Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics

Theological  Underpinnings

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the “source of inspiration for all catechesis.” (National Directory for Catechesis  no. 35D) If we take this statement seriously, then a solid understanding of the RCIA should be part of every catechetical leader’s toolbox. So just what are some of the salient characteristics of the RCIA?

From the very beginning of the RCIA text the Church affirms that the RCIA is “a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful” and that is “suited to the spiritual journey of adults.” (RCIA, no. 4,5) At the same time this process “varies according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place” while bearing “a markedly paschal character.” (RCIA nos. 5,8)

Although facilitated by various ministries and offices, “the initiation of adults is the responsibility of all the baptized. Therefore the community must always be fully prepared in the pursuit of its apostolic vocation to give help to those who are searching for Christ.” (RCIA, no. 9)

Practical Applications

So what are the implications for catechesis in general?

First we must keep in mind that, like initiation, catechesis is a process that unfolds over time — in fact, it lasts a lifetime! Catechesis isn’t just something that we do for children or youth. Rather, it should permeate the life of the Church. Catechesis draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ and his Church. It is never merely a question of “learning the book” (although book learning may be involved) because we can never plumb the depths of the mysteries of the faith.

This process of catechesis will also vary from person to person. Each person comes to the Church and to God with their own questions, their own longings, and their own needs. There may be common themes, but we can never assume that every adult in the parish is in need of the same formation in the faith. While this should be self-evident, the fact that many parishes run a one-size-fits-all program for adult faith formation would seem to indicate that we’ve lost site of this fact.

The Church, then, should offer opportunities for faith formation across age groups and for different types of people. But that doesn’t mean the parishes needs to be all things to all people. Rather, the pastor and catechetical leaders should have a clear understanding of the demographics of the parishioners. A parish made up primarily of elderly and retired parishioners will need a very different program of catechesis than one that has a large population of young families or large numbers of new immigrants. Understanding who is “in the pews” should be the first step before making decisions about catechesis.

Since catechesis is “the responsibility of all the baptized,”  the Church should also seek to invite members of the community to assist and lead portions of the catechetical program. This includes DREs, CREs, and youth catechists, or course, but it could also mean asking “average” Catholics to share their faith stories with others or talk about their understanding of certain doctrines and practices. Imagine, for instance, asking a nurse who works with the dying to talk about their understanding of the Paschal Mystery, or the mother of a priest to talk about her understanding of vocation.

Finally, the catechesis offered should always draw the faithful into a deeper understanding of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Paschal Mystery stands at the center of our faith; it informs our prayers, our teachings, our sacraments, our apostolates — everything! No catechesis is complete if it doesn’t touch these foundational elements of our faith.

I hope this has stimulated some thoughts on how the RCIA can inspire catechesis in our parishes. I’ll expound on some of these characteristics in future posts as we examine the four stages of the RCIA, beginning with the pre-catechumenate.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Catechesis and the RCIA: Mystagogy (March 7, 2012)
  2. Catechesis and the RCIA: Purification and Enlightenment (February 6, 2012)
  3. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Catechumenate (January 18, 2012)
  4. Catechesis and the RCIA: The Precatechumenate (January 4, 2012)
  5. Catechesis and the RCIA: Characteristics (November 22, 2011)
  6. Catechesis and the RCIA: Introduction (November 14, 2011)