Understanding the Catechumenate Process

Reflection by Father Anthony Uytingco

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, often called RCIA, is an effort to restore the spirit of early Christianity that emphasized conversion as a participation in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. In addition, the role of the entire community is to pray, witness, and teach the new members of the Body of Christ, thereby giving support and shape to the journey.

RCIA, as a process, involves a series of rites, conducted in the context of learning about the faith and spiritual formation, through which a person is fully incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church.

The Catholic Church, through the current Code of Canon Law, opens its doors to the admission of new members through the proper liturgical procedure as stated in Lumen Gentium #14: “With love and solicitude Mother Church already embraces them as her own.” Canon 851, §1, identifies the RCIA as the preferred form of preparation for adults seeking baptism:

“An adult who intends to receive baptism is to be admitted to the catechumenate and, to the extent possible, be led through the several stages to sacramental initiation, in accord with the order of initiation adapted by the conference of bishops and the special norms published by it.”

There are four stages in the RCIA process. The first stage is the Precatechumenate, or period of inquiry and evangelization; the Catechumenate, which is a time of serious and dedicated formation; the Period of Purification and Enlightenment, which coincides with the Lenten season; and Mystagogy, which lasts from Easter to Pentecost. All of these stages are marked by distinct liturgical rites.

Precatechumenate. This is the stage where individuals inquire about joining the Catholic Church and contact the parish about their interest and start attending inquiry sessions or meeting privately with a priest or a catechist. For some, who have engaged in their own study or attended Mass attentively and regularly, the precatechumenate might last months but depends on the spiritual readiness of an individual. Others who have less of a background in Catholicism or Christianity in general, may need more time.

There is really no set time period for the process of becoming a Catholic; different parishes and dioceses may set their own timetables. However, the Church makes it clear that what is important is not meeting a schedule, but instead ensuring adequate preparation. Some may require more or less depending on their spiritual readiness. Whatever precedes it, though, the Sacraments of Initiation should normally be celebrated during the Easter Vigil.

Catechumenate. It is during these periods of evangelization that the catechumenate can grow in their faith and discipleship under the pastoral guidance of the Church. This period starts with a Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, and
may be combined with a Rite of Welcoming for the Candidates in a mixed group of the unbaptized and the already baptized.

The catechumens proclaim their readiness to accept the Gospel, and the candidates declare their intent to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Usually, the sponsor signs the cross on the catechumen’s or candidate’s forehead, ears, eyes, lips, chest, shoulders, hands and feet as a sign of their readiness to bear witness to Christ with their whole lives. A Bible and a cross are also given to them.

Catechumens are brought to maturity in faith during this period through prayer, formal study of Church teaching, a deeper commitment to living the Christian life, and by witness of their faith in the world.

Catechumens are considered part of the Church and, therefore, formed to be members of the Body of Christ, and it is the responsibility of the entire parish, not just a few people, to participate in this formation through witness, support, and prayer.

To differentiate catechumens from the candidates, catechumens are those who have never been baptized. Candidates are those who have been baptized in other Christian denominations, and whose baptism is recognized as valid.

The Period of Purification and Enlightenment. This period evolved into what we know as Lent. This is the time wherein catechumens and candidates are in their final preparation for initiation.

Rite of Election is usually done in the cathedral of most dioceses, and it occurs on the First Sunday of Lent. Catechumens and candidates are presented to the bishop of the diocese. The catechumen names are written in a Book of the Elect, and the candidates commit to continuing conversion.

During the Period of Purification, catechumens participate in several rites during parish liturgies. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent are the Scrutinies, during which special prayers are offered for the catechumens, “to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good.” (RCIA, n. 141)

During the First Scrutiny or the week afterward, the catechumens are presented with a copy of the Creed. During the Third Scrutiny or the week afterward, they are given a copy of the Lord’s Prayer, in accord with ancient tradition, in which catechumens were not taught the words to the Lord’s Prayer until soon before baptism.

Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation. The Easter Vigil was really a journey from darkness to light, from death to life. This is the journey that new Christians share, as they descend and rise from the waters of baptism, in which they are reborn.

At the Easter Vigil, catechumens are baptized and confirmed; candidates are confirmed. The new Catholics complete their initiation by approaching the Lord’s Table for the first time to receive His Body and Blood, as full members of His Body at last.

Mystagogy. The final period of Christian initiation is called “Mystagogy” (from Greek, meaning “interpretation of the mystery”). It continues through the Easter season, up until Pentecost. During this period, the new Catholics, or “neophytes,” are “deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and … making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing the works of charity.” (RCIA, no. 244)

Throughout the RCIA process, the support and witness of the entire parish has been very important. That role continues during Mystagogy, as the parish welcomes neophytes and continues to offer them encouragement on their journey toward Christ.

There should be a continuous catechesis during this time, but the focus of Mystagogy is the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy, at which the neophytes, their sponsors, and the entire parish community hear the words of Scripture that focus on the life of the early Christians. They are nourished and unified in their new and growing faith by sharing the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is truly a journey of conversion for the person participating in the initiation process. This year we are blessed to have Alexander (catechumen), Michael, Chuck, Karley, Albert, Nancy and Cory (candidates), and by extension it can be a journey of conversion for the whole parish. That is, conversion happens if the parish fully embraces the process of initiation and walks the journey of faith with candidates for initiation. Supporting them, praying for them, witnessing their faith, and guiding them along the path, we cannot help but experience some kind of conversion ourselves.

Indeed, we Catholics believe that conversion to Jesus Christ is a lifelong and ongoing process. Thus, when we witness others changing their lives, giving up old ways of doing and being, and commiƫng themselves to Jesus Christ, it makes us want to recommit ourselves as well. And when the members of the parish recommit themselves to Christ, the parish is indeed renewed.