During this season of Lent, many parishes are preparing to welcome Catechumens into full communion with the Catholic Church. What a tremendous blessing and responsibility it is to welcome new members to our faith, but we must understand that our task doesn’t end with Easter weekend. For cradle Catholics, practicing our faith is second nature, something we take for granted at times, and the ever-present temptation is for us to offer a well-intentioned but fleeting “welcome” to new members and then do nothing further after their initiation.
However, we must take intentional actions to include, integrate, and incorporate new Catholics into the daily life of our parish communities in meaningful ways, offering them much-needed support as they move into the new and unfamiliar territory of daily life in a new faith.
This year, I was asked to sponsor a friend and her young son who wish to become Catholics, via the RCIA process. When asked why she decided to enter the Church, my friend responded that she was following her son’s lead. He told her that he didn’t feel that “Jesus was in their church,” but that He was in the Catholic Church. How profound!
What I have been most impressed with throughout the process is their love for Jesus in the sacraments and how they long to grow closer to Him and learn more about our Church. They are building upon the faith they already possess in their hearts, nurturing those seeds that have already been planted, and preparing new, fertile ground to grow as they enter a new phase of their discipleship.
The Sacrifice and Commitment of Being Catholic
When Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton decided to become a Catholic after the death of her husband, she did so against the wishes of her family. She was drawn to the Church by its members’ belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, much like my friend’s young son. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was ostracized by her family when she left her Protestant roots.
Many Catechumens break away from lifelong family faith traditions or go against the wishes of their families when they decide to become Catholic. Perhaps this was one of the meanings hidden in our Lord’s admonitions to His followers: “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:35). When we choose to follow the Lord, we may suffer persecutions from even those closest to us.
As such, the support of our new faith communities is vital and cannot be for just one day. We must also affirm the former traditions of our friends’ prior church homes without erasing them completely. Their beginnings are essential to their formation, since the embryonic Christian life can only be perfected if allowed to mature in due course. What we as Catholics must realize is that we do indeed hold a great treasure: our Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation. When we welcome new members to our Catholic tradition, we must affirm the traditions that gave them a yearning for life with Christ. The Holy Spirit moves and works within the hearts of all who long to draw closer to Jesus in an imperceptible and unpredictable manner. We must refrain from downplaying the value of previous faith formation our Catechumens have experienced leading up to their entrance into the Catholic Church.
An Evolving Process
In November of 2021, the USCCB made the announcement that the term RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) would be changed to OCIA, or the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults. This name change was adopted in an effort to “reflect a closer translation of the process by which adults are initiated into the Catholic faith,” according to reporting on Aleteia.
A restructuring of the program converts the entire process into an “order,” which can be entered into at any time during the Church year and not just on Easter vigil. Additionally, the name change from “rite” to “order” is significant, emphasizing that a rite received in the Church is just a part of one’s ongoing spiritual journey. The term “order” can hold multiple meanings in Catholic terminology: it can refer to a religious community, an elected office, a set of rules, or a simply a hierarchical assignment such as clergy or laity. Thus, the adoption of this term draws new members’ attention to the permanent and impactful role they are to play when they become fully-baptized Catholics.
The RCIA process has its roots in the years following the Apostolic Era and involved a three-year formation process. When Roman Emperor Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians in the fourth century, an increasingly large number of adults coming into the Church put a strain on the catechumenate as practiced. The practice of initiation became focused on infants and the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion were separated from Baptism. The Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate in the 1960s and the process used today follows the ancient formation steps. At the center of the process is ongoing conversion, marked by an acceptance of the Gospel and a profession of faith.
What is vital to remember is that what we witness from the pews is not a one-time event; it is simply the first step of a lifelong process. Additionally, the congregation is called to remember that it is not solely the responsibility of the sponsors and godparents to fully integrate the Catechumens into the life of a parish but of every person in the parish community.
So what does this look like?
Many Catholic traditions are passed down through families over a span of years. For example, there are quite a few prayers I learned directly from the mouth of my devout grandmother, not from our Catholic school or parish religious education program. I remember my great-uncle telling me to say three Hail Marys a day, which we do at every meal. I love that practice! These are things I have shared with my friend entering the church, as well as my favorite prayer books, my love for frequent confession, recommended spiritual reading, and other practices.
Our parish’s annual three-night mission offers a perfect time for RCIA candidates to visit and get a taste of what the Church has to provide by way of ongoing spiritual formation during this Holy season. It is important to remember to include new Church members when we invite friends to these events.
As we welcome new members to our Church this Easter, let us pray for their zeal to remain firm and for them to feel truly integrated into the life of their new parishes. May they always feel the same joy, fervor, and hunger for Jesus that drew them to our Catholic faith on that very first day of their baptism!
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.