“How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being?” – St Athanasius
“There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education….” – G. K. Chesteron
This is a longish post, but I want to address a largish topic. If you teach or lead RCIA, or are going to, or are in a position to help organize the RCIA offerings in your parish, this post might be for you.
First, for those who don’t know about RCIA: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is an important part of the process whereby an adult convert enters into the Catholic Church. The minimal goal of RCIA is to prepare an individual to enter the Church in such a way that the basic dogma and doctrines, expectations and requirements of the Catholic Church are understood by the catechumens (those going through the process). The bigger goal is to foster a growing love for Christ and His Church. Typically RCIA takes anywhere from 8 to 12 months, sometimes though it takes up to two or more years. RCIA is not absolutely required, but it’s an expectation unless a good case can be made otherwise. A well taught RCIA course can be a real blessing.
I went through RCIA prior to entering the Church. What I got for RCIA was not really what I wanted or needed. I felt it could have been far better. I had already done a fair amount of studying and research long before I decided to become Catholic. So my RCIA became a rather bland formality. However, I am no expert on RCIA, I have never taught or lead an RCIA class or program, and I only have my experience and a few observations I’ve made of other RCIA programs from afar. Based on that experience and those observations, and on being someone who is deeply interested in this topic, and on having taught other kinds of courses elsewhere, here are my thoughts on what might make a good RCIA program.
Be passionate. RCIA leaders should probably be somewhat obsessed with the territory covered by RCIA. The ideal RCIA leader is someone for whom Church dogma, doctrine, practice, and the such are infinitely interesting. They should be eager and willing to take on any question, discuss any topic, and have lots of deep and broad knowledge. I do not believe they have to be trained (I’m not sure that’s a requirement) but they should know and love official Church teaching. This is not about being an “expert” proclaiming wisdom from on high. It’s really about being a passionate student of the subject, and eagerly wanting to continue that education by including others.
Know that your catechumens will likely have done some homework. In other words, someone who is converting from another faith or “version” of Christianity, will likely come already curious enough about the topic at hand that they will have already done a fair amount of reading on the topic. Some of that studying may be of good stuff, some might be not so helpful. It can be a really huge thing for a Protestant to become a Catholic. It can be huge for anyone. Not unlike, but perhaps even bigger than, getting married or choosing citizenship or starting a new company. Protestants inherit a laundry list of anti-Catholic positions and prejudices. Converts will need to deal with these, and that will require study. If you are a cradle Catholic and can’t see what the big deal is, then maybe teaching RCIA is not for you. I mean no offense.
Know something about who’s coming. Are they former Protestant’s? Or from another religion altogether? Are they former agnostics or atheists? Every person is unique, and will know a certain amount of truth and falsehood about the Church. Some will have done extensive research and could nearly teach a course on Catholic apologetics, and others will be wide-eyed newbies. Some will be relatively uneducated, and some may have advanced degrees. Some may be more or less blue collar, and some white collar (whatever that means these days). And some will be eager to be there and others may be there only to please someone else. All will have unique questions and desires for what RCIA will mean for them. Never, never, never invalidate their previous experiences, religion, life choices, etc. All truth is God’s truth. Find what is true in their experience and build from there.
Consider carefully your curriculum. I assume many RCIA leaders use some kind of RCIA guide or manual to teach from. Probably most of these resources are good and well thought out. However, none will match exactly your needs or the needs of your catechumens. Do not be afraid to change the curriculum to suit the need. What if you have catechumens with a science background, what if you have artists, or teachers, or business people? They may all respond to different approaches and/or materials. Make the right changes, but make sure the core is still presented and no dogmas are altered. Be orthodox, but be a human being teaching other human beings. Find what will work best.
Be organized. I will hazard a guess that a lot of RCIA programs are poorly organized. This is not to say there is no plan, or calendar of events, or basic curriculum. But I can imagine that many churches, running on underpaid and volunteer labor, without the pressure of having to please paying customers, or meeting government standards for testing, etc., become a seat-of-the-pants operations running largely on the good will of limited church staff. Catechumens, however, should be able to know what is going on, what is coming up, what the expectations are, who they can contact with questions, and where this will all lead. There should be a syllabus, including a calendar of topics, a reading list, a sheet of times and places, resources, contact info, and anything else a normal person with common sense would want to have in hand when they enter into the process. Plan your work, work your plan. This is not only basic, it is more loving to all those participating, including guest speakers.
