In the Catholic faith, the large majority of members enter the church community through the Rite of Baptism as infants and then, in their youth, complete the full process of their initiation by receiving the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confirmation. Obviously, not all Catholics enter the faith as infants. Some determine that as adults they wish to convert from another faith or from no active faith at all and become Catholic. Adults are welcomed to join the Catholic Church by participating in a process called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The Rite basically adheres to five steps.
- Inquiry. Adults are invited to pursue their interest in joining the Catholic faith by entering parish programs as “inquirers” who meet with fully initiated Catholics to explore the many aspects of the faith. Participation is in no way binding, is kept informal and is meant to allow interested adults to seek answers to their questions and concerns about Catholicism and to receive some basic information about the process of initiation into the Catholic faith.
During the inquiry phase newcomers are often paired with fully initiated Catholics from the parish who serve as sponsors and guides as the RCIA process continues.
After program leaders determine that sufficient time has passed for thorough inquiry, those participants who wish to continue on the road to full initiation will declare their intention to work towards that goal before the parish community at a Mass of Welcome. From this time forward participants are called “catechumens” and are actively prayed for by the faith community.
- The Catechumenate. Those who intend to complete the process of initiation into the Catholic church are referred to as catechumens. As a group, and often with their sponsors, the catechumens now begin to attend the weekly worship service at the parish church. They are welcomed to listen to the first part of the Catholic Mass which is known as the Liturgy of the Word. In this first section of the Mass they will join in an opening hymn, several community prayers, listen to scripture readings and hear the priest share a sermon.
When the Mass moves into the section known to participants as the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the catechumens leave the congregation and retire to a separate area where they spend time together reflecting on the readings and discussing key aspects of the faith. This phase of the RCIA process is unlimited in terms of time and can be continued until catechumens are judged ready to move on to the next phase.
- Purification. Customarily the period of purification begins at the beginning of the Christian celebration of Lent. What is a time of purification for the entire congregation is especially such a time for catechumens. Throughout each diocese all catechumens are invited to a Rite of Election held at the church or cathedral of the presiding bishop.
At the Rite of Election each catechumen is welcomed to his or her new status in the church. From now until they are fully initiated the catechumens will be known as “The Elect”. They have made their faith decision public by inscribing their names into the diocesan Book of the Elect.
During Lent the Elect will try to draw closer to God through prayer, sacrifice and service. They will attend three special masses known as the Scrutinies at which they will hear Gospel readings pertinent to their journey of faith. At each of the Scrutinies the entire congregation will pray for the success of their purification and their readiness to be initiated.
- Sacraments of Initiation. On the evening before Easter Sunday, Catholics celebrate the Easter Vigil. At this special liturgy the Church celebrates its continued growth as it welcomes the elect to full participation in the Catholic faith.
First the elect are welcomed to the baptismal font where the celebrant calls them by their Christian name and baptizes them by pouring water over their heads while praying the ritual words. Once the elect are baptized they are immediately confirmed in their faith by being marked with the sign of the cross with holy oil . Finally, the newly baptized and confirmed are now welcomed to remain with the congregation and finally share in the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the reception of communion for the first time.
Having received the three sacraments of initiation the catechumens are now full members of the faith community qualified to receive all of the sacraments of the Catholic Church and fully enter into all of its rites and ceremonies.
- Mystagogy. The period of the Mystagogy for newly initiated Catholics lasts from the Easter Vigil for fifty days until Pentecost. During this time those who have been received into the church meet to reflect on all that has happened in their spiritual life and to plan how they will immerse themselves in the daily life of the faith community. Though this phase of the process of initiation is relatively informal it is an effective way for new members to begin actively participating in a new community of Christian believers.
After Pentecost the newly initiated may still continue to rely on the help of their group leader, sponsors, priests and the whole faith community as they begin to take up the mission of Christian believers.