In the early 1980’s when I was preparing for ordination, one of the courses in our program of studies was on Baptism. I remember getting lost during one part of the course. It concerned a new way for adults to come into the Catholic Church called RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). It was so different from anything I had known or experienced with church up to that point in life, that I couldn’t get a firm grasp on it. It seemed like a jumble of terms and phrases. There was the distinction between catechumens (not baptized) and candidates (already baptized) that I could never keep straight. And there were phases of the program like pre-catechumente, catechumenate, and mystigogia; and then there were the rituals: scrutines, rite of welcome, rite of sending, rite of election, and rite of continuing conversion. I learned enough to get through the course, but promptly forgot most of it.
Part of the problem was (and is!) that much of the terminology of RCIA (including the acronym RCIA) is needlessly obscure. The other problem was that my parish ministry assignment that last year in the seminary involved instructing candidates for baptism the old-fashioned way. The way the Catholic Church had been receiving adults into the faith for centuries was simple. There were no obscure terms, no phases, and no special rituals. Adults who wanted to be baptized or convert from another Christian faith simply met individually with a priest or pastoral minister or (if there were lots of them) as part of a convert class. Whenever they finished their course of instruction, they were baptized or received into the church in a private ceremony. Then they made their first communion at the first opportunity (usually the next Sunday) and were confirmed the next time the bishop came to the parish to confirm the children.
My first assignment as a priest was to a parish in New Jersey where Fr. Brown was the other associate. He had already begun to implement RCIA in this parish. Through regular exposure to it, I began to understand why RCIA mattered. The terminology may be unfortunate, but I immediately saw that the process had tremendous advantages over what I had been doing. First, along with learning about what Catholics believe, there was an equal emphasis on learning to apply the Sunday Scriptures to our daily life. Second, there was the focus on becoming part of the community. Under the old system an adult could go through a course of instruction and be baptized and not meet a single member of the parish. So, the idea of having the rituals during Mass, and having a sponsor to accompany a catechumen or candidate through the process, and even inviting other members of the parish to talk about how they live their faith made a lot of sense. Celebrating the sacraments of baptism and confirmation and first communion at the first Mass of Easter was a big step forward. It was not only traditional in the best sense of the word (going back to the early days of Christianity); but also these were big moments in the life of both the individual and the community. They should be celebrated at the most important Mass of the year and not at some random moment with just a few people present or with a congregation that is unaware of the significance of what is happening. And, finally, I have come to appreciate how much members of the group learn from the questions, contributions, and insights of the other participants. With individual instruction, all of that was lacking.
Over the past thirty years RCIA has become one of the favorite things I get to be part of as a priest. At Assumption we will be starting the process anew the Sunday after Labor Day, September 13. If you or someone you know was never baptized, or never made their first communion, or is interested in becoming Catholic, how about encouraging them to try RCIA this year? It is a great journey to make, and along the way you will learn some really neat terminology that you can use to impress your friends!