Each year, more than a thousand people either enter the Catholic Church or come into full communion with it at the Easter Vigil in the Archdiocese of Chicago. For many of them, their journey begins in the fall, when parishes traditionally start their programs for people who want to participate in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the church’s way of bringing people into the Body of Christ.
The first thing to remember, according to area RCIA directors, is that faith formation is not one-size-fits-all. People are at different points on their faith journeys when they first approach their local parishes, and they have different needs.
The rite itself gives no specific time frame, saying that the catechumenate “is an extended period during which the candidates are given suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life” (RCIA, paragraph 75).
That “training” is to include not only catechesis, but also help in forming community, participating in the liturgical life of the parish and doing apostolic works.
How long that takes depends not only on the starting point, but how quickly people are able to move along the path, according to area RCIA directors.
At one end are the seekers, who are looking for something, but they aren’t yet quite sure what it is, said Catherine Crino, pastoral associate at St. Alphonsus Parish at Wellington and Southport Ave. At the other end are people who know they want to be Catholic, know why they want to be Catholic, and just need help facilitating the process.
Most are somewhere in the middle, thinking that they would like to join the church, but still having lots of questions that need to be answered.
They also are asking different things from the church; some have never been baptized in any faith, some were baptized and active members of other Christian churches and some were baptized Catholic but did not go on to receive First Communion or confirmation. That also makes a difference, Crino said.
Mary Alice Roth, director of liturgy at St. Julie Billiart in Tinley Park, said she tries to work with the each individual rather than holding classes, and those who are baptized Christians — and especially those who are baptized Catholics — need not always wait until the Easter Vigil to be received into full communion.
“We want to help people deepen their relationship with Christ,” Roth said. “Why would we make them wait?”
The first thing most RCIA directors do when they receive an inquiry about becoming Catholic is ask some questions: What attracts them to the church? What have they learned about the church? What questions do they have?
Once a person decides to start the process, RCIA directors will sit down with them for a private interview to find out about any issues, including whether the person — or his or her spouse — has any previous marriages that would have to be annulled.
If they do, and they want to complete the process and have an answer before the Easter Vigil, they must have their applications and questionnaires filed by Oct. 1 at the latest, said Susan Miller, an auditor in the archdiocesan tribunal. That doesn’t guarantee that the tribunal will be able to complete the process before the vigil, she said, because there’s no way of knowing what they will encounter as they go through the process.
The tribunal does do its best to move quickly, she said, but if a former spouse does not respond, or opposes the process, it will take longer.
That doesn’t affect too many people, she said. There are maybe 10 to 15 a year who are hoping to get annulments in order to receive sacraments at the Easter Vigil, and they generally have been counseled by their RCIA directors about the need for patience. The tribunal offers presentations to RCIA directors every year to explain the process, she said.
The formal RCIA process includes a period of inquiry, which allows people to learn more about the church to decide if they want to pursue becoming Catholic. After the period of inquiry, those who want to become Catholic are formally accepted into the catrechumenate. The Rite of Acceptance generally takes place in the late fall or during Advent. Those who are already baptized are known as candidates; they can be welcomed at the same time as the catechumens or later.
Crino said the seekers who don’t really know if they want to be Catholic can get a lot of their initial information from attending Masses and other events that talk about church teachings. Catholics who had years of religious education, but just never quite made it to confirmation, might need only a few class sessions to get them ready.
But most people in her parish who are seriously considering entering communion with the Catholic Church attend evening classes starting in September. They are encouraged to continue to attend Mass — or start, if they haven’t yet — because “being at Mass is the best way to learn what our faith is about.” To that end, Crino said she offers a missal to each person who comes in to meet with her to help them follow the liturgy.
The classes give them the opportunity to ask questions they might have — many want to know about confession, Crino said — and fill in gaps in their understanding of the faith.
“For some of them, especially the catechized Christians, the whole idea of the church as a body headed by Christ is difficult, because they are used to thinking of ‘church’ as a community of believers that comes together voluntarily,” she said. “A lot of times they just need to hear things explained in a way that makes sense to them.”
At the beginning of Lent, catechumens participate in the Rite of Election, a diocesan ritual in which they enroll their names in the Book of the Elect and are recognized by their bishop. Candidates can participate in a similar rite calling them to ongoing conversion; the rites can be combined when there are both catechumens and candidates.
Then during Lent and leading up to the Easter Vigil, the elect — those who have not been baptized — participate in three scrutinies. Candidates prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation leading up to the reception of the other sacraments.
For many, the time frame is defined by the academic and liturgical calendars: September to the Easter Vigil. Some, who are further along the path, don’t need that much time. Others need more than one year.
“I’ve learned two things,” Crino said. “It’s going to happen on God’s time, not on our schedule. And if you give them the freedom and the opportunity to say if they are ready or not, they’ll tell you.”