Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program prepares new Catholics for their faith journey

by Paul Braun | New Earth

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Bishop Folda welcomes a family at the Rite of Election held Sunday, March 5 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. (Kristina Lahr/New Earth)

“And now, my dear catechumens, I address you. Your own godparents and teachers and this entire community have spoken in your favor. The Church in the name of Christ accepts their judgement and calls you to the Easter sacraments.”

With these words, Bishop John Folda of the Diocese of Fargo officially welcomed new candidates to declare their intention of joining the Catholic Church, and asked them to sign the document of enrollment, making them members of the elect to receive the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. The Rite of Election is held each year on the first Sunday of Lent at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo, where those who wish to join the Catholic faith are sent on their Lenten journey towards full communion with the faithful.

Getting to the Rite of Election ceremony is a process that usually starts at the local parish level just after Labor Day. The process is called RCIA, or Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and is based on traditions and teachings dating back to the first years of the Church’s existence in Rome (although the modern rite we use today was revived after Vatican II in the early 70s).

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Catechumens and candidates gather at the Rite of Election service. (Kristina Lahr/New Earth)

“Ultimately it’s about a journey of faith and their journey with Jesus Christ,” says Deacon Les Noehre, who supervises the RCIA program at Holy Family Church in Grand Forks. “We start with some of the foundational items right away, like who is Jesus, why did he die for us. So it goes in depth from the very beginning.”

The process of joining the Catholic Church can take upwards of eight months, starting in September and culminating with the Easter Vigil Mass. Candidates may be in various stages of their faith lives.

Unbaptized – These are persons 18 years of age or older who have never been baptized into any Christian denomination, who are then asked to follow the process to help them grow in their awareness to God’s call to conversion. These people are called “catechumens,” and will be baptized and receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion.

Baptized in another Christian Church – These are Christians baptized in another Christian denomination and are seeking full communion with the Catholic faith. These people are called “candidates.” Candidates will receive the sacraments of confirmation and first communion.

Uncatechized Catholics - There are people who were baptized as an infant, but then never received catechetical instruction nor the sacraments Confirmation or First Eucharist. If, when they are in their teenage or adult years they desire to receive Confirmation and Eucharist, they take part in certain elements of the RCIA process to prepare them.

“RCIA is always an invitation,” according to Father Matthew Kraemer, who serves as the Director of the Liturgy Office for the Diocese of Fargo. “We always ask, ‘does the person want this?’ We don’t proselytize; we evangelize through learning about the gospel and coming to conversion. You really have to be committed to this. This is probably the biggest decision you’ll ever make in your life. It’s a life-changing decision. It’s a matter of your salvation, so the process must reflect that.”

According to the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the RCIA process is made up of four periods: 1) Evangelization and Precatechumenate, 2) Catechumenate, 3) Purification and Enlightenment, 4) Postbaptismal Catechesis (Mystagogy). The length of these periods may vary. When a person’s search leads them to discuss the possibility of becoming Catholic, they have a conversation with a parish priest or RCIA director. Under the guidance of the priest or director, they may become a candidate and look to be accepted into the Order of Catechumens. This is done through the Rite of Acceptance. This Rite takes place in the midst of the parish community where the candidates state their desire to begin the journey of faith. The parish assembly welcomes them and the candidates become “catechumens.”

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Monsignor Brian Donahue, Pastor of Holy Family Church in Grand Forks, offers First Communion to a new member of the Church at Easter Vigil Mass in April 2016. (Submitted photo)ospice of the Red River Valley with theirH

The period of the catechumenate may vary depending on how God is leading the catechumen on the journey. During this period, the catechumen learns the meaning of the sacraments, and reflects on what God is asking of them in the Scriptures. They will also learn the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and the responsibilities they will take on as believers.

“The RCIA program is really a returning to the beginning of the Church,” says Father Kraemer. “Initiation is just that…there’s a process to become part of something. Since the beginning of the growth of Christianity in society and the culture, there has been a process for becoming a Christian. This process we have now goes back to Roman times, when becoming a Christian carried with it the consequences of possible persecution, so there had to be a seriousness to the process, which is still carried through today.”

When the parish priest and the RCIA team, working together, agree that the catechumen is ready to make a commitment to the Catholic Church, the catechumen will make their request for Baptism at the celebration of the Rite of Election. The Rite of Election is usually celebrated at the cathedral with the diocesan bishop presiding. The catechumens gather with their sponsors and families and publicly state their desire to enter the Catholic Church. Their names are recorded in The Book of the Elect, and they are now “the elect.”

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A catechumen for admission to the Catholic Church signs the Book of Elect and becomes an “elect” of the Church. (Kristina Lahr/New Earth)

The stage of the RCIA called purification and enlightenment, takes place during Lent in preparation for celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation during the Easter Vigil. For the elect this is a period of prayer, further study, and spiritual direction. Finally, at the Easter Vigil the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist) are received and the elect become fully initiated as members of the Catholic Church, called “neophytes.”

“We are providing information in RCIA that’s for the head, but that’s really not the intent of the information we give,” says Deacon Noehre. “It’s really food for the heart. It’s amazing to watch God working in people’s lives and how they change throughout the course of the program. I see it over and over again, but I’m still amazed to see people literally change before my eyes.”

The process continues for the new neophytes for 50 days after the Easter Vigil through a post-baptismal catechesis called Mystagogy. They are led to reflect on the experience of the sacraments they have received, and through that, to come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word and what it is to live in communion with God. Those of us who are cradle Catholics have received Mystagogy through our CCD classes, confirmation classes, and in many instances, through a Catholic school education. This is also a period for new Catholics to learn what it means to be an active member of the parish community. As a new member, they continue to learn while having opportunities to participate in the Church’s mission of serving others.

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Bishop Folda receives candidates and their sponsors at the Rite of Election at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. (Kristina Lahr/New Earth)

“If RCIA is done well, it’s learning the content of the faith, like the laws and teachings,” says Father Kraemer. “That’s important because we don’t want to be ignorant, but then we have to live our faith. What is it to experience Christ, to experience his sacrifice on the cross, his resurrection and his presence in the Eucharist? This is the continued learning of our faith. For an RCIA program to be successful, this Mystagogy must be part of the process. It’s important to support these new people who have entered the Church. They need help to continue in their faith, it’s not just go through the program and now you’re Catholic. That’s something that the parish community can do, is to be there to support them.”

Mystagogy played an important role in Deacon Noehre’s decision to become part of the clergy. Deacon Noehre is a convert to Catholicism, and the RCIA program and continued learning afterwards helped him to answer Christ’s call to serve.

“My wife, Annette, is a cradle Catholic, and my children were baptized Catholic and went through the sacraments, so I thought it was time to unify my family and go through the RCIA and become Catholic,” says Deacon Noehre. “That was my motivation. As the process went along I realized my motivation was actually my relationship with Jesus Christ, and that’s what really unified my family.”

On Saturday, April 15 at Easter Vigil Masses across the diocese, at least 31 Catechumens and 68 Candidates entered full communion with the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Fargo. As stated by Bishop Folda in the Rite of Election; “Each of you has been called by Christ; he has invited you and wants to be a part of your life. Thank you for saying yes to Him.”