The National Catholic Review
Wilton Gregory

Over the last five years more than 160,000 adults annually have entered the Catholic Church in the United States. This amazing numberwhich does not include children coming into the church through infant baptismcoincides with the reinstitution of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The development has surprised church leaders, who never predicted such an increase in an age that can be described as amorphously religious, one in which people speak generally of God but eschew identification with a particular church.

The effect of the adult catechumenate, often referred to by the initials R.C.I.A., suggests that the church has found a potent vehicle for evangelization. Indeed, since the rite’s reinstitution, the Catholic Church in the United States each year has drawn more new members than any other religious group in the nation. In the past 30 years, for example, there has been an increase of about 24 percent in the number of Catholics in the United States. In addition, the catechumenate, which has taken root in the United States particularly, seems to have led to greater growth of the Catholic Church in the United States than in almost any other country.

Increase in numbers is significant, of course, but another benefit of the catechumenate appears to be its power to reinvigorate parishes. The R.C.I.A. involves teams of parishioners who guide people on their journey into the church. As any teacher knows, there is no better way to learn and become enthusiastic about somethingincluding the faiththan to teach about it. Even parishioners who don’t teach in the programs are involved too. They welcome strangers, show support, pray for the catechumens and candidates and become moved themselves as they witness men and women formally opt to share in their faith life.

Now, after looking at the results of a study that is about to be released called Journey to the Fullness of Life: A Report on the Implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States, the U.S. bishops must enter a new phase: strengthening the catechumenate.

This phase must be marked by action to deal with concerns found during the three-year study, which was undertaken by five U.S. bishops’ committees: the Committee on Evangelization, which spearheaded the effort, and the Committees on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Education, Liturgy and Pastoral Practices. The involvement of so many committees suggests that efforts to implement the adult catechumenate span several critical areas of diocesan and parish life and that concerns are far-reaching.

Given the huge success of the adult catechumenate, the study’s major finding is that the overall implementation as intended by the rite must continue to be a major priority in dioceses and parishes. No surprise there. But it is not enough to rejoice in the number of people entering the church. Issues of the faith are not a numbers game.

Right now, according to the study, the R.C.I.A. is in a good news/bad news position. Tens of thousands of people are responding. That is good. But the study also shows that we are not doing enough to nourish their faith. That is not so good. The study highlights four challenges:

1. To provide ongoing formation for leadership and those involved in the catechumenate process;

2. To show a greater distinction between those preparing for baptism and those seeking full communion with the church;

3. To address irregular marriages early in the process;

4. To provide for greater adaptation of the rite in the local churches.

Ongoing Formation

Ongoing formation of participants is of utmost importance. Otherwise we act like gardeners who plant seeds and then neglect to water them. Yet it is not just catechumens and candidates who need formation. So also do pastors, catechists and all the team members, who must be sensitive to the pastoral needs and issues of the adult groups and individuals they serve. The process needs common guidelines, but it is not a cookie-cutter operation. Each community of faith is unique, as is each catechumen and candidate. Some deepened understanding of the faith can come through basic ongoing formation programs. More understanding of the initiation process can be achieved by convening catechists to share their diverse experience in this area.

Ongoing formation is vital for pastors in their unique leadership roles as chief catechists in their parishes, but it also must be extended to all clergy and pastoral staff members. Diocesan formation programs may urge pastors not using the rite to start doing so. Such programs also can make implementation of the R.C.I.A. seem do-able to those who are intimidated by something new. It is the hope of the U.S. bishops that all parishes implement the rite.

The emphasis upon ongoing formation reinforces the teaching that faith formation is a lifelong process. It does not end at the Easter Vigil for those received into the church, any more than it does for catechists once they earn a degree. Respondents to questionnaires for the study stated clearly that new members in the church want more opportunities to develop their own faith formation. It is clear from the study that they feel an emptiness if they discover that there is nothing for them after their reception into the church. These same people overwhelmingly said that the greatest strength they experienced during the catechumenate was a feeling of being connected to a community. Mystagogy, the period of formation immediately following formal reception or return to the church, on the other hand, is reportedly the weakest aspect of the process. One fears that without a continuation of the initiation process after the Easter Vigil, the enthusiasm of new members will quickly wane, and their growth in the faith will be stunted.

