How 150,000 people join Catholic Church each year

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A catechumen being anointed with oil before baptism. Photo by John Ragai via Flickr Creative Commons

A catechumen being anointed with oil before baptism. Photo by John Ragai via Flickr Creative Commons

There are nearly six million Americans who have joined the Catholic Church as adult converts. As a group, these converts total about as many as all of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormons). There are more Catholic converts than both the Assemblies of God and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) combined.

Adult converts typically join the Catholic Church on Easter, but their initiation begins much earlier. Since 1988, most converts have joined the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This rite is one of the outgrowths of the Second Vatican Council and has become an important part of life in many parishes.

Wake Forest sociologist David Yamane has studied RCIA and how it works in local parishes. His book, Becoming Catholic, chronicles not only the details of RCIA as a modern initiation rite; he looks at differences in how different parishes teach the “same” material. In congregations with lower incomes and lower education levels, the details of the faith are often taught through lectures and question & answer sessions. In parishes with higher socioeconomic status, catechumens engage in more participatory classes that include discussions, prayer, and liturgy.

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Regardless of the parish, there are four periods of initiation. Here is how Yamane summarized these stages:

Period 1: Evangelization and Precatechumenate

The opening stage of the RCIA process is intended to introduce individuals to the Catholic faith and to answer questions about it. Also during this period individuals are paired with sponsors, members of the church who will accompany the individual on their journey toward initiation.

Ritual Transition 1: Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens

Those who decide to continue in the RCIA process go through this first of three major ritual transitions. During a liturgy individuals are asked to affirm their acceptance of the Gospel of Christ and the assembly is asked to affirm their support of the candidates. The passage to the status of “catechumen” is then ritually enacted by the priest, catechist, or sponsor tracing the sign of the cross on the forehead (and often also the ears, eyes, lips, chest, shoulders, hands, and feet) of the candidate.

Period 2: Catechumenate

This is the main time of formation for those seeking initiation. The purpose of this period is to give catechumens “suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life” through catechesis, community, liturgy, and service (RCIA, no. 75). Once catechumens are ready to receive the sacraments of initiation they must publicly declare this and go through a ritual transition to become one of the “elect.”

Ritual Transition 2: Rite of Election

Typically held the first Sunday of Lent and presided over by the bishop, this ritual brings together individuals in the RCIA process from the entire diocese so that for the first time the candidates are able to see and experience the church writ large. In this rite, God “elects” those catechumens who are deemed ready to take part in the sacraments of initiation and who affirm their desire to do so. The candidates’ names are enrolled in the diocesan “Book of the Elect” which is countersigned by the bishop who declares them ready to begin their final period of preparation before initiation.

Period 3: Purification and Enlightenment

This period focuses on spiritual preparation for the rites of initiation and coincides with the 40 days preceding Easter, known as the season of Lent. As part of their spiritual cleansing, the elect undergo three public “scrutinies” which typically involve prayer over the elect and an “exorcism” enacted by a laying on of hands by the presider. The elect are also ritually presented the text of the Nicene Creed and Lord’s Prayer. At the conclusion of this period, the elect undergo the most significant ritual transition: the reception of the sacraments of initiation.

Ritual Transition 3: Reception of the Sacraments of Initiation

This moment of incorporation—literally becoming part of the body of the church—normatively and most often takes place during the Easter Vigil, what Augustine called “the mother of all holy vigils.” In and through this ritual, individuals receive the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and eucharist) and in doing so become Catholic.

Period 4: Mystagogy

This is sometimes called the period of “post-baptismal catechesis” because it seeks to lead the newly initiated more deeply into reflection on the experience of the sacraments and membership in the church. It is a springboard from the RCIA community to the broader church community.

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