Many non-Catholics trying to get acquainted with a parish quickly notice one oddity. If they ask a dozen parishioners how a person becomes Catholic, the immediate answer is “RCIA.” If they then inquire what that abbreviation means, they’ll get at least a few blank looks.
RCIA is the term Catholics use for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. While I was converting, I never heard anyone speak of it other than as “RCIA.” Only on class materials did I see the full name.
This rite has several phases to teach a prospective Catholic about the faith. Both individuals baptized in another faith and those who have never been baptized participate. The program is available in every parish and also open to Catholics who want to know more about their faith.
RCIA is really a journey. Seldom do all the individuals who sign up decide to convert. In most parishes, the program begins in September or early October. Those who wish to become Roman Catholic typically do so at the Easter Vigil, which takes place the night before Easter Sunday, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, the instruction in some parishes lasts several years.
Sometimes individuals who have already studied the faith or who cannot make weekly RCIA classes have the option of a private profession of faith and enter the Church after meeting with a priest.
History of RCIA
By the second century, the Church was under considerable persecution by the Roman Empire. In an attempt to make sure their numbers did not include pagans, heretics, or Roman agents, Christians instituted a careful period of instruction for new members.
Use of the long, formal process fell away with the legalization of Christianity in 313, says Holy Spirit Interactive. Two primary reasons were lessening of the fear of persecution and the common practice of infant vs. adult baptism. By the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, the required period of preparation was only 40 days.
The Church restored the formal program, known as the catecumenate for adults, as the result of Vatican II. RCIA is intended to not only prepare adults to become Roman Catholics, but also to help members of the parish renew their faith.
Individuals interested in learning about Catholicism contact the office of a parish to inquire about instruction. If they participate in RCIA classes, they are initially known as inquirers.
The parish provides the educational materials for RCIA. Each person who decides to enter the Church needs a Catholic sponsor. These days, it’s common for the parish to provide a sponsor if an individual doesn’t have someone in mind.
At the end of the inquiry phase, the individual who wants to continue participates in the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens with a public declaration of intent to enter the Church. He or she is then referred to as a catechumen.
To the consternation of many Protestants (I was one), individuals in the RCIA program may not receive Communion until they have been received into the Church. Only after completing the requirements and sitting in on a second RCIA program with a relative did I fully appreciate why.
The journey has a number of steps in which catechumens learn about Catholic faith and practices. They receive help and encouragement from their respective sponsors, the parish staff, and parishioners.
Most people enter the Roman Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil. This dramatic rite occurs after dark and is a service of light with parts of an ancient liturgy. Those who have not already been baptized in a Christian religion are baptized during the Vigil. All the candidates then receive a candle lit from the Paschal candle and white garments. The bishop or the parish priest then confirms them and offers them communion for the first time.
This is a summary of the basics of RCIA programs. They differ somewhat among parishes. However, as the term RCIA suggests, the foundation for all of them is Christian initiation, followed by knowledge of the Roman Catholic faith.