Contact Us

Adult initiation

30 November, 1999

Dermot Nestor guides us through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and what effect this process can have on an entire Christian community.

Most Irish people are baptized as infants. It’s what we are most used to. However the situation is changing on two fronts. Firstly, there are some parents who choose not to have their children baptized. Some of these children have now asked to be baptized as adults. Secondly there are many ‘new Irish’ among us from many parts of the world. Many of these are also enquiring about being baptized, about becoming members of the Catholic Church.

So how does an adult become a member of the Catholic Church? Any adults who present themselves to a parish and ask about becoming members of that community have already begun their faith journey. The parish then takes up this faith journey and accompanies them. This process is called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

So what is the aim of Initiation? To be baptized? No. The aim of initiation is to be fully initiated into the community, i.e. to be a full, active member of the parish community. Therefore, the process of initiation is a lot more than just preparing for the sacraments. It involves the whole community in welcoming the candidate and journeying with them.

But surely the whole parish cannot journey with the candidate? So who journeys? Do you need a degree in theology? Do you need to be an expert in the sacraments?

The biggest mistake made with initiation is when parishes try to ‘do it’ quickly and quietly. This is such a shame. The enquirer loses out, as do the people who could form the group, and so does the whole parish. Let me explain in a little more detail.

Let’s say a person called Malcolm comes to the parish and asks for baptism. Sometimes a priest will ask Sister Mary to teach Malcolm about the sacraments. I’m sure Sister Mary will do a very good job of teaching about the sacraments, but as I’ve mentioned above, initiation is about initiation into the whole community. Malcolm will miss out on the riches of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He may get a great theoretical understanding of the faith, but the only person whom he will meet is Sister Mary.

One of the great riches of RCIA is the group who share their faith journey with Malcolm. Malcolm meets with the group every week and they share their faith. This for many is the scary bit. But why?

People will clean the church, collect money, join prayer groups and pastoral groups; people will even become ministers of the Word and ministers of the Eucharist but ask people to share their faith and they panic. They say things like, they don’t know enough, they wouldn’t be able to share their faith, etc. Why? People who are involved in sport are always very happy to talk about it, they are usually very enthusiastic about their sport; they are never embarrassed. But when it comes to faith we are different: sometimes we are shy and embarrassed. St. Paul tells us that we should always have the answer ready for the reason for our hope.

There are different stages on the faith journey that occur over the next few years. The first stage or period of time is called the precatechumenate. This is the time for Malcolm to ask questions and to get to know the group that will journey with him.

This is the time too, when the group members will share a little about their faith journey. For example, the first week each person could share a little about their life, their family and how faith fits into their day and week. Maybe the second week each person could share their favourite Bible story.

I have been present in several groups when this has happened and it is fascinating, listening to the different stories told and the emphasis put on the particular story and the reason that story was chosen. Topics for other weeks could be ‘A time I felt close to God’ and ‘My image of God’.

This goes on for several weeks or months and the group gets to know each other. Malcolm will learn a lot about the faith of the people present. This is a lived faith experience and no book can compare to it. This stage or period of Pre-Catechumenate is a time for enquiry and introduction to gospel values. Just as each person is different and unique, so this part of the journey will be unique to each enquirer.

The next step is when Malcolm becomes a Catechumen. This happens at a ceremony during Sunday Eucharist. It is a wonderfully moving ceremony where the whole parish are invited to gather and pray for Malcolm as he makes his request to become a Catholic and the parish welcomes him as a Catechumen.

Once Malcolm becomes a Catechumen the group continues to meet with him each week but the format changes. From now on, the group-prayer and discussion is directed by the Sunday Gospel. In other words, the agenda for the prayer, discussion and faith-sharing is set by the Sunday Gospel. This works really well as the gospel is different every Sunday and provides new comforts and challenges on the faith journey for Malcolm and indeed, the whole group.

The importance of the group of parishioners cannot be overestimated. Their sharing brings the gospel alive to the present day. The best word to describe this experience is that of apprentice. Malcolm is being initiated into the community by the lived faith experience of ordinary parishioners. Just as a plumber or carpenter learns their trade by doing, by being on the job, so too, with Malcolm: he learns about parish life by joining the group every week and by going with them to other parish activities.

Malcolm will journey as a Catechumen for at least one year. In this way, he and the group will be enriched and challenged by the full liturgical year in the course of which, as the Rite tells us, ‘The whole mystery of Christ unfolds… From his incarnation and birth until his ascension, the day of Pentecost and the hope of the Lord’s return.’ The Sunday Liturgy of the Word is thus the core diet for catechumens.

So Adult Initiation is a journey of faith, accompanied by ordinary people of faith. It’s a journey that takes time, and that cannot be rushed. It takes place around the kitchen table rather than alone in the library, because just like an apprentice, one becomes a Christian by living with Christians.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.