As the pandemic has made online events the new normal and pushed the majority of…
An opportunity for a new — and better — RCIA
Suspension of group activities hit many parish activities hard in the weeks leading up to Lent 2020. The damage was furthered by the closures of nearly all Catholic churches in the month of March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of the parishes have reopened for public Masses — with safety procedures in place — many ministries have yet to resume in-person meetings.
Not unnoticed, the group of candidates and catechumens hoping to enter the Church this year were either delayed in doing so or, in some cases, postponed indefinitely. This is no small demographic. To put things into perspective, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reported around 37,000 new Catholics entering the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2019. That was up from 30,000 in 2018. If figures remained the same, there might have been more than 40,000 new Catholics entering the Church in April. Easter was not easy, and we might be in for a similar Advent and RCIA season coming up.
As a convert, I have a deep sense of sadness for those who had to wait — or may have to wait — to be more fully received into the Church. I think of Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, awaiting the sweetness of baptism before being thrown into jail and stuck in the queue for their imminent execution. Thanks be to God, we have nothing of that sort of challenge to overcome, but the challenge is still present and real for many pastors, clergy, sponsors, catechists and those who would be receiving the sacraments of initiation.
As a volunteer for our RCIA program for a military community in northern Italy, I share a lot of the frustration and want answers at this time. And I’ve come up with some important items that parishes and RCIA directors might consider taking to heart — and to action.
Resiliency for the future, based on the past
We should be filled with a mountain of hope when we recognize that the Catholic Church has been through tough times before — and has endured. From infancy, the Church was battling two fronts. First, centuries of waves of persecution and a struggle to be recognized as a lawful religion, and second, the unconscionable and sometimes violent heresies that threatened the very fabric of the Church’s unity. Together, these would seem like an insurmountable challenge to overcome, but the Church did and went on to overcome wars, corruption, immorality, scandal, and countless changes. And guess what — most of these times exhibited the Church’s most explosive growth and most courageous saints. The Church is truly resilient.
But we’re not just looking at the past — because Catholics in those times sure weren’t; we’re looking to the future. This time of social distancing and pause in normal functions is a particularly good opportunity to reevaluate how we are running our RCIA programs. We need to look at two specific functions: what we deliver and how we deliver it.
Reevaluating how we do things
Leaders need to evaluate what we’re discussing in 21st-century Christian initiation. Gaining an appreciation for the sacraments should be the baseline, but not the entire aim of RCIA programs. These programs must courageously discuss topics that are relevant to salvation and modern culture.
I have much praise to speak for the RCIA program that brought me into the Church, but even in 2012, my sponsor knew the program was dry on social justice topics such as abortion, and moral topics such as cohabitation. For months, I wondered about topics such as voting and examination of conscience, and if those aren’t critical, it took me about two years before I had a grasp on what the word “liturgy” meant. And I’m saying this as a graduate of an advanced theological program. Catholicism is unlike anything out there in the world, and we aren’t helping new Catholics in the modern age if we’re not arming them with apologetics and countercultural inspiration.
How we deliver this message is also becoming vital to our success with Christian initiation. The norms of self-isolation, quarantine and social distancing are no longer excuses for not maintaining a strong presence in the education and formation of new Catholics in RCIA. Inter Mirifica, the Vatican’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications, says, “All the children of the Church should join, without delay and with the greatest effort, in a common work to make effective use of the media of social communication in various apostolic endeavors, as circumstances and conditions demand” (No. 13).
We have no more desperate circumstances and no greater conditions for demand than now. Plain and simple, decision-makers of these programs must make use of new media. Modern people are going to parish websites for first impressions. They’re going to run an internet search for answers before they raise their hand to ask a question. Instead of finding a robust and up-to-date website, they might find a website with outdated information and menus that are cumbersome to navigate. If they run their own internet search, they might find Catholic Answers or Our Sunday Visitor, but they might also find Richard Dawkins or YouTube content creator The Amazing Atheist.
Some of this might seem obvious, but most parishes and programs are still behind the times. We need to get creative, and we need to do it now. It doesn’t take cheap tactics or thousands in funding to create a solid parish website that provides a portal to important — and relevant — information. That’s the least a parish can do. Virtual interfacing for group meetings and productivity are accessible and engaging. I live 3,000 miles from my lay Dominican chapter in the Midwest, but I still get to participate with my chapter and moderator. Likewise, weekly RCIA programs can resume with virtual meetings if necessary.
A unique chance to connect
Considering this, RCIA programs have an exquisite opportunity to perform one-on-one sessions that build dynamic relationships. Rather than spreading the proverbial butter over too much bread, sponsors have the chance, right now, to do not just catechesis to large groups, but discipleship with individuals. That is more than a silver lining: it’s gold plating. It’s time to stop feeling sad about the parish being limited and start doing something to make things better.
Right now, the focus needs to be placed on introducing ideas that bring the parish closer than ever before to the catechumen and candidate. If the Church is the Barque of Peter, then we need to patch the sails, mend the leaks and cast our nets wider than we had ever considered. The Church always endures through every challenge laid before it, but it’s up to us, right now, how that happens and in what condition the Church emerges from this crisis.
Shaun McAfee writes from Italy.