 

Full Communion

Showing a greater distinction between those preparing for baptism and those seeking admission to the full communion of the Catholic Church is integral to the R.C.I.A. Survey responses and most of the bishops’ committees expressed this concern. The dignity of baptism, no matter in what denomination one is baptized, is of great importance for all involved in this formation process. This distinction affects all aspects of pastoral life: catechetical, liturgical and communal formation. It is frequently mentioned that catechumens and candidates are often joined together because of a lack of resourcesprimarily of time and people. This lack of resources, however, provides opportunities to invite others into this essential ministry in the communities.

It is insulting to treat people who are familiar with the Scriptures from their experience in another faith group as if they had never opened a Bible until they began to study about Catholicism. It is equally offensive to treat people baptized in another faith community as if they had never been baptized at all. Yet when we do not distinguish between catechumens (who never have been baptized) and candidates from other Christian churches, we risk insulting people by cavalierly dismissing their earlier religious formation. Putting both groups together is comparable to putting students who can read and those who cannot in the same reading group. Both are ill served.

Those working in Christian initiation also must acknowledge that many candidates bring to the Catholic Church rich traditions and experiences from other churches. In addition, many who start on the process already have been attending Masssome for as long as 10 years or moreand began to learn about the church and grow in faith long before they even thought about participating in a structured initiation process.

 

Irregular Marriages

A major obstacle for beginning the R.C.I.A. process or being initiated into the church for some people is an irregular marriage. It is apparent from the study that some in irregular marriages participate only to find out late in the process that there is an obstacle to being admitted to full participation in the life in the church at this particular time. This is a most neuralgic issue. It is painful, at best, to start people down the path only to tell them later that they cannot be fully initiated into the church because of its teaching on marriage. This raises the importance of early personal interviews with people before they enter the process. In many instances, people are open to the possibility of regularizing their marriages. When this is addressed early in the process, people sometimes can receive the sacraments at the next Easter Vigil. Unfortunately this report also tells us that too many people choose not to regularize their marriages, because it often means revisiting painful separations and divorces. The church needs to do more pastorally to encourage and enable couples to pursue the annulment process.

 

Flexibility

Adaptation is of great importance for all involved in adult initiation. The rite and its General Instruction speak clearly to us today and challenge us to adapt when pastoral needs arise and call upon all involved to be open to adaptation. It is clear that the way of implementing the rite in one community may be different from the way it is done in another. The great diversity found in the United States is a blessing, but it also presents one of the greatest challenges for pastoral ministry. This is a challenge that must be addressed by the local churches. For a start, we need print, audio and visual materials in several languages. We need materials for people with little or no formal education. We need to adapt the process to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults offers great hope as we move into the 21st century. The church has repeatedly stressed that evangelization is a high priority. With this rite we have a means to evangelize that is proving to be successful in the United States. Implementing and improving it must be a top priority for dioceses and parishes.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., is vice-president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and holds a doctorate in liturgy from Rome’s Pontifical Liturgical Institute.

Comments

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James P. Brady | 1/22/2007 - 10:40am
As one who over the past 10 years has directed our local adult initiation program, through which over 90 catechumens and candidates have passed, I take exception to categorizing R.C.I.A. people into baptized and non-baptized. Although this is an important theological distinction, especially for the rites, it does not apply in real-life R.C.I.A. sessions. Besides the variations Bishop Wilton Gregory pointed out (10/21), it is not unusual to have a church-going unbaptized person side by side with a baptized Catholic who has absolutely no knowledge of religion. The unifying base is psychological; all are one in their intense desire to join the Catholic community.

No one has ever been or ever could be insulted by our Scripture based approach. It only complements and extends whatever some might have in their background. And as far as their traditions are concerned, strong or weak, we build on what is there.

In my opinion, the powers that be will be making a big mistake to look narrowly through a theological prism; they will miss the greater reality.

Joseph Claude Harris | 1/22/2007 - 10:41am
I think that Bishop Wilton Gregory jumped to a conclusion not supported by data when he referred to the five-year average of 166,000 adult baptisms and receptions into full communion as an amazing number coinciding with the reinstitution of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (10/21). In fact, the impact of adult entrants on Catholic Church membership has always been quite modest, and only slightly less so in recent years. In 1990 infant baptisms accounted for 88.7 percent of all new members; the infant baptism effect declined to 86.3 percent of all growth by 1998.

