How to run a successful RCIA program

If you are a pastor or Director of Religious Education, this article is for you. RCIA is an integral part of any new Catholic's exposure to the Faith. Therefore, it is in our best interest to make sure this experience is a very positive and fulfilling one. Unfortunately, so many RCIA programs in modern parishes fall far short of this ideal.So how do we put together and run a successful, educational and faith forming RCIA program? Believe it or not, can be done.

In my time as a DRE, I have often thought the Church should ultimately rethink the entire idea of RCIA; not saying it should be scrapped altogether; teaching the faith in a structured, class setting has certain benefits (of course, the problem is that these days it is seldom a class and seldom structured). What I do think is that RCIA needs to be made but one part of many possible avenues of entry for coming into the Church, so that pastors can respond accordingly to the needs of various individuals. I know several Protestants who I hope will be entering the Church in the next couple of years; while I rejoice at this, I am also deathly afraid that they will have an experience of RCIA like the one I described last time - something which will drive them away from Mater Ecclesia rather than into her bosom.

It is an unjust situation that a Catholic should face this dilemma - wanting their friends to come into the Church but fearful that the very process of making them Catholic will drive them away. This is why RCIA needs to be reevaluated, overhauled and placed as one option among many for people coming into the Church. This is also why I am putting together this article on how myself and a friend of mine put together a very successful, reputable and fulfilling RCIA program for out parish.

Emotional or Academic Experience?

In the first place, we need to jettison any idea that the RCIA experience is going to be about an emotional experience; what I mean is that we need to abandon the diocesan-pushed idea of RCIA as a "faith sharing" forum where participants discuss their spiritual journey and their feelings. Rather, RCIA will be academic in nature; a series of classes - lectures. Sure, there will be discussion and interaction, but the sessions will primarily be made up of lecture time in which you (the DRE, director, or whatever) teach and the students listen receptively. This is a very, very important point and is the first step. This step must be taken in your mind before classes ever begin - these are to be truly classes in the traditional, academic sense. Make sure you are prepared to really teach and not just share experiences, and make sure the pastor is on board with this as well.

Of course, we are not discounting the important of forming an emotional connection to the Faith. Not at all -  but we are affirming the old metaphysical principle that you cannot love what you do not know. First impart knowledge, and if this is done in love and with enthusiasm, the love we want our catechumens to have for the Faith will arise out of this knowledge.

Screening Candidates and Catechumens

Before classes begin, interview all potential catechumens and candidates. Our classes began in late August, so usually in July or early August I have private interviews with everybody who has signed up for the classes. They fill out a sheet with all their important info on it, date of baptism if applicable, etc. But the most important reasons for the interview are (1) to assess the potential catechumen/candidate to see if they have good reason for doing what they are doing; i.e., "Why do you want to become Catholic?"  (2) to inform them up front of the nature of the classes and, more importantly, of the commitments they will need to make (3) to see if they will require an annulment; if so, the case is referred to the pastor.
 
A little more elaboration on the second point regarding commitment: when I am interviewing people, I try to make RCIA sound challenging, maybe a little more so than it actually is. They need to commit to coming to class every single Monday night for the next nine months, showing up at various liturgical events, coming to a few extra-curricular activities (like a trip down to Detroit for an Extraordinary Form Mass on Palm Sunday, so they can get exposure to the Extraordinary Form), coming to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation and (if they are engaged or have a boyfriend/girlfriend) abstaining from all sexual relations. If I get a person who is cohabiting I tell them up front that they will not be received into the Church as long as that state of affairs continues (but I usually refer these cases to the pastor, who makes the final call).

This meeting presents Catholicism as something very challenging - and therefore valuable - and puts them in a disposition to be willing to work and suffer, if need be, for the Faith. It also weeds out people who would not be able to put up with all of the requirements. This is no real loss; it is better to get such people out at the very beginning rather than let them go through the motions and then let them into the Church with sinful habits already formed (like fornication, Mass-skipping, etc).

What Sort of Curriculum

Now for the actual curriculum - this is important, and this is where many RCIA classes fail. In the first place, many have no curriculum so to speak of. They have a lot about sharing spiritual experiences, but little concrete in the form of academic instruction/catechesis; this is why RCIA directors are often unable to give the Protestant catechumen any reason why he or she should become Catholic, saying instead that it is "for her to decide." To avoid this, we will need to come up with a definitive curriculum. Remember, your people are there to receive something from you - what are you going to give them? So you do need some sort of curriculum.

Secondly, this curriculum must cover the whole of Catholic faith, morals and spirituality. It must not be narrowly focused on "social justice" issues, heavily bent towards "service projects" or parish involvement. Programs that are weighted down with these elements tend towards the heresy of activism - giving the impression that being Catholic is all about doing a bunch of stuff and making people feel good because they are doing things rather than making them holier by forming their soul. Instead of making your program top-heavy with these sorts of efforts, develop it to be broadly dogmatic; the classes will be about what Catholics believe. Only after understanding what we believe is it proper to discuss how we act on our beliefs.
 
