The road to joining the Catholic faith begins with RCIA

Mon, Feb 27th 2017 09:00 am
Staff Reporter
St. Padre Pio Church of Oakfield's faith formation coordinator, Megan Nixon, left, speaks to Shauna Marsceill of Elba, who is in the process of converting to the Catholic faith. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)
St. Padre Pio Church of Oakfield's faith formation coordinator, Megan Nixon, left, speaks to Shauna Marsceill of Elba, who is in the process of converting to the Catholic faith. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)

The reasons people choose to be Catholic are many. Some join the faith for a spouse. Others join after years of seeking a fill for a void. Many find comfort in the sacraments.

For those who decide to follow the 2,000 years of tradition in the model of Jesus Christ, the way to become Catholic is through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, an experience that immerses people into the parish life.

The process should take at least a full liturgical year, according to Sister Barbara Schiavoni, GNSH, associate director for the Department of Lifelong Faith Formation.

The journey begins with a period of inquiry, an informal time of starting to learn and experience the Church. Sister Barbara describes it as a "come and see" period where the catechumen, an unbaptized person, attends Mass and talks with the parish RCIA team to answer questions.

"You're invited into a process that allows you to learn about the faith and try it on and experience the faith and experience the community of other Catholics, and see if that is comfortable and is where God is calling you," Sister Barbara said.

The process is not a series of classes where the person only learns about the Church. Rather, it's a period of immersion where the catechumen does some reading and discussion to learn the history, traditions and meaning of the Mass, but also they also are encouraged to attend Mass and meet others and become part of the community. The whole parish is meant to be the body that welcomes and shapes the person in the Catholic faith.

"We're forming people to be lifelong disciples. We're working with head, heart and hands," Sister Barbara said. "So that people understand the faith, but more than that, they have a love of Jesus, a love of God and the Church, and that they put their faith into action."

If, after discernment, the catechumen decides to continue, the next step is referred to as the Catechumenate. There is a ritual at Mass for the unbaptized catechumens, the Dismissal Rite. They are dismissed from Mass after the homily to go with an RCIA team to reflect on the readings and homily, and apply it to his or life.

"This is a time when they really get to know Jesus. They've heard the Gospel. They've heard the priest's homily. They talk with other folks. Hopefully there is a group of catechumens in a parish," Sister Barbara said. "This whole process is meant to help people really make their faith an integral part of their life."

At this time, catechumens learn of Church teaching such as to be in solidarity with the poor, support the right to life, and ask for social justice and equality. "Seeing how Jesus cared for the poor in His day, that helps us decide how we're going to act. We want to help people make connections between their faith and situations they encounter in their lives," said Sister Barbara.

On the first Sunday of Lent, Catechumens become the "elect" at the Rite of Election, a diocesan celebration for catechumens and candidates - those baptized in other Christian churches. Those who have been preparing to become Catholic come together with the diocesan bishop and their sponsors or godparents, and the parish teams that have been helping them to prepare and pastors are with them. After a reading and a homily from the bishop, catechumens will be called by name, with their sponsors with them, to sign the Book of the Elect. The bishop accepts the people preparing in the name of the Church. Candidates seeking full communion are also called, but do not sign the Book of the Elect.

"It's really an exciting celebration because you have people from all over the diocese coming together. In each parish, there might be just a small group of folks preparing, but they're now with folks from all over. There are upwards of 600 people who come to this. It's really exciting for the candidates and catechumens to see other folks from all over who have been preparing like they have," Sister Barbara said. "It reinforces that the Church is this worldwide body of people who believe in Jesus."

Then they begin preparation for sacraments, called the Period of Purification and Enlightenment.

"During the whole time of Lent, they're preparing for their baptism, and for their Eucharist and confirmation in a more focused way. This Period of Purification and Enlightenment is a time of spiritual preparation," explained Sister Barbara.

The scrutinies and exorcism happen just before baptism. They include prayers to help the elect to be strengthened in his or her conversion.
During Lent, the elect are encouraged to participate in Liturgies, Stations of Cross and Holy Week Masses where they will reflect on Passion, death and resurrection of Christ.

"It's a gradual intense process of really helping someone to be incorporated into the faith. It's really an apprenticeship," said Sister Barbara.  

For baptized candidates, the process can be longer or shorter depending on where they are in their faith life. They can be accepted into the Church nearly any Sunday of the year, not just the Easter Vigil.

St. Padre Pio Church in in Oakfield, a small parish with 388 members, usually sees only one catechumen per year. This allows the program to be tailored for that person.

"What I try to do is build a program based on where they're at. I've never worked with a huge program. It's usually always been maybe four at the most," explained Megan Nixon, the religious education coordinator.

She currently works with a young lady who married a Catholic husband and had her kids baptized in the faith, and now wants to join herself.

Nixon finds people who can explain aspects of the faith that concern them. One woman is devoted to the rosary, so she joins to pray the rosary when they talk about prayers. A deacon will talk about Holy Orders.

"It can be an opportunity for a lot of faith sharing with people in our Catholic community and this new person coming in. I think it's important that we are integrated in and meeting the people in the parish so it is a community they feel welcome in."

Nixon has been helping people become Catholic ever since she joined the Church 11 years ago.

"I wasn't any faith. I had never really gone to Church or done much. I looked around the community. A lot of the people that I looked up to were going to the Catholic church which happened to be across the street from me," she said.

A friend invited her to an RCIA class, which Nixon recalls as being very welcoming.

"I think people are seeking to be a part of a larger community that is based in caring for others and strong morals, and finding support for all the craziness that is going on in their life," she said.

In the crazy busyness of today, people are looking for quiet and support.

"I think it's what people see in strong practicing Catholics that draws them to, 'Hey, I want that,'" Nixon said.

Patrick Knowles Jr. lives in West Seneca and has been attending Catholic churches his whole life even though he was never baptized. He has been married in a Catholic church and had his daughter baptized, but has never gotten around to becoming a member himself. "We attempted to do it when we got married," he said, "but life takes over."

One problem was his construction job often took him out of town, making it difficult to dedicate time to his studies. He found the RCIA program at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna could accommodate his schedule. Now he sees his fellow catechumens on Wednesday nights, and hears from priests and instructors who teach the history of the faith, the saints and explain the Mass.

"It's not classes. It's more or less like a study group," Knowles explained. "It's great. Everyone who is in the class is great. It's nice to see them every week. They're not technically instructors, but the ones that are in charge of the class, along with Father Sam, then the other fathers who come in to teach certain parts of the program, they're real personable. They really help explain the process of not only the RCIA, but also any questions we have, and I guess, the teachings from the Old Testament and the New Testament. So, it's very informative when I go, and I get a lot out of it."

There is no homework, but there are readings, and catechumens are asked to discuss what they feel about the readings.

Knowles, 32, enjoys the program. "Prior to this program, I would go to church and I would feel empty because I didn't really know a whole lot about it, and I really wanted to learn all the ins and outs and the history, how to navigate through the Bible and the Missalettes, really being part of the community. For me it's great. It's like, life changing," he said.

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