As parishes prepare for World Youth Day 2008, part of their long-term planning must involve consideration of how to provide the welcome and support required when many people, young and old, touched by the events of World Youth Day, decide to explore the possibility of becoming Catholics. Many parishes will invite such inquirers to join their RCIA sessions.
For over 30 years the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has been the method preferred by the Church for preparing and receiving new Catholics. RCIA was developed in response to a request from the Fathers of Vatican II who saw the need to restore the Catechumenate for non-baptised adults wishing to become Catholics.
The catechumenal process takes the form of a journey in stages, lasting anything from one to three years, or longer. Each stage has its own specific liturgical, pastoral and catechetical dimensions, deliberately designed to foster and deepen the conversion of each inquirer.
Those taking part in the catechumenal journey (they usually include baptised Christians who are seeking full communion with the Church) are to be strengthened on their way by intense prayer, not only in the formal rites but also less formally in the prayerful support of those accompanying them.
Gone are the days when people were normally received into the Church in a quasi-private ceremony, often to find they knew very few other members of the parish in which they were initiated. The RCIA process involves many people, the catechumens and baptised candidates for full Communion and their sponsors, priests, catechists and other parishioners.
When taken seriously and implemented faithfully, the RCIA can have a profound and lasting effect, not just on those immediately concerned, but on the entire parish.
Nevertheless, even when the RCIA is undertaken with enthusiasm by a group of committed people, there are sometimes difficulties. One of the most common is how to help a parish become a community which can offer the welcome, support and friendship needed by new Catholics.
It is well known that catechumens and candidates for full communion often feel loved and treasured in the cocooning ambience of the RCIA group; but once the excitement of initiation at Easter has worn off and they are just like everyone else in the pews they can feel let down and lonely. There is then a danger that their initial fervour will die and they will abandon regular practice of the faith.
The other chief difficulty is to do with the quality of catechesis. The Gospel message is not one that should be diluted, confused or compromised: yet in the RCIA in many parishes it is not being delivered coherently and convincingly.
Although many dioceses now provide thorough training courses, existing catechists are often not required to attend them. As a result, the catechesis they offer can be marred by ignorance, even of some of the basic truths of faith, or by the airing of opinions alarmingly out of tune with Church teaching.
Over the years many course books and guides to the catechumenal process have been designed for use by RCIA teams. Some of these are deficient in content, some exceedingly dull. Some show their age by over-reliance on 'experiential learning', with little or no provision for authoritative teaching of the deposit of faith by the catechist.
Enter the Association of Catechumenal Ministry (ACM), an organisation of clergy and lay people, under the patronage of several bishops and based in the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. The ACM was founded in 1998 to 'foster the full implementation of the Order of Christian Initiation by providing a communications, resources and education network for diocesan and parish personnel involved in the work of the catechumenate' (ACM Mission Statement).
The ACM provides teams of experienced and dedicated catechists who train priests, deacons and lay people in parish or diocesan groups to make full use of the RCIA.
Their beautiful, user-friendly website (www.acmrcia.org) contains an overview of the whole RCIA process and many other helpful pages. In addition, excellent printed materials are available, which are listed and described on the website.
The Catechumenate Office of the Sydney Archdiocese, under the patronage of Cardinal Pell, has taken the bold step of inviting five members of the ACM to Sydney for a week in June 2007. During this time they will offer a clergy training day, a liturgical practices day, which will look at the liturgies of the RCIA, and a week-end conference on the theme 'Forming New Catholics' for catechists and anyone else interested. It is hoped parishes from all over Australia will send representatives to Sydney for this unique event.
In the words of Bishop Julian Porteous, the Auxiliary Bishop in Sydney responsible for evangelisation, the conference will enable everyone, both experienced catechists and newcomers, to see the depth and beauty of the RCIA presented in a professional and inspiring way by people who are totally committed to the catechumenal process itself, and even more importantly, who are filled with love for Christ and his Church.
Any parish RCIA team taking part in this conference and using the excellent ACM resources should feel confident it is well equipped to respond to the challenge of helping all those inquirers who approach the Church after World Youth Day.
Paula Flynn is an English catechist who works with adults. She was recently in Australia.