Parishes welcome new members into the Catholic Church through a process of education, faith sharing, and rituals known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This process includes several stages marked by prayer, study, and discussion. Included in the process are several Rites, which take place within the context of the Mass.
The RCIA is structured over a series of ceremonial steps and periods of learning, and the timing of these may vary for each individual. One may take as much time as he or she needs in the initiation process before becoming ready for full initiation through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. Initiation within the Church is a journey of conversion that is gradual and ongoing and suited to individual needs. It is a process rather than an educational program and this process takes place within the community of the faithful, the local Church.
Who is welcome to begin the RCIA Journey?
All people who are open to discerning their personal experience of faith and to learning more about the Catholic Church are welcome to begin the RCIA process. Many people come to an awareness of their desire to learn about membership in the Catholic Church in various and different ways. Often it may be a personal faith experience, overcoming personal difficulty and tragedy, or a relationship or discussion with a person of faith which leads one to begin this exciting journey. All that is truly required is a sincere desire to learn, to grow, and to develop one’s relationship with God. The RCIA process can be applied to the following 3 groups:
Unbaptized: persons (age of discretion: 7+ years) who have never been baptized and who need a process to help them grow in awareness to God’s call to conversion as well as ways to respond to that call. They are considered catechumens.
Baptized in Another Christian Church: Those who were baptized into another Christian denomination and wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. They are considered candidates. For baptized Christians interested in possibly joining the Catholic Church, the process will vary depending upon the depth on one’s religious and spiritual readiness.
Baptized but Uncatechized Catholic Adults: persons who were baptized as infants and not given any religious instruction in the Catholic faith. These adults will be prepared to celebrate the sacraments of penance, confirmation and Eucharist. They are also considered candidates.
The Steps of the Journey
The Rite of Christian Initiation is based on the principle that the process of conversion proceeds gradually, in stages. Progress from one stage to the next is marked by a liturgical celebration in the midst of the parish community. The experience and needs of those in each category described above differ, and so the length of time may vary for each person. Yet there are certain similarities among all the groups and the process they will experience. RCIA consists of four periods of formation which are marked by rituals that celebrate what has been completed and that call a person into the next phase.
Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate
The first stage is called the period of inquiry (or the precatechumenate). This is when the individual first expresses an interest in becoming a Catholic, and begins to explore, with the help of the parish community, what his or her relationship with Christ might be and how that relationship might be fulfilled and deepened by joining the Catholic Church. Some people engage in this first stage as a long process of searching and discernment. For others, it is a much shorter period of time. This stage is completed when the inquirer feels ready to move forward and the community is prepared to welcome him or her or decides against continuing in this direction. There is no commitment necessary, and no expectations during this time.
First Step: Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens
Once the inquirer decides to continue the journey, he or she seeks acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. This is a liturgical rite in which the inquirer states publicly in the midst of the parish community that he or she wants to become a baptized member of the Church. The Church, through the local parish community, affirms this desire by accepting the person and his or her intention to follow God’s call.
Period of the Catechumenate
The second stage is called the catechumenate and is an extended period which normally lasts one year or longer. This is a time of formation and education, and learning is based on Sacred Scripture as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Catechumens learn about Catholic teachings and values, what it means to be a member of the Catholic community, prayer and worship, and are also introduced to the apostolic life. It is a time of deepening one’s faith, initial conversion, and commitment to the Church.
Second Step: Rite of Election
The Rite of Election or Enrollment of Names coincides with the beginning of Lent and is celebrated by the Bishop at the cathedral church of the diocese. The Rite includes the official enrollment of names of all those seeking baptism at the Easter Vigil. At this Rite the catechumens publicly request baptism and declare their desire to make a faith commitment to Jesus in the Catholic Church.
Period of Purification and Enlightenment
The third stage is the period of purification and enlightenment. It coincides with the liturgical season of Lent. It is a time of reflection, prayer, and spiritual direction rather than a time of catechetical instruction. This period is intended to enlighten the minds and hearts of the elect with a deeper personal knowledge of Christ. During this time, the elect (formerly the catechumens) and the candidates enter into a period of intense spiritual preparation and prayer.
Third Step: Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation
At the Easter Vigil, the catechumen receives the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist. Now the person is a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church and will continue to live out his or her response to God as a member of this faith community.
Period of Mystagogy
The fourth stage is the period of post baptismal catechesis or mystagogy. At this time, the newly initiated explore their experience of being fully initiated through participation with all the faithful at Sunday Eucharist and through appropriate catechesis. Emphasis is placed on the study of the Gospel, the reception of the Eucharist, and actively living a life of charity, service, and love. The period formally lasts through the Easter season and may be marked by a parish celebration on or near Pentecost. On a different level, mystagogy is a lifelong process, one that all Christians are engaged in, as we all work to deepen our sense of what it means to live the Christian life.