When I was a child growing up in the late fifities or, as we church people more often call it, the “pre-Vatican II Church,” my curiosity was often piqued when I heard my mother and father comment that someone was “a convert,” having completed their “instructions with Father.” There was always admiration and a little mystery in their voices and that label seemed to elevate the person to greater levels of esteem. From then on, it was as if a halo existed around those chosen souls. I would see them at mass and wonder about how it all happened. It seemed strange that nobody in the community ever spoke about it. In my child’s mind, I wondered why we didn’t have a big ceremony like we did for the first communion or confirmation. I thought perhaps that there was some shame in coming to the faith as an adult and that was the reason why it was such a private, hushed affair. Little did I realize then that the visionaries of Vatican II would soon discuss this very issue and that the process of becoming a Catholic would be reformed and refined in the 1970’s. Little did I realize then that I would later spend half my adult life working with seekers of conversion in a process eventually dubbed the RCIA or Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Nearly every day I receive phone calls or have conversations with people who want information about RCIA. Many still refer to it as “instructions” or even “catechism” for want of better terms to describe it. Despite the fact that the rites have been part of the reform of the liturgy for more than thirty years, it seems that unless the experience has touched you personally, there remains a great deal of ignorance and misinformation among our adult members. This is precisely at the heart of why I am writing a series of blogs. I want everyone to know why we have this process and how we actually make it happen in the parish. I want you to know because I love the RCIA. My belief is that when you know it too, you also will come to love this very special and dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit in the modern church.
The Rite of Christian Initiation is, first and foremost, about community and conversion. It is as much about the individual seeking conversion as it is about the whole community entering into that process and becoming converted. The basic tenet here is sacred and ancient: we, as community, enter a journey together to become that which we consume at each Eucharist, the Body of Christ. Just how we go about accomplishing this awesome challenge is a task that parishes and the church at large have been struggling with for many years. People from other traditions wonder why we cannot just quickly baptize those who want it right now. I frequently joke with people and say that they aren’t joining the country club. This is serious spiritual business, about life and death. We need more Catholics, yes, but we certainly don’t need any more lukewarm ones. We want people to know, as much as humanly possible, what we believe and hold sacred before they join us. This is wisdom from tradition, from the past, not just modern ideas. Church scholars and reformers came to realize through their in-depth study of the sacraments that we as a church had slowly, over time, drifted away from the way people were initiated in the early church. They decided that we needed to go back to our roots to preserve and apply what was meaningful and sacred in the earliest recorded rituals.