Don’t water it down. Teach the Church’s teaching straight up. If someone does not want to hear it or believe it, they might not be ready for it. That’s okay. They also might be in the midst of their journey to the truth, examining and wrestling, with their previous knowledge or their hearts putting up defenses. Let that happen. Encourage it. Support the process. But stick with the truth, don’t water it down. But keep this in mind: Your job is neither to push nor pull someone into the Church. It is walk beside them as a friend, mentor, confidant, and guide. Accept catechumens where they are and encourage them to keep going towards the truth. Allow them to flail and fail with the hard stuff. Let them be human. Don’t give up on them. But teach the Church’s dogma unapologetically.
Don’t be scared of the hard stuff. There might be a temptation to think that if the hard stuff (whatever one might think that is) is out there in the open, then several possible bad things will happen: a) inquirers will walk away, b) discussions will become heated, or c) you will quickly be over your head. All this may happen. Let it happen. Try to guide the group wisely, with love, but these are adults. If they do not know there is a reason people generally don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company, now they can learn. If they don’t know that the Catholic Church has dogmas that don’t change, practices with long traditions, and many strongly opinionated members, now they can learn. And being a Christian is not a little thing.
A word on the sex abuse scandal. For some this terrible wickedness within the Church is the only, or the biggest, stumbling block to entering the Church wholeheartedly. You must have a good response. This is not about defending the Church, or having a pat answer, or even trying to change anyone’s feelings. Any one of those responses could easily become offensive. Rather, it is about being honest, listening, and being able to see the scandal for what it truly is. And it’s also about offering the Church (and Christ, its head) as the answer. I wrote my personal thoughts on it here, and why, with all that wickedness, I still chose the Catholic Church.
You don’t need all the answers. Faith is not a test of knowledge. No one will enter the Kingdom of God because they got a perfect score on some doctrinal SAT. The same is true for entering the Church. No one knows it all. More than this, the process of education is where the teacher (better: tutor) and the student learn together. Be willing to say, “I don’t know” a lot. However, if you find yourself saying , “I don’t know” a lot, perhaps you need to do better prep work.
Do your prep work. Don’t come unprepared. If possible, teach from a place of abundance. RCIA should not be a time when you show up, open your book (if you are using an RCIA book/guide), and say, “Well, let’s see what we have for today.” Even cracking the book the night before is too little too late. Know the topic at hand as best you can. Plan how you are going to teach it. Consider the kinds of questions someone will have. Be able to give clear answers. If you need to, and you probably should, you can read out loud directly from key Church texts, such as the Catechism, or encyclicals, and let them stand on their own. Always, always, always have Bible passages ready to provide a foundation for the teaching as well. If you don’t know that Protestants (even those converting to Catholicism) will tend to judge everything you teach from the perspective of what the Bible says, then know this is true. Be able to answer why the Catholic Church sees scripture as part of tradition and not against it.
Communicate clearly and often. Everyone should know of any changes to the schedule, who to contact with questions or concerns, and where to get info. Have a web page or Facebook page dedicated to the course, with the syllabus, calendar, contact info, etc, easily accessible – and actively monitor those sites. No one should ever show up and find out the course is not happening that week (several times I showed up to my RCIA only to find it had been cancelled and no one was told – I found that disrespectful). And no catechumen should send an email or leave a voicemail and not get a reasonably quick response. Many in RCIA are also professionals in their “regular” lives. This means they act, and expect others to act, with professional courtesy. They are used to how things work in the “real” world and within organizations that get things done and serve others. Too many churches seem to throw professionalism out the window merely because they are churches. I don’t know why, but don’t let the inherently laid back, amateur nature of church life lead to lack of basic courtesy to others. Also, RCIA members should be able to easily explain (and provide resources) to the curious on how to get involved. Provide them the info they need to do that. The converting are sometimes good evangelists.
[See the end of this post for a brief digression on church web sites.]
Give homework. Do not fear telling catechumens they have reading to do. Give them lots of reading. Have them read sections of the Bible, of the Catechism, of encyclicals, of a great book on being Catholic and its claims, or something pertaining to a particular dogma. Make the syllabus available early so they can read ahead. Give them work to do. Also give them projects to do – such as go ask people they know about the Catholic Church, or about Christ, or about sin, etc. Have them come back with their reports on what they heard, and use that for discussion and a lead-in to the Church’s teaching. Tell them to watch a film, or a television show that deals with an upcoming topic. Don’t let them off easy because you fear that any amount of hard work will drive them away. I would have welcomed a lot of homework (maybe I’m strange). I got nothing. That was a big let down. Give them work, but make it relevant. Key: chose homework that is worthy. Forget lightweight, easy to digest, pre-chewed reading. Give them red meat. If they struggle, then coming to clarity will be part of the discussion. Don’t forget literature, poetry, song lyrics. Don’t forget research. Ask them to come prepared to share. Put a little pressure on them. RCIA should not be merely an exercise of sitting through “x” number of classes so one can get one’s Catholic merit badge. And don’t forget to actually discuss the reading or project that was assigned for that class.
