As we celebrate the Year of Faith, the role of the priest in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process becomes even more important. In Australia, more than 1000 adults come to the Church through RCIA every year.
The Rite itself emphasises the important role of the priest in preparing catechumens and candidates for the sacraments of initiation:
"Priests, in addition to their usual ministry for any celebration of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, have the responsibility of attending to the pastoral and personal care of the catechumens, especially those who seem hesitant and discouraged. With the help of deacons and catechists, they are to provide instruction for the catechumens; they are also to approve the choice of godparents and willingly listen to and help them; they are to be diligent in the correct celebration and adaptation of the rites throughout the entire course of Christian initiation."
The success of RCIA in our parishes depends on and demands prayerful and discerning leadership on the part of the parish priest. This is why it is important for all dioceses to ensure that their seminarians, as future parish leaders are well prepared for their role as local RCIA leaders. What follows is an outline of the training implemented in the Archdiocese of Melbourne – not as a normative process, but as a proposal that may stimulate ideas and discussion in other dioceses.
We began the program in 2011, running over several years, starting early in the year before seminarians begin theological studies. Initial classes, of necessity, focused on the fact that senior seminarians would soon be leaving and it was essential for them to be familiar with the basics of RCIA.
In 2013 we began to systematically explore the role of the priest in RCIA. Content was divided into a timeline:
1. Before: The role of the priest in choosing, forming and commissioning members of the RCIA team. Points covered included the qualities of RCIA team members (catechist, liturgist, scriptures, prayer, accompaniment, hospitality) and explored the process of discernment necessary to make these choices.
2. During: The role of the priest during the four main stages of the RCIA journey: the pre-catechumenate, the catechumenate, the period of purification and enlightenment, and the post-baptismal catechesis (or mystagogia). The program is currently half-way through this RCIA period and will continue in 2014. So far, seminarians have had an opportunity to practise the Rite of Acceptance. They were also asked to prepare a prayer of minor exorcism and blessing over the catechumens, and a practical demonstration of the rite of anointing with oil.
3. After: The role of the priest in respect to neophytes and the RCIA team after the process is complete.
Also needing exploration are the preparation of children of catechetical age and the difference between catechumens and (previously validly baptised) candidates.
During the process, questions and concerns have been discussed with seminarians. Many were aware that some clergy have reservations about RCIA. Some seminarians expressed similar fears and concerns even though most of them had never experienced the RCIA process.
Issues raised in these discussions included:
1. Content of catechesis. Several seminarians had heard that RCIA catechesis was too experiential with not enough doctrine. The Rite clearly asks for several types of catechesis, all of them important for a holistic preparation, and the role of doctrinal, liturgical, scriptural and mystagogical catechesis within RCIA were explored.
2. Preparation of RCIA leaders. Again, hearsay information was put forward that RCIA leaders were not well prepared. Most Melbourne RCIA leaders have, in fact, done two RCIA courses. One, through the Archbishop's Office for Evangelisation (two hours per week over 12 weeks), is a thorough study of the Rite, its steps and stages, rites and ministries, its process and its adaptations. The second course is offered through the Catholic Theological College (three hours per week over 12 weeks), focused on catechetical formation. Seminarians understood that the preparation of RCIA leaders is more thorough than the RCIA training they themselves were receiving.
3. Length of the RCIA process. This question provided an opportunity to discuss the importance of focusing the length on the spiritual needs and growth of individual catechumens and candidates.
4. Retention rates after catechumens and candidates have received the sacraments of initiation. Seminarians were introduced to two studies on the retention rate of RCIA candidates in Australia: one in Perth through Murdoch University and one in Adelaide as part of Br Pat Cronin's ministry doctorate. These studies show that more than 80% of RCIA candidates continue as regular members of the parish and of the Church.
5. The amount of work required. Quite rightly, seminarians pointed out how many parish priests are overworked and overloaded. The variety of ministries in the RCIA was discussed – as was the role of the priest. His role is important and central, but he does not do it all.
It is my hope – and that of the seminary Rector and Archbishop Hart – that this work will help our future priests to see that RCIA is the primary form of evangelisation in their own parishes. It is also my hope and prayer that this will help them realise that their presence, understanding, support, and leadership will ensure that RCIA animates, involves and renews the whole parish.