Breaking Open the Scriptures
It’s a cloudy Sunday morning in early February as I pull up outside of the parish center of St Vincent De Paul Roman Catholic Church. In the basement, a group of about a dozen young adults are gathered in a circle. I ease my way into the room quietly and sit in a chair at the back so as not to disrupt the conversation — which I soon discover, to my surprise, is about demons.
“So in Jesus’ day, people talked about casting out demons,” a blond woman in black-framed, hipster glasses is saying. “But now we talk about things like mental illness and addiction and stuff. So was Jesus actually curing mental illness? Were those demons even real?”
A tall man speaks up from the opposite side of the circle, saying, “I wonder about faith-healing and what it means to be really healed. People struggle with mental illness or addiction all their lives. Is the kind of healing Jesus did a sort of one-shot deal? Or is it temporary?”
“That’s an interesting question, one that the Scripture stories don’t really touch on,” says a third woman, who is the catechist and moderator of the discussion.
The blond woman sighs audibly. “I don’t want to dismiss Jesus’ healing power,” she says. “But I just don’t know how I feel about this idea of demons. It doesn’t really make sense to me. I don’t really like it.” The catechist nods in response.
This group is gathered, as they do each Sunday at St Vincent’s, for their weekly Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) catechism class. The RCIA program prepares people who are planning to convert to Catholicism. At this point in the class, they are in the process of “breaking open the Scriptures,” a time of conversation and reflection during which the group discusses the readings from that Sunday’s liturgy. Some are encountering these readings for the first time, having never participated in religious worship or practice before. Others who come from non-Catholic Christian upbringings may be very familiar with the texts; they ask questions about the Catholic approach to the reading of particular texts. I am watching from outside the group; I’ve been invited as a guest speaker to talk about Jesus in the gospels as this week’s topic of catechesis. By this time in the process, RCIA members have been meeting for months; they have created a safe space for inquiry, which is a pleasure for me to watch.
Conversion in a Secular Society
The RCIA program begins in the autumn, when people who are interested in receiving the Catholic sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist) start the process of inquiry into the Catholic faith. Those seeking baptism are called catechumens, while others, who have been baptized in another Christian tradition, are preparing to be confirmed and receive Catholic Eucharist, and are called candidates. The program of RCIA is a lengthy and at times intense process of religious education, liturgy, rites, and reflection, in which candidates and catechumens gather weekly for worship, catechesis, and community building. It culminates at the Easter Vigil when the candidates and catechumens receive their sacraments and are welcomed into full communion in the Catholic Church.
In a society that seems to grow more secular by the day, and particularly in a religious denomination that has been defined so greatly by scandal and controversy in recent years, one might think it unlikely that anyone would be interested in making such a significant time commitment just to become Catholic. Conversion seems counterintuitive, when the image of the “lapsed Catholic” is so well-worn in our culture. After all, there are so many good, solid, rational reasons to walk away from Mother Church. I talk to former Catholics about the pedophilia scandals, the outdated teachings on sexuality, the exclusion of women from the clergy, the branding of homosexual relationships as “disordered” and sinful. We discuss the fruits of our undergraduate coursework that have nurtured our sense of the rational, and incurred doubt and disbelief in our sense of the divine. And then there are more personal, pragmatic reasons: the priest is boring and judgmental, the music is painfully awful, and after working forty/fifty/sixty hours a week, who wants to get up early on a Sunday? For any or many or sometimes all of these reasons, young adult Catholics often find that the faith of their upbringing no longer applies to their lives. Some of them choose to make an active switch to another Christian denomination (or non-denomination, as the case may be). Far more often, however, the choice to leave Catholic practice indicates a choice to leave Christianity — indeed, religion — behind altogether.
Yet, in the midst of what might appear to be a mass exodus, RCIA continues to find a significant place in the Catholic Church. One can’t help but wonder why. Do these aspiring Catholics-to-be differ in some significant way from their dissenting brothers and sisters? Why is one group walking into the church doors just as the other group is walking out?
Do these aspiring Catholics-to-be differ in some significant way from their dissenting brothers and sisters? Why is one group walking into the church doors just as the other group is walking out?
The Engaged and the Enquiring
As someone who has taught RCIA groups for several years now, in my experience the most common response to such a question inevitably revolves around preparation for marriage, namely marriages in which one party is Catholic and the other is not. A desire for a “united front” along religious lines is an oft-cited reason for considering conversion. This desire may — and ideally does — stem from the non-Catholic spouse. I’ve also encountered individuals who have been rather forcibly encouraged to convert by their future in-laws, who have very strong feelings about the religious upbringing of their grandchildren. Catholicism is most definitely a family affair, and the “united front” is a treasured ideal.
