I love the RCIA because it is an ancient rite, handed down to us from the very first believers.
In desiring to learn about life as an early Christian, the New Testament seems to be the most logical primary source. Unfortunately, this source contains few specific details about what the early Church did in regard to initiation. Piecing together Christian history from other writers, because the earliest converts were Jewish, they were already steeped in Scripture and thus an understanding of conversion and the symbols of water and spirit. When they asked to become Christians, there was no catechism, no instruction, no long preparation. They simply stood before the congretation and proclaimed their faith in Jesus. However, it was not long before many non-Jews (Gentiles) were also seeking the faith. Because they did not have the background and familiarity with Scripture, a formation process called “the catechumenate” began around the second century and came to flourish during the fourth and fifth centuries. It was developed over a long period of time by some of the greatest theological minds in church history: Augustine, Ambrose,, Jerome, Gregory from Nyssa, Gregory from Nazianzen, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, and Athansius (see Bausch, William, A New Look at the Sacraments, Twenty-third Publications, 1992, p. 47).
After the apostolic era, our earliest description of initiation practices comes from a man named Justin Martyr (150 AD) . According to him, the candidate and community prayed and fasted together. He described the entering of the water, words of faith commitment pronounced, a kiss of peace and the Eucharist. Fifty years later, another writer, Tertullian, added more details, speaking of an anointing, a signing of the cross, a prayer and outstretched hands over the candidate.
Imagine for a moment that you live in the third century. If you wanted to become a Christian, the first thing you would have to do is find a Christian sponsor. This would be no easy task since the persecutions of the early Christians made them wary of interested strangers. The sponsor found, he or she would then offer your name to the bishop as a possible candidate. The bishop would take his time investigating your intentions. If found worthy, you would then begin a rigorous period of religious training and spiritual formation with the sponsor assuming full responsibility.
The first phase of this process lasted three years and included a very serious routine of prayer, scrutinizing motives and behaviors, and finally, exorcisms. This was not about devil possession as we think of it today. The ancients understood evil in a very practical and tangible way in terms of injustices, corruption, war, poverty, sickness, etc. These prayers for deliverance helped them to break away from temptations to engage in these struggles and to “put on Christ.”
The second phase of the catechumenate was an intense forty days during the Lenten season. During the first week, the bishop would be asked to accept you as one of the “elect.” He would question you and your sponsor thoroughly as to your sincerity and integrity. Finally, he would write your name in the “Book of the Elect” or the “Book of Life.” During the remaining weeks of Lent, you would hear special gospels about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well who was promised living water; about the man born blind who was brought out of darkness and restored to sight; about a man named Lazarus who would die, be buried and then be restored to life by a miracle. You would learn “Christian secrets” unknown to you before, having been dismissed from mass after the Liturgy of the Word. You would be presented with the words of the Creed and the Our Father and be expected to memorize and repeat them before the congregation. You would attend daily liturgies, confess your sins and continue to learn and grow. Your anticipation and excitement would heighten as you looked forward to your initiation. You would now be ready to complete your preparation, culminating at the Great Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night with reception of the sacraments in initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.