How does an adult become a
member of the
The process of becoming a Catholic is called the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Years ago, if a person was interested in becoming a Catholic, he or she met privately with a priest and, over a period of time, received private instruction concerning various aspects of the Catholic faith. Following this period of instruction, the person was privately baptized or received into the Catholic Church, after which they became another anonymous face in a huge crowd of worshipping Sunday Catholics. In recent years, the Church has changed its approach to bringing new members into the community. Let's try to describe this shift of how Catholics are brought into the Church.
Conversion, not instruction: Becoming a Catholic is an important decision in your life, a decision which is made after careful thought and prayer. We believe that your decision to look into the Catholic Church is your response to an invitation made by Jesus to come to know him through this community. In other words, Jesus is inviting you into a personal relationship with him. Conversion describes the process of coming to know Him more deeply. The Catholic community wishes to serve as an instrument to help you to grow in your relationship with the Lord. The goal of the RCIA process, therefore, is not to fill your minds about facts concerning the Catholic Church (Why do Catholics genuflect? Why do Catholics pray to Mary? What is confession all about?). Facts about the Catholic Church are important -- but facts are dead pieces of knowledge without a living relationship with the Lord -- a relationship which we hope to nurture and support.
A process, not a program: The RCIA can best be described as a process of coming to know Jesus Christ on a personal level. Coming to know Jesus cannot be fitted into a thirteen-week instruction program. It is a process of ever-deepening growth and commitment -- a process that continues long after you are initiated into the Catholic Church. We will try to help you discover your readiness to make that commitment to Christ in and through the Church. We will celebrate your journey to Christ in various rituals described below.
Public, not private: The process of becoming a Catholic involves certain public ceremonies called "rites" or rituals. These rites take place at the Sunday liturgies when Catholics gather to worship. Perhaps you are thinking, "I'm not a public person. I will be embarrassed if I am singled out!" However, the public nature of the RCIA is important for two reasons:
-- One of the major liabilities of the Catholic Church is that it is so large; Our Lady of Lourdes is made up of over 4,000 Catholics! How easy it is to be lost in the shuffle! As you enter the Catholic Church, we don't simply want to "sneak you into the fold." Your becoming a Catholic is an important decision in your life -- a decision which we want to support and celebrate!
-- Your coming into the Catholic Church gives us a great gift. Sadly, there are too many Catholics who take their faith and their membership for granted. Your presence in these public rituals provides an opportunity for all Catholics to reflect on their own participation and membership in the community.
Catholics are made, not born! Unfortunately, many of those who are born into the Catholic Church do not take responsibility for the process of their own ongoing conversion. Your presence awakens in all of us the need to be more committed to the process of conversion in our own lives.
The process in more detail
Because you are a unique individual with a particular history and background, the process of initiation into the Catholic Church is tailored to address your particular life situation. Take, for example, the following three scenarios:
Roger is an Episcopalian who has been dating a Catholic girl over the past three years. During their courtship, Roger begins to worship in his fiancée's Church. While Roger received his first communion as an Episcopalian, he never really continued to be involved in his Church. Because Catholicism means so much to his fiancée, he feels that he would like to become a member of the Church in order to share this aspect of their married life together.
Janice was born into the Jewish faith. After the divorce of her parents, she was raised by her grandmother who was Catholic. Janice does not have any formal knowledge regarding Christianity; however, from time to time she recalls with great fondness the piety and devotion of her Catholic grandmother. She wants to know more about that Church which gave her grandmother great solace.
Steve is a man in his 30's who has been searching for God throughout much of his young adult life. During his adolescence, he left the Methodist Church in which he was baptized to join a Pentecostal Church. However, after a number of years, he became disenchanted with the Pentecostals and tried to find God "in his own way." Certain reading brought him into contact with Christian Scientist and New Age religions; now, however, he finds himself attracted to the Catholic Church because of its celebrations of sacraments.
While Roger and Janice and Steve are unique individuals, their journey into the Catholic Church are marked by certain stages:
The first stage: the period of inquiry.
This first stage of the RCIA is a time of unhurried reflection and discovery, whereby a person begins to search out God's call to enter more fully into the life of the Church. Helping the inquirer in this process are members of our own parish family who form the RCIA team. Team members meet weekly with the inquirers, helping them to discern God's calling through prayer, encouragement and the sharing of their own faith stories.