Some might be tempted to write off RCIA as an extension of marriage preparation specifically designed for couples of different religious backgrounds, and possibly even question the authenticity of the choice to convert under such circumstances. But while it is true that the majority of people I have worked with in RCIA classes have been engaged or married to a Catholic, it’s not as large a majority as one might think. I myself was surprised by the number of people who came to RCIA by way of their own personal spiritual exploration, and the variety of their backgrounds and experiences with Catholicism prior to their decision to convert. A young woman in her mid-twenties with no prior religious upbringing was inspired by reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in college. A former heroin addict had been drawn to the Catholic faith in the course of his rehabilitation and recovery. An undergrad from DePaul came from a non-practicing Catholic family, and was looking to incorporate faith practice more concretely in her life. A thirty-something consultant told me about his mother’s ardent Catholic faith, and how she wanted him to choose to come to the sacraments himself, rather than make the choice for him.
Even among those who are choosing to become Catholic to align with their Catholic fiancés or spouses, I’ve encountered a wide variety of experiences that have inspired them to consider Catholicism. There certainly are cases, though, in which the candidate or catechumen is reluctant at the start of the process. In such cases one feels the benefit of having an extended process of catechesis, in which the participant is encouraged all along the way to reflect on whether conversion is the right decision. Some choose to bow out mid-program. But many choose to stay and wrestle with the questions that arise over the course of the year, and these participants are often the ones who get the most out of RCIA.
And opportunities for such wrestling abound. The most challenging and yet most gratifying aspect of my work as a catechist is fielding questions regarding the “rough spots” of catechesis: namely, points on which Catholic doctrine specifically differs from teachings of other Christian churches, as well as major Catholic blunders through history. These include questions regarding confession, the role of Mary, natural law, papal infallibility, and the Crusades. Purgatory is always provocative; everyone wants the scoop on the Catholic “waiting room to get to heaven.” And there’s the inevitably awkward conversation when I get up in front of a group of young adults, many of whom are cohabitating with their future spouses, and explain why the Catholic Church forbids premarital sex and artificial contraception. I’ve always had to psych myself up for that class beforehand, and prepare for the inevitable (and perfectly logical) question about the moral difference between using a condom and Natural Family Planning.
Ancient and Contemporary
But RCIA has been designed to incorporate this kind of wrestling with difficult questions into the process of becoming Catholic, which is a reflection of the ancient catechumenate rituals that go all the way back to the Church’s earliest centuries. Indeed, RCIA is an interesting hybrid of contemporary and ancient approaches to Catholic catechesis and conversion. Up to the 1960s, conversion to Catholicism was almost exclusively reserved for non-Catholic people who were marrying a Catholic. It was a quick and quiet process, designed to make the controversial proposition of interreligious marriage tidier and safer for the continuation of Catholic practice in the family. In the wake of Vatican II, however, Catholic catechists recognized that this process was not in keeping with the Council’s emphasis on values of community, lay participation, and even tradition. Thus was developed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which is derived almost entirely from the ancient practice of the catechumenate. The language of the official rites of acceptance, election, and the reception of the sacraments at the Easter Vigil is lifted verbatim from the ancient rites as they have been preserved. The communal format and extended timeframe of catechesis also finds its foundation in the ancient practice. The format for RCIA is at once steeped in tradition and reflective of contemporary attitudes toward Catholic practice, which, for many, is a big part of its appeal.
Typically the greatest appeal for those participants who choose to stick it out through the long and intense RCIA process, however, is the excitement and sense of fulfillment they experience in becoming a member of the Catholic Church. There is a sense of newness, of belonging, and of moving toward something good. This, I believe, is the draw of conversion for those who want to become Catholic, and it is quite distinct from the things that draw people away from Catholic religious practice. New Catholics talk to me about the joy of belonging to something bigger than themselves, and the excitement of beginning a new phase of their lives. Above all, they describe how happy they were to receive the Eucharist, after preparing for such a long time. The culmination of the process at the Easter Vigil is quite potent, as the participants embrace their new Catholicism after a long period of contemplation.
I wonder whether the positive experience of growing in knowledge and faith in community could potentially outweigh the many reasons contemporary Catholics cite for leaving Mother Church behind.
The first year I helped teach RCIA, I remember being at the party after the Easter Vigil with the RCIA class and the other parishioners, where we celebrated until well after midnight. I was amazed by the level of excitement and energy among everyone there, and the sense of community that the experience inspired among the congregation. I thought to myself, I wonder what the Catholic Church would look like if every adult, even those who had received their sacraments as children, had to go through the process of RCIA. I still wonder that sometimes, whether the positive experience of growing in knowledge and faith in community could potentially outweigh the many, many problems contemporary Catholics cite as their reasons for leaving Mother Church behind.
After I had finished my presentation at St Vincent on Jesus in the Gospels, I was packing up my things and getting ready to leave when one of the candidates approached me. He had been animated in asking questions during my talk, and he wanted to thank me for coming. He was concerned that he might have been too forthright in his questioning about purgatory. I laughed and told him he certainly wasn’t the first to question it. He shared a bit of his background with me, which included mainline Protestant and non-denominational worship communities, and how attending liturgy with his Catholic wife had inspired him to join RCIA.
“I love the Mass,” he said, full of enthusiasm. “It’s so beautiful and rich, I just felt I wanted to really become a part of it. And I’m having such a good time here.”
I smiled back at him, equal parts knowing and envious. “Good for you, man,” I told him, truly meaning it. “Good for you.”