I have compiled a few online resources and lists of good reads here. Share them with your class.
Don’t forget Goodness and Beauty. There are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Often RCIA is essentially about Truth – what does the Church believe, what are its dogmas and doctrines, etc. But people are drawn to the Catholic Church for various reasons. Coming from the Protestant world I was drawn to the call to holiness and the history of art in the Catholic Church, to its prayers and liturgy, as well as its doctrines. Keep in mind, Truth is not greater that the other two. All three transcsendentals intertwine and any one leads to the other two. All express the character of God, and of what we are called to. Various practices in Catholic piety should be presented and discussed. Art should be presented and discussed. Have the catechumens read fine literature, listen to fine music, look at fine art. Bring in some beautiful work of music, for example something by Palestrina, hand out the lyrics with both the original (usually Latin) and the English translation. Listen to the piece and then discuss it. Discuss the design of traditional church buildings and what they mean. Read a poem in class, for example something by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then dig into it. Pay attention to beauty. Discuss the lives of saints. Ponder their actions and commitment to holiness and how that played itself out in their lives. Teach how to pray. Give them novenas to pray. Show them how to make a prayer alter at home. Schedule a hike with the class and get outside into nature. Use that time to discuss the beauty of nature and how it expresses the Divine Law. These are normal aspects of God’s goodness and grace poured out to us. All RCIA leaders should be lovers of holiness and beauty, and not truth alone, as though being Catholic is merely accenting to a list of propositions.
Consider how you teach. Not everyone has a philosophy of teaching, but it is good to at least think about what teaching is, and how one is to approach it. Consider the approach to teaching that was common prior to the industrial revolution. With that revolution, and all that modernity has wrought, the goals of education changed from developing virtuous and complete human beings to workers who can produce in order to help the economy. That pre-modern approach is often called classical, though I would merely call it human – as in it conforms to human nature (something denied by modern man). Okay, I realize this is a big topic, and potentially overwhelming. So first, read these two blog posts of mine to get a better idea of what I am saying, and how truly simple and human the classical approach is. Note: these were written with homeschooling in mind, but the principles are universal.
Consider St. Paul’s approach to education.
I hope these posts helped make clear what I am getting at. Also, keep in mind the basic classical assumption that education tends to follow a kind of interweaving course that begins with the grammar stage (basic building blocks of knowledge), followed by the dialectical stage (discussing, even arguing, about the assumptions and interconnectedness of the building blocks of knowledge), then concludes withe the rhetoric stage (being able to express ideas and defend them). Naturally these stages do not flow strictly in sequence like dominoes falling. Rather, there is always a constant back-and-forth interplay between them, but the basic idea is solid. It is also how we most naturally learn every day. For example, when we take on something new at work, we first must learn the basics, then we wrestle with them in the context of work, then we become experts and can teach others. This process can happen for weeks or years, it can happen over hours as well. It depends on the subject and the learner. Organize each class, though, with this process in mind.
Something else: Consider the seven laws of teaching: In 1886 Gregory authored the book The Seven Laws of Teaching, in which he asserted that a teacher should:
- Know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach; or, in other words, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
- Gain and keep the attention and interest of the pupils upon the lesson. Refuse to teach without attention.
- Use words understood by both teacher and pupil in the same sense – language clear and vivid alike to both.
- Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.
- Use the pupil’s own mind, exciting his self-activities. keep his thoughts as much as possible ahead of your expression, making him a discoverer of truth.
- Require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning – thinking it out in its parts, proofs, connections, and applications til he can express it in his own language.
- Review, review, REVIEW, reproducing correctly the old, deepening its impression with new thought, correcting false views, and completing the true.
Follow these seven laws as best as you can and your RCIA class will almost assuredly be a success.
Evangelize. Remember that RCIA is a form of evangelization. It is, fundamentally, the “process” whereby a Catholic teaches and mentors non-Catholics in the ways and means of the Catholic faith, with the goal that the non-Catholics will eagerly enter into the fullness of the Christian faith with sufficient knowledge to comprehend what they are getting into and why. Fr. Robert Barron has his Seven Keys to the New Evangelization. They are:
- Lead with the beautiful – it’s an excellent gateway to goodness and truth.
- Don’t dumb down the message – dumb is dumb.
- Preach with ardor – a little passion goes a long way.
- Tell the great story – connect the Gospel to all of salvation history.
- God does not need us…and he loves us anyway – God’s grace and mercy are utterly and perfectly selfless.
- We are made for God – forget wealth, pleasure, honor, and power. Only God satisfies.