One other pitfall to avoid - and I can't stress this enough - do not set up your RCIA classes to be based on the liturgical year. I know that a lot of parishes and even diocesan offices recommend this approach, but it is doomed to failure, for two reasons:

(1) While helpful to occasionally discuss liturgical feasts and readings, doing so exclusively gives the impression that the classes are not going anywhere. Remember, the liturgical year is primarily devotional in nature, not catechetical. I've heard many testimonies from disgruntled catechumens who have said, "I didn't get anything out of RCIA at this other parish; all we did was sit around and talk about the readings." Just following the readings and the liturgical year is not pedagogically sufficient for the formation that RCIA requires.

(2) Furthermore (and this is the flip side of the first point) the Catholic Faith can only be fully grasped when it is presented in its integrity, with regard to the hierarchy of truths, and in an organic fashion. Certain truths need to be taught in a certain order, so that student can apprehend higher, more fundamental truths at the outset in order to see how other truths "interlock" with them to form a composite body of doctrine and morality. Basing classes on the liturgical year, even partially, destroys this essential order and obstructs the instructor from presenting topics hierarchically and organically. It gives the impression that the Faith is a jumble of doctrines with little correlation to each other. Since Catholicism is most certainly the most logically consistent religious system in existence, to deprive catechumens of the knowledge of this logical synthesis borders on sacrilege.


Presenting the Curriculum

I've told you what not to do with your curriculum; so what should you do with it?

In our program we use the model laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: first theology, then sacraments, morality, and finally prayer; I've tinkered with this a little bit by adding some apologetics at the outset and some other miscellaneous topics. Here is an outline of what my RCIA year looks like topically (note how they are broken up into larger thematic groupings):


Apologetics

Sept. 14: Proofs for God’s Existence
Sept. 21: The Divinity of Christ

Doctrine

Sept. 28: Scripture & Tradition
Oct. 5: The Blessed Trinity
Oct. 12: Creation, the Fall, Angels & the Devil
Oct. 19: Incarnation of Christ & Crucifixion
Oct. 26: The Church
Nov. 9: The Blessed Virgin Mary
Nov. 16: Purgatory
Nov. 23: Heaven, Hell & Second Coming of Christ

Sacraments I

Nov. 30: Sacraments &  Liturgy
Dec. 7: Baptism & Confirmation
Dec. 14: The Eucharist
Dec. 21: Sin & Confession
Jan. 4: Anointing of the Sick

Morality

Jan. 11: Freedom &  Happiness
Jan. 18: Moral Virtues
Jan. 25: 1st, 2nd, 3rd Commandments
Feb. 1: 4th Commandment
Feb. 8: 5th Commandment
Feb. 15: 6th & 9th Commandments
Feb. 22: 7th & 10th Commandments
Mar. 1: 8th Commandment & Church Precepts

Miscellaneous Topics

Mar. 8: Church History 33 - 1054 AD
Mar. 15: Church History 1054 - 2008 AD
Mar. 22: Saints / Communion of Saints
Mar. 29: The Papacy & Hierarchy

Sacraments II

Apr. 12: The Mass
Apr. 19: Holy Orders
Apr. 26: The Matrimony

Mystagogy (Post-Baptismal Instruction)


May. 3: Introduction to Prayer
May. 10: The Lord’s Prayer
May. 17: Dinner & Reflection (I take them out to a nice restaurant and we just talk about the year)


(All these lessons that I used in my parish are available for free on this website here)


Note that by moving topically, sometimes the class topics do line up with liturgical feast days - the class on Purgatory just happens to fall close to All Souls Day and the class on the Second Coming falls during the week prior to Advent when the eschatological readings are done. It's nice when this happens, but it's not so desirable that I rearrange classes to make it happen. For me, preserving this order  in the presentation is more important than aligning with the readings.

There is an inner logic to this line-up: Apologetics comes first in order to specifically answer the question "Why am I here in this class?" It is also good because it gets certain objections out of the way that can linger and fester if not dealt with up front. It's not impossible for a man to sit through four months of RCIA but keep questioning whether or not it is all hogwash because he has never had the existence of God sufficiently proven to him; and if he can't even accept God's existence entirely, why would he accept, say, the Church's teaching on contraception? Deal with the big apologetical issues first, which can be summed up in two questions: Why believe in God? Why believe in Christ? Once these are out of the way, you are set to get into theology.


The miscellaneous topics are just important stuff that people need to understand if they are Catholic, and which are greatly misunderstood.

So how are these lessons actually composed? What do they look like? If you click here, you can see a sample of one of my class outlines, in this case, on the Church. I will lecture from these notes myself; in addition, I will pass out a copy of this to every person at the beginning of class so they can follow along, take notes, etc. This way, by the time you reach Easter, they have a 200 page booklet of Catholic dogma for future reference.


Common Threads

My lessons all have a few things in common:

They begin with a quote from the Scriptures as well as a quote from a saint for meditation; this gets the tone for the class and grounds the doctrine in the Bible while also cementing it firmly together with Tradition. From the very outset I get them thinking about Divine Revelation in terms of Scripture and Tradition together.

