Q. I would like to know the appropriate duration for receiving instructions in the RCIA program. Some have told me that it is three years, other say less. (Ibadan, Nigeria)
A. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) is a process of education, faith-sharing and rituals for welcoming new members into the Catholic Church. The answer to the question “How long does it take?” is “It depends.”
Adults interested in becoming practicing Catholics are at varying stages in their understanding of the Catholic faith and in their spiritual readiness and so, as much as possible, the program of preparation must be tailored to suit the individual.
The RCIA process embraces three major groups: first, those who have never been baptized, called “catechumens.” Next, those who have been baptized in another Christian church, referred to as “candidates,” and, finally, those who have been baptized as Catholics as infants but who have never received any instruction in Catholicism (also called “candidates”).
The RCIA process is normally offered in a group setting; this opportunity for faith-sharing develops bonds among the catechumens and candidates and often results in small Christian communities, which continue to meet long after reception into the Church.
Though the RCIA is structured for the three distinct groups mentioned above, limitation in parish staffing and in the number of catechetical volunteers often results in a “one-size-fits-all” program of instruction and formation. Typically that program runs for about nine months, usually with weekly meetings. Some begin in September and end at Pentecost in the late spring.
The first few months focus on learning the Gospels and are considered as simply a period of inquiry; Catholic beliefs and practices are the subject of the next several months, with a view toward making a firm commitment to Christ and to the church. The next period coincides with Lent and is devoted to prayer, fasting and reflection, culminating in the Easter Vigil with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion. Finally, over a seven-week period, deeper reflection is given to the sacraments and the Catholic life.
Though the nine-month program may be the “core program,” parishes can and do adapt its length to suit individual needs. A woman who is married to a Catholic, for example, and who has been attending Mass with her husband for many years may need only a few individual sessions with a priest or adult education director before being ready to receive the sacraments.
On the other hand, a catechumen with practically no familiarity with Catholic faith and practice may require an extended inquiry phase of two or three years before feeling ready to commit to the sacraments. People have different starting points and have their own journey to make, and parishes do well to be flexible in sponsoring and guiding that journey.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.