is ready to make a faith commitment to Jesus in the Catholic Church, the next step is the request for the Sacraments of Initiation. This takes place in a celebration called the Rite of Election which is usually held at the beginning of Lent. After the Rite of Election, the Catechumens are then referred to as the ‘Elect’.
The days of Lent are the final Period of Purification and Enlightenment leading up to the Easter Vigil. Lent is a period of preparation marked by prayer, study, and spiritual direction for the Elect, and prayers for them by the parish communities. The Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation takes place during the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday when the Elect receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist. That person is then fully initiated into the Catholic Church.
The final phase of the RCIA process is the “mystagogy.” In Greek, “mystagogy” means “entering more deeply into the mysteries.” In a manner of speaking, the Rite of Initiation is just the beginning. Being Baptized and Confirmed and receiving the Eucharist is like passing your drivers test and getting your license. Practice makes a good driver and living a deeper more personal Sacramental life serves to make our relationship with Christ more intimate and full.
As a newly initiated Catholic, formation and education continue in the Period of Mystagogy which continues at least until Pentecost. During this period the newly baptized members reflect on their experiences at the Easter Vigil and continue to learn more about the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In addition they reflect on how they will serve Christ and help in the Church’s mission as a member of the Body of Christ.
So now we both know a bit more about the journey our Catechumens and Candidates have undertaken. They about to land in a New World of immense grace and love and we should be there to greet them. I think this year I’ll attend the Easter Vigil Mass but this time instead of just tolerating the Initiation Rites that I didn’t fully appreciate, I’ll stand with my new brothers and sisters and join their celebration. I’ll say a prayer of thanksgiving for their safe journey and simply say – ‘welcome home’.
Note: In response to this post I received an email from the Director of Faith Formation at my local parish. He offered some great comments on the RCIA program including a graphic on how they refer to the four steps in a slightly different way in order to emphasis everything being centered on Christ. For security reasons, I don’t allow images in the comments so I posted part of his email and the image here:
“…we avoid the name RCIA when possible, and instead call it the “Journey with Christ.” Everything is focused on Him. The process places the candidates/catechumens in the footsteps of the Disciples who encounter, follow, are changed, and finally sent by Christ….”