RCIA not just for new Catholics: A process for deepening faith

| February 29, 2012 | 0 Comments

Father James Perkl, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, confirms RCIA candidate Rebecca Perez during the Easter Vigil Mass last year. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Every year, hundreds of adults and children in the archdiocese begin a journey to full membership in the Catholic Church. This year 745 people are preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation during the Easter Vigil.

The process, called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, is divided into four stages: Precatechumenate or Inquiry, Catechumenate, Purification and Enlightenment, and Mystagogy.

Along the way, those making the journey mark their progress by participating in liturgical rites, or rituals, which involve the entire church.

Since 1988, the RCIA has been the standard process in the United States for adults and children ages 7 and older to enter the Catholic Church.

Before the Second Vatican Council, people seeking to join the Catholic Church met individually with a priest, who would prepare them and initiate them in private. Around the time of the council, some bishops requested that the early church’s formation process be restored as a way to introduce the faith to people with no Christian background, according to Jackie Graham, RCIA network coordinator for the archdiocese.

“It was based on such sound practices of adult learning that bishops all over the world picked up on it, and the U.S. Catholic bishops adapted it for all the different situations that you have in this country and in Western countries,” said Graham, who served as liturgist at Guardian Angels in Oakdale.

Baptized and unbaptized individuals go through the RCIA at their own pace, asking questions, learning about the church’s teachings, and preparing spiritually for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist celebrated at the Easter Vigil. The entire church community supports them during this process, which is guided by the Holy Spirit.

“As the community supports and walks closely with the participants on their journey, it is also called to self-examination and renewal of faith,” according to an RCIA blog Graham maintains.

“The RCIA has the potential to transform a church if it’s done correctly,” she said in an interview with The Catholic Spirit.

“Most people have been baptized as infants, and the beauty of the RCIA is that they’re seeing people come into the church who are actually willing to put themselves out there, to be in the assembly on Sunday with these different rites, and maybe even . . . publicly testify to their own conversion. Most Catholics have never had to do that,” Graham said.

“The transforming part is that they can look at these people and say, ‘If these people are willing to do this to become a Catholic, I must have something really valuable.’”

In fact, the RCIA has proven so successful in preparing people to enter the church that many parishes have begun modeling their faith formation programs on it, Graham said. Some even assign “sponsors” to new parishioners to help acquaint with the parish.

Below are explanations of the four stages of the RCIA, the various rites involved, and Graham’s suggestions for all Catholics seeking to deepen their faith through this process.

Precatechumenate or Inquiry

During this stage, those seeking to become Catholic are encouraged to ask questions they have about the faith. Depending on the parish, this can occur either in a group setting or individually with the parish’s RCIA coordinator.

The inquiry stage can happen at any time of the year and does not involve a curriculum.

Parishes assign sponsors to accompany inquirers throughout the RCIA process and answer their questions. Later in the process, unbaptized individuals also choose godparents, who provide spiritual support beyond the RCIA for life.

When the inquirers are ready, they celebrate their first rite — the Rite of Acceptance Into the Order of Catechumens if they’re going to be baptized and/or the Rite of Welcoming Baptized but Uncatechized Adults Into Candidacy for Full Communion.

Before Mass, they are introduced to the assembly and are asked to share a little about their faith journeys.

Then their sponsors make the sign of the cross on their ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet. The priest also makes the sign of the cross on each person.

After the homily, they are presented with Bibles and dismissed so they can discuss as a group the Scripture readings they heard at Mass.

Suggestions• Look for enrichment opportunities in your parish or neighboring parishes on topics that pique your interest, such as spirituality, death and dying, end-of-life issues, liturgy, Mary and the saints, or Catholic social teaching.

• Read The Catholic Spirit and listen to Relevant Radio, 1330 AM in the Twin Cities, to learn more about the Catholic faith.


The Catechumenate is a period of formation. During this time, catechumens and candidates study Scripture and Catholic doctrine.

“It’s not about information as much as it is about formation,” Graham explained. “We can get information from the Internet. We can only get formation from people who are willing to guide us through discerning our own souls, our own minds, our own hearts, learning about who God is, who Jesus is, and what they are for us. . . . It’s about forming our consciences and learning what the Catholic Church teaches so that we can be informed citizens, we can make moral choices.”

On the first Sunday of Lent, the diocesan church celebrates the Rite of Election with catechumens from parishes throughout the diocese. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, this takes place both at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

That morning in their respective parishes, the catechumens sign the Book of the Elect, signifying their commitment. Parishes may celebrate an optional Rite of Sending before the catechumens and candidates proceed to the cathedral or the basilica, where they are publicly recognized by the bishops. The bishops then sign the Book of the Elect.

Suggestions• Read and reflect on the Sunday Scriptures before Mass. Readings can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings.

• Spend time in prayer with the readings you heard on Sunday. Discuss them with your family.

• Start a Bible study.

Purification and Enlightenment

Christian formation becomes more intensive during the period of Purification and Enlightenment. The elect and candidates may go on a retreat during this time. Their families are encouraged to support them in their journeys.

There are four rites during this period. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, the elect participate in the Scrutinies. After the Gospel readings, they are invited to come forward and kneel while their sponsors place their hands on the elect and candidates’ shoulders and the assembly prays for them.

There is also an optional penitential rite on the second Sunday of Lent for people who are baptized and preparing for full communion. Similar to the Scrutinies, the baptized are invited to kneel before the assembly, who pray while the priest lays hands on the candidates.

During the Easter Vigil, the unbaptized make a profession of faith. After the Liturgy of the Word they receive the sacrament of baptism, during which they are anointed with oil; clothed with a white garment, signifying that they are putting on Christ; and presented with a lit baptismal candle.

The candidates make a profession of faith. Then the newly baptized, called neophytes, and the candidates are confirmed. The priest lays his hands on each one, prays that the Holy Spirit come upon them, and anoints them with chrism oil.

Then they receive the final sacrament of initiation: Eucharist.

Suggestions• Plan for your Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

• Schedule time for eucharistic adoration.

• Make a retreat. See the calendar on page 18A for a list of retreats offered in the archdiocese.


During this final RCIA period, which formally lasts through the Easter season, the newly initiated continue their catechesis as a group to deepen their understanding of the sacraments.

The new Catholics examine in detail all they experienced during the Easter Vigil, learn about the other sacraments of the church, and are invited to participate in parish ministries.

Mystagogy is not limited to new Catholics, Graham said. “You and I?are also in a period of Mystagogy, and that period is going to continue until we die.

“That is the formation that Catholics go through their entire lives. We’re always learning something new about our church, about the sacraments, and getting new insights. . . . So it’s not really an ending; it’s a process.”

Suggestions• Engage in spiritual reading, especially on the sacraments, Catholic social teachings, and the writings of the saints, church fathers and contemporary theologians.

• Become more involved in your parish’s social mission and liturgy and faith formation programs.

• Volunteer to sponsor a catechumen or candidate.

• Perform works of charity and service and/or get involved in the political process to bear witness to the church’s social justice teachings.

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Category: The Lesson Plan