In addition, Bishop Gregory stated that the American Catholic Church has found a potent vehicle for evangelization and, since the rite’s reinstitution, has drawn more new members than any other religious group in the nation. Since membership in the American Catholic church dwarfs all other denominations, raw numbers of new Catholics will normally exceed population increases in other churches. I suggest we look at a measure called a growth rate—new members per 1,000 present membership—to evaluate properly changes in totals of Catholics.

The growth rate of the American Catholic Church has been modestly receding in recent years. The 1990 net growth rate of 12.03 new members declined to a growth rate of 11.3 new members for 1998. A shrinking Catholic birth rate accounted for the entire drop in growth. A modest decline in the Catholic death rate from 8.34 to 7.83 partially offset the negative impact of fewer births. Dramatically fewer Catholic deaths show up in areas like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where the Catholic death rate is a truly startling 4.3. Either it is very safe to live in L.A. or there is something quite different about the population mix. The latter conclusion is more reasonable. The very young Hispanic population has had a dramatic impact on population patterns in some areas of the American Catholic church.

Without negating in any way the positive effects of the R.C.I.A., it does seem premature to pronounce that a revolution has happened. The Rite of Infant Baptism has persistently contributed enormous membership growth to the American Catholic Church. This fact has not changed in recent years.

James P. Brady | 1/22/2007 - 10:40am
As one who over the past 10 years has directed our local adult initiation program, through which over 90 catechumens and candidates have passed, I take exception to categorizing R.C.I.A. people into baptized and non-baptized. Although this is an important theological distinction, especially for the rites, it does not apply in real-life R.C.I.A. sessions. Besides the variations Bishop Wilton Gregory pointed out (10/21), it is not unusual to have a church-going unbaptized person side by side with a baptized Catholic who has absolutely no knowledge of religion. The unifying base is psychological; all are one in their intense desire to join the Catholic community.

No one has ever been or ever could be insulted by our Scripture based approach. It only complements and extends whatever some might have in their background. And as far as their traditions are concerned, strong or weak, we build on what is there.

In my opinion, the powers that be will be making a big mistake to look narrowly through a theological prism; they will miss the greater reality.

Joseph Claude Harris | 1/22/2007 - 10:41am
I think that Bishop Wilton Gregory jumped to a conclusion not supported by data when he referred to the five-year average of 166,000 adult baptisms and receptions into full communion as an amazing number coinciding with the reinstitution of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (10/21). In fact, the impact of adult entrants on Catholic Church membership has always been quite modest, and only slightly less so in recent years. In 1990 infant baptisms accounted for 88.7 percent of all new members; the infant baptism effect declined to 86.3 percent of all growth by 1998.

In addition, Bishop Gregory stated that the American Catholic Church has found a potent vehicle for evangelization and, since the rite’s reinstitution, has drawn more new members than any other religious group in the nation. Since membership in the American Catholic church dwarfs all other denominations, raw numbers of new Catholics will normally exceed population increases in other churches. I suggest we look at a measure called a growth rate—new members per 1,000 present membership—to evaluate properly changes in totals of Catholics.

The growth rate of the American Catholic Church has been modestly receding in recent years. The 1990 net growth rate of 12.03 new members declined to a growth rate of 11.3 new members for 1998. A shrinking Catholic birth rate accounted for the entire drop in growth. A modest decline in the Catholic death rate from 8.34 to 7.83 partially offset the negative impact of fewer births. Dramatically fewer Catholic deaths show up in areas like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where the Catholic death rate is a truly startling 4.3. Either it is very safe to live in L.A. or there is something quite different about the population mix. The latter conclusion is more reasonable. The very young Hispanic population has had a dramatic impact on population patterns in some areas of the American Catholic church.

Without negating in any way the positive effects of the R.C.I.A., it does seem premature to pronounce that a revolution has happened. The Rite of Infant Baptism has persistently contributed enormous membership growth to the American Catholic Church. This fact has not changed in recent years.