Joining the Church

| March 14, 2016 | 0 Comments


What RCIA means for the whole community

When Mark Elliott’s youngest son, Austin, began having questions about the family’s religious background, it started a domino effect that culminated in three generations of Elliotts joining the Church.

Mark Elliott, 54, who does road service for a trucking firm, went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults alongside Austin, then 16, and Trevor, 17, at St. Bonaventure in Bloomington.

In 2013, the teens were baptized, and Mark, who had been baptized as an infant, was welcomed into full communion in the Church.

“It absolutely changed my life,” Elliott said. “At work people tell me they can see the change.”

The next year, the boys’ grandfather, Merle Elliott, went through the process, too, with his wife, Dorothy, who was raised Catholic but wanted a refresher course.

“We drifted away [from the Church],” Merle said, but the RCIA brought him back. The process renewed his faith and answered lingering questions, such as the difference between the Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

Since being baptized two years ago, the 78-year-old retired business owner has become an altar server and eucharistic minister. He enjoys morning prayer and going to daily Mass with Dorothy, he said.

“I have a stronger feeling of Christ, a better sense of God,” Elliott said. “My heart is lifted up.”

‘I like what I see’

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, instituted in 1972, is the two-step process by which people first learn about the Gospel and basic information about the Church, and receive an invitation to conversion. In the second step, learning the teachings and practices of the faith continues as people journey through formation in the life of the Church.

RCIA leaders said the process offers an almost unlimited number of intriguing conversion stories. Deacon Jack Nicklay relayed the experience of one woman moved by Pope John Paul II’s funeral.

“When Pope John Paul II died, a woman walked in off the street and said she’d been watching the funeral on TV,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m so overwhelmed. I want to join the Catholic Church.’ ”

Many of the more than 600 people who will enter or join in full communion with the Church in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Easter Vigil will be those who are engaged to be married to Catholics. Other catechumens and candidates include parents who began seeking to join the Church when their children were baptized or making their first Communion.

Mickey Redfearn said that’s usually the case at St. Bonaventure, where he leads the RCIA.

“I have a catechumen this year who was never baptized, not engaged to be married,” Redfearn explained. “He started going to Mass with a friend in high school, and now as an adult wants to become Catholic. That’s more of the exception.”

Pastoral care administrator at St. Rita in Cottage Grove, Deacon Nicklay said a reason people often give for becoming candidates or catechumens is something along the lines of “I like what I see.”

A process, not a program

After 16 years of coordinating the rite, first at St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove and now at St. William in Fridley, Jennifer Hovland feels she has a good sense of the process and what makes it successful.

Emphasis on process — it’s not a “program,” she said.

“The RCIA is the process of forming people in the life of the Church,” Hovland said, and she finds that formation happens best “when it is integrated with what’s happening in the parish whenever possible.”

For that to happen, the parish recruits four to six parishioners to serve on the RCIA team.

“The team is critical,” Hovland said. “These are people who have been through the RCIA themselves, and they offer a new and different perspective, above and beyond what someone might get from their sponsor. They’re a face people know [when they come to Mass and parish events], and they’re going to introduce them to others in the parish.”

Members of the team might lead a break-out group, give a presentation on baptism or lead prayer, Hovland said.

“I don’t have experience in everything,” she explained, so tapping the experience of others enriches the formation process.

“That’s why we’re the Body of Christ,” Hovland added.

The importance of ‘why?’

Deacon Nicklay has found over the years that when people begin the Rite of Christian Initiation process they often are a bit reticent to speak up in a group of mostly strangers.

“They don’t know what they don’t know, so they are afraid to ask,” he said.

However, in the more than a decade that he’s been facilitating the RCIA at St. Rita, he can tell when someone in the group is fired up about learning more about the faith.

“Somehow the Holy Spirit plants one of those people in our classes every year,” he said. “They think out loud, and boy, that gets the discussion going. They want to know why. Why are we doing that? Why does the Church teach that?”

The structure St. Rita uses now in preparing people to enter the Church or join in full communion with the Church is the result of people asking why, he said.

Scripture plays a prominent role in the Monday night classes. Deacon Nicklay and retired Deacon Dick Pashby team up to teach and lead discussions using a PowerPoint presentation they’ve developed over the years.

“We discuss Church teaching and how it effects daily life, the everyday things people care about,” Deacon Nicklay said.

They don’t shy away from topics such as death and dying, artificial birth control, divorce and annulment, and clergy sexual abuse.

“You have to address what’s going on in the Church,” he said. “You have to address that before you can go on.”

Parishes typically begin the inquiry portion of the RCIA in the fall, aiming for culmination at the Easter Vigil.

The number of participants varies each year at every parish. Sessions usually are held weekly or every-other-week, but the RCIA coordinators are used to adjusting to people’s schedules.

At St. Bonaventure, RCIA is a year-round process, and people can start anytime. The process is also flexible.

“A week ago a man who is an immigrant from Togo came in,” said Redfearn in early February. “He wanted to be confirmed and have his marriage blessed. Because he worked nights, he and his sponsor and I will meet during the day.”

There is no way to guarantee that, once brought into the Church, converts will continue to regularly practice the faith.

“It’s true that you might not see much of some people who go through RCIA,” Redfearn said, “but more often I see the other side of that — they are the ones involved in the parish.”

He pointed to Mark Elliott, who not only volunteers driving the parish bus to pick up handicapped people and senior citizens to take them to and from weekend liturgies and takes various parish groups to events, but has taken over the maintenance and repairs of the parish bus, too, and has continued to participate in the RCIA process every year because he wants to continue to grow in his faith.

‘Vital to the parish’

RCIA leaders see how their parishes benefit from the process.

“I tell RCIA people they are vital to the parish,” Redfearn said.

“Witnessing someone plunge into the waters of baptism and come out, it moves people. I can see it in their faces,” he said. “The RCIA gives people the sense that our faith is vibrant and vital, and these people want to join.”

At St. William, Hovland calls the rite a gift to the parish.

“These people who are at the start of this incredible journey in faith are going to keep the Church alive,” she said.

During RCIA sessions, “they’re on fire,” she said. “They’re newborn, they’re neophytes. Every question is engaging to them.”

“Working with people in the RCIA is probably the most enriching and feeding part of my faith experience,” she added. “It’s one of the things that energizes me. It’s pretty hard to get discouraged or dragged down when all of these people are on the way up.”

At St. Rita, Deacon Nicklay feels much the same, calling the RCIA “a blessing that has strengthened my faith and my understanding of the Church.”

“In a time when it seems like religion is falling by the wayside,” he said, “it’s so important to have people like this wanting to be part of the Church.”

He added: “When you hear their stories, you find out how important it is for them to join the Church; that’s fulfilling.”

Tags: , , ,

Category: Faith and Culture