The Rite of Christian Initiation a brief history
The Rite of Christian Initiation is an ancient rite that dates back to the 1st century. In the early Church, persons wanting to become Christian lived in a small Christian community to learn their way of life. There was a structured apprenticeship of the person in training. This process became known as the "catechumenate". After sometimes years of learning and praying with the community, the person (called a catechumen) was baptized by the community into Christ.
By the fifth century, the catechumenate began to dissolve because Christianity had been legalized in 315 A.D. by the emperor Constantine and large numbers of people had become Christians. Infant baptism became the norm.
Revival of the catechumenate came about as a result of the Second Vatican Council, which called for it to be reinstated. In 1988, the U.S. bishops mandated that the Rite of Christian Initiation be implemented in all parishes.
Today, the RCIA is the normative way of forming new disciples of Jesus Christ and welcoming new members to the Catholic Church.
The process of RCIA
Catholics believe the journey of faith is lifelong and ongoing process of conversion. We are all constantly being challenged to live a Christian life. New life in Christ is a gradual journey of many steps and stages. The RCIA has four formal stages with key rites or ritual actions along the way. The four stages are the pre-catechumanate, catechumenate, Lenten period of purification and period of mystagogia. A sponsor and a team of parishioners and staff accompany those who participate in the process.
People who have never been baptized in any Christian denomination are referred to as "catechumens". Those who were baptized in a Christian denomination but now which to make a profession of faith in the Catholic Church are called "candidates". Thirdly, the RCIA involves those who were baptized Catholic but never received any formal training or other sacraments of the faith.
This stage is a time of inquiry. It begins formally when a person calls the parish to ask about becoming Catholic, but it really begins when a person first hears the Good News of Jesus Christ. Usually a friend, family member, co-worker or spouse has shared their Catholic faith with the individual and they in turn want to know more. During this first phase the parish helps the inquirer to discern what it is they are truly seeking. It is a time to learn more about the Catholic faith but not necessarily make a commitment.
The Rite of Acceptance is the first major ritual celebrated during the RCIA. Usually celebrated during Sunday Mass, the rite includes the public welcome of the inquirers by the parish. They declare their intention to continue on the faith journey and are accepted into the Order of the Catechumens. This completes the pre-catechumenate stage.
The second phase or step of the initiation process is an extended period of time when those to be initiated receive more formal training in the Catholic Christian way of life. During this stage, they learn more about the Sacred Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church. They attend Sunday Mass where they are dismissed from the main assembly after the homily to meet with a catechist to discuss the Scriptures they heard at Mass.
When they have experienced a true conversion they celebrate the second major ritual in the process, the Rite of Election. This ritual, which usually occurs on the first or second Sunday of Lent, is celebrated with the entire diocese. The catechumens have been elected by God to move toward reception of the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. The parish celebrates the Rite of Sending the catechumens to the bishop for their admission to the final period of preparation for the sacraments. The Rite of Election takes place at the cathedral with the bishop presiding and is marked by the catechumens signing the Book of the Elect.
Period of purification
The final period of preparation is one of reflection and prayer that usually coincides with Lent. This is a retreat-like time of final discernment rather that teaching. Three purifying rituals, known as Scrutinies, strengthen the elect by helping to purify and enlighten their conversion. They are presented with the Lord's Prayer and the Creed during this stage.
The Sacraments of Initiation are celebrated at the Easter Vigil after sunset on Holy Saturday. Baptism (for the unbaptized), Confirmation and Eucharist are all celebrated in this most holy of all the Church's liturgies.
Period of mystagogy
After the Easter celebration the process continues through the Easter season. The word "mystagogy" means to deepen our understanding of the mysteries of our faith. The "neophytes" (newly initiated) continue to gather to deepen their understanding of what it means to be a Catholic Christian and discover their particular mission within the Church community.