The bulk of the content is based on or quoted from the CCC, which is what my pastor wanted, but which also ensures that you are teaching what the Church considers a "sure norm" for the faith; as much as I love traditionalism, you want to make sure that you are teaching mainstream stuff and not going off onto tangents that might not be immediately relevant to the situation of your catechumens.

Not to say I don't work in Tradition - the lessons are seasoned with quotations from the saints, Aquinas, Church Councils (all of them) and a list of books for additional reading. Furthermore, every lecture draws on examples from Church history to make various dogmatic or pastoral points - the end result is that the catechumens do not walk away with a skewered view of Catholicism (like, there's the "old" Catholicism and then there's the "new", updated Church); instead, they learn to view the Church in its historical fullness as a single, organic entity and to value Tradition as a lens through which to interpret and understand the teachings of the Faith. This appeal to tradition is solidified when I take them to an Extraordinary Form Mass shortly before Easter. If you get it right, they will pick up on traditional issues as you go. For example, if you teach properly on the majesty and reverence owed to God in justice, they will naturally start to ask, "Then why doesn't this parish have the tabernacle more centrally located? Why doesn't everybody receive in the tongue?" and similar questions about decorum and fittingness. Just teaching the Faith makes them orthodox and traditional without them realizing it. You should never have to stand up and say, "Let me give you five reasons why parishes should never be built in the round"; they can deduce these conclusions from the simple truth of the Faith alone if you just give it to them. That's all an RCIA instructor needs to do.

RCIA Teams?

What about RCIA teams? Do we use an RCIA team? Nope. My pastor's opinion is "I pay you to be the DRE. You teach them." This is good enough reason for me; but from a pedagogical viewpoint, it is disorienting to have a string of teachers instead of only one. Can you think of any other field where this is standard? Does a company want a string of managers coming in one after another? Does any school district think it is a good idea to have two or three different teachers take a class within a single year? What does it say about a professional sports team (Detroit Lions?) when they go through a head coach every year and a half for several years? If these examples are all unanimously agreed to be bad for the team/students/employees, why would we adopt such a model to form our catechumens, whose souls are at stake? Just when you get used to one instructor you have to adjust to the eccentricities of another. It also retards true relationships from building between the instructor and the class; at least that's my opinion. Yet despite all these negatives an RCIA "team" is standard for most parishes. That's because most parishes care more about their programs being inclusive, democratic and representative than they do about actual faith formation.

Evangelical Faith

Finally, it might be objected that this academic approach leaves out too much. Some object that being too academic renders the "evangelical" nature of the Faith weaker - that by focusing too much on converting their minds we fail to convert their spirits; after all, Christ is a Person, and they need to be led into relationship with a Person, not just membership in an organization. Can this academic approach lead to heartfelt conversion as well as intellectual formation?

Absolutely. In fact, more so than other approaches that lay the emphasis squarely on experience. Remember, there is no dichotomy between knowledge and relationship. In fact, before we can adequately live God we must know what we are loving. Basic Thomism comes into play here: the essential vision of God is an intellectual vision that transforms the rest of the person in consequence of the intellectual sight of God. Practically speaking, this means that the truth itself is evangelistic. If we simply teach the truth, and teach it with conviction, then its beauty and splendor are evident and compel the will to act on what the intellect has apprehended. I have found, in five years of teaching RCIA in two different programs, that when you simply teach the truth the interior conversions experienced by the participants in the class are more profound and long-lasting. This is because the truth is transformative, and as they grasp the truths of the Church with docility (as opposed to being put on the spot to "share" their feelings), they find themselves transformed in the will and soul even as they learn the truths with the mind. Ironically, if you focus on experience and conversion as primary ends (as opposed to education), they get neither education not conversion; but if you emphasize education, they become converted as well.


I hope this helps. Please feel free to pass this post along to anyone you know who may be involved in RCIA or contact me with any questions. Oh, and don't forget to pray for your catechumens constantly. Very much depends on this and you are accountable for their souls while they are in your care. If you've done everything right, you'll see your former students around the parish for years to come and get feedback like this:

"I most enjoyed [Boniface's] enthusiasm and reverence for the subject matter! He was able to relate each separate piece to every other piece, and to the whole, so that both the intellectual and spiritual Truth and Beauty of God and His Church were made obvious and undeniable. It was the most fulfilling and rewarding journey of my life! As the weeks went by I realized how important it is to truly understand the reasons why Catholicism is what it is, why we do what we do, and especially why knowledge is so important for spiritual growth.”

This from a former atheist of thirty years.

I don't toot my own horn here; it was the DRE before me who really got this program rolling - I just polished it up. But I bring it up because I firmly believe the key is not in me or whoever else presents, but in the fundamental approach taken towards the classes - are they for sharing or for education? Will the instructor teach or will the catechumens blab? Will the curriculum be organic and dogmatic or based on the lectionary? These questions determine the success or failure of the program. Here I've laid out my formula for success - employ it at your parish and I think you'll get good results.

Remember to Check out our Free RCIA Notes and Outlines!

Pax.