The second Stage: The Catechumenate. Once the inquirer decides to enter into the process which will lead to full initiation into the life of the Church, they move into the next stage of their formation through the Rite of Acceptance. In this stage, an inquirer is now called either a catechumen or a candidate. Technically speaking, a catechumen is a previously unbaptized person who is seeking membership in the Catholic Church. In the above examples, Janice is a catechumen seeking to be baptized into the Catholic Church. A candidate, on the other hand, is a person who was baptized in a Protestant denomination; in the scenarios described above, Roger and Steve are candidates who are seeking to be received into the Catholic Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. During this period of formation, the faith of the catechumen or candidate is deepened through prayer and reflection upon God's word at weekly Sunday meetings. We first gather at one of the Sunday liturgies at St. Philip's and then we are dismissed after the homily in order to further reflect upon the word of God. In addition to our Sunday meetings, we will meet one evening during the week in order to grow in our knowledge of the faith.
During this period of time, both catechumens and candidates are given the assistance of a sponsor, a member of the parish community who is committed to help them in the process of becoming a full member of the Church.
The third phase: period of Lenten purification leading to the Easter Vigil: On the first Sunday of Lent, the catechumens and candidates are presented to the Bishop in the Rite of Election. The period which follows this rite is one of purification for the catechumen, the candidate, and indeed for the entire parish community. We are all called to reform our lives according to the demands of the gospel. At the conclusion of this period, the catechumens and the candidates are initiated into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil. For the catechumen, this means the reception of all three sacraments of initiation--Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. For the candidates, it means full reception into the Church through Eucharist and Confirmation.
The fourth stage: Mystagogy The Greek word mystagogy means "entering into the mystery." This phase which occurs after Easter marks a time when those who have become full members of the Church now have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the mystery of the faith. This period reminds everyone that growth in the faith is ongoing and lifelong.
Sponsors and godparents:
A sponsor is a companion or guide who accompanies the catechumen or candidate to all of the RCIA sessions and parish liturgies. Your sponsor will share with you his or her own story of faith and love for God. A sponsor is a praying, believing member of the parish community who can support you in this process of becoming a full member of the Church.
A godparent is someone you choose to accompany you in the rituals that will bring you into the Catholic Church (specifically, the Rite of Election and the rites of initiation at the Easter Vigil) and who will also accompany you during the period of the mystagogy. A godparent is chosen on the basis of example, good qualities, and friendship. Neither of your parents may act as a godparent. A godparent must be a confirmed Catholic, at least sixteen years old, and is living a good Christian life in accordance with the gospel.
How long does it take to become a Catholic?
Since the RCIA is a process and not a program, there is no specified time frame for preparation to be received into the life of the Church. For those who are not acquainted with Christian traditions and the Christian way of life, the period of preparation can be a year or even longer. For those who are more familiar with the Christian tradition, the process may be shorter.
What might prevent me from becoming a Catholic?
Becoming a Catholic means, above all else, a desire to live a lifestyle in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In light of this, there are certain situations which may pose to be a problem for someone seeking entrance into the Church:
One who is presently living in a second marriage: The Catholic Church believes that marriage is indissoluble. Therefore, the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of all previous marriages unless their invalidity is otherwise proven. This means that if either the inquirer or his spouse has been previously married, that marriage must first be annulled by the Church and the present marriage blessed by the Church before the Rite of Election. A person who is seeking a Church annulment can still enter the RCIA process; however, they cannot be initiated into the Church until their present marriage is blessed by the Church.
One who is divorced but not presently married. A divorced person can be initiated into the Church; however, the first marriage may have to be annulled if that person ever seeks to enter into a second marriage.
We sincerely hope that we may be able to enter into this journey with you. As we support one another in our efforts to come to know and follow Jesus, we will be mutually enriched!
For further information regarding the RCIA, you may call Our Lady of Lourdes (908) 232-1162
Throughout this entire process of the RCIA, we hope to communicate to you your special worth, your value, your uniqueness in the eyes of God -- a uniqueness that we cherish. As you reflect upon the decision to enter this process, prayerfully consider these words of St. Paul the Apostle who wrote this letter to his friends at Ephesus:
"So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." [Ephesians 2:19-22]