- Use the new media – Proclaim the Tradition of the Church with the communication tools of the day.
Don’t get caught up in right/left politics. The Church all too often has been burdened by giving in too much to whatever political landscape has the day. This is true in the U.S. and elsewhere. Politics are not unimportant, but they both pale in comparison to the weightier issues of faith, and they tend to steer one away from the far more radical Catholic position – which begins and ends with Christ, not with conservative or liberal positions. Still, some catechumens might bring politics and other divisive social issues into RCIA. Gently steer away from those things. Don’t let them dominate the class, even if you find them interesting yourself. Leave it for after class discussions. Also, be prepared to give a clear answer why RCIA is not the place for political debates. And yet, if someone asks a direct question on the Church’s position for a given issue (e.g. abortion, marriage, contraception, are just three biggies), give a straight answer. But don’t belabor it. Don’t give your opinion. Don’t suggest the Church is wrong even if you have doubts about official Church teaching on a particular topic (though if you do have doubts, then ask yourself if you should be leading RCIA). Also, be clear about what is Church teaching and what is not. Avoid making up an “official” position if the Church doesn’t have one. I can’t stress how important it is to not let RCIA become a political discussion group. Remember: Unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things.
Finally, thoughts on the way it was. Warning: Opinion ahead! This is where I disagree with what I have heard about some of the typical uses of the Baltimore Catechism in the past (often brought up as though to say, “back in the day we really knew our catechism” as though that meant really being Catholic.). From what I understand that catechism is a basic question and answer approach that lays out the grammar of the Catholic faith in a very step-by-step, concise manner so that catechists can memorize it easily. Rote memorization used to be a common part of education, and one’s grandparents or great-grandparents probably had this kind of education. So far, so good. Rote memorization is something good we lost with the coming of modernity. But grammar is only the beginning. There needs to be the dialectic stage, for that is where a person wrestles with the grammar, digging deeper, being challenged, taking ownership. Then the rhetoric stage is where one can speak about it from a position of knowledge, even teaching others what they know. That is when one can truly say they understand. And it is a life-long process. Learning and growing never stop, unless one becomes comfortable in a kind of bland arrogance, no longer really considering what one believes. Too many older Catholics got their grammar, but did not advance beyond it (though many also did). A grammar-only education means one’s convictions may not be based on truly knowing the subject, but rather on a parroting faith supported primarily by either familial pressures or strident cultural identity rather than true belief – both of which can be bowled over by shifting cultural trends (such as the 1960’s and the sexual revolution). It also means one is less able to pass on that faith in a meaningful way, thus jeopardizing the next generation. On the other hand, a grammar-less education sorely lacks the basic grounding in Church doctrine and the fundamental language of the faith. The baby boomers might fall into this category, having shrugged off the “trappings” of their parents for the freedom of “if it feels good do it.” I do not know where generation X (my generation), or the millennials fall. Regardless, the goal is not merely to catechize, but to evangelize. RCIA should not be only about getting folks into the Church, but to draw them closer to Christ.
So that’s my take on teaching RCIA. Let me know your own thoughts and experiences. Thanks.
A brief digression on church web sites: Most churches (Catholic and Protestant) have rather poor web sites, and no Facebook pages. If they do have sites at all they are poorly maintained, badly designed, and look like Web 1.0 technology. This screams “old.” Sad, but true. Of course, much of the time a church web site exists only because someone has volunteered to create it and maintain it. And that takes a lot of work. Regardless, what I have observed mostly with Catholic Church web sites is that they are designed primarily by people who may be somewhat technical, but have bad design skills and little knowledge of the current web design offerings. Perhaps no one else volunteers to take over because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And not meaning to slight anyone, but the sites also seem to be built for people who learned a few Internet skills eight or ten years ago and are still a bit confused. I do not mean this as an offense, but it is the younger (and middle aged now) generation that lives online, and church web sites often do not cater to them. Remember, the elderly still prefer to pick up the phone and call the front office anyway. If you want to attract a broader crowd then one’s web site should look good, be well organized, have relevant information, and kept up to date. The church should also have at least a Facebook page (even FB is now older technology, but still functional) and a Twitter feed. These sites should all be coordinated to carry and send the same information. Ask yourself, why is it only the elderly who seem to keep the church running and do all the volunteering? There are many reasons, including their wisdom and love for others, but perhaps it’s also because many youth get no information on what’s going on from their church because the church doesn’t use the media of the age well or at all. How many of your youth are getting regular church updates on their smart phones? How many searching college students would find your church appealing (speaking their language) by merely looking at your web site or FB page? Consequently, one’s RCIA program may not attract anyone because the first, and last, thing people see about your church is its web site. People are searching online these days, not knocking on doors.