Lessons for vocation ministers from the RCIA

Lessons for vocation ministers from the RCIA

By Joel Schorn, c

Many vocation ministers today have noted a lack of basic formation in Catholicism on the part of candidates for religious life. The issues, says one vocation minister, are, first, “a lack of basic catechesis of even foundational teachings and traditions. The second is the challenge of discerning with those who are suddenly in love with Catholicism and have become deeply committed Catholics but interpret this is as a call to religious life.” Many candidates have not had much, if any, religious education since childhood and have little idea how the church has developed in the last few decades.

Like vocation ministry, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) deals with people who sometimes have only partial knowledge of the Catholic faith but who at the same time have experienced some kind of conversion and have expressed an interest in joining the Catholic community in some form. Both take people through stages of discernment, formation and initiation.

In this article I do not want merely to draw parallels between the RCIA process and discernment of a vocation to religious life, interesting though those connections may be. Rather, I would like to highlight some aspects of what happens in the RCIA that I think are relevant to the tasks of vocation ministers, especially as they work with candidates who may be lacking in basic Catholic formation.

Origins of the RCIA

When the Second Vatican Council called for renewal of the way adults entered the Catholic Church, it was responding in part to calls, first, from the church in developing countries where large influxes of people were seeking to enter and, second, from the church in places where people were lacking in basic knowledge and experience of the Catholic faith, such as Europe. The renewed rites of initiation of adults were also part of the council’s principle of turning to the early church as a source for present-day renewal. The new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults drew heavily on the early Christian process of bringing adults into the church— adult initiation, not infant baptism, being the norm in the early church. Also consistent with a return to Christian basics was the new rite’s emphasis on conversion and discipleship in the initiation process.

The new rite was to be a means not only of evangelization of potential new members, but re-evangelization of the whole church. It also made public what had been largely a private affair. The witness of participating in rites and other events would serve to reawaken in the rest of the faithful an awareness of their own involvement in the church.

Questions from RCIA for vocation ministers Those seeking to enter religious life today tend to be older than in the past and have a variety of life experiences. Do your vocation discernment efforts take their adult experiences into account and encourage them in Christian discipleship, eventually to be lived out in the church through your community?

When faced with candidates for religious life who lack basic Catholic knowledge and experience, it’s natural for a vocation minister to want to throw up her or his hands in despair. But this “deficit” can also be an opportunity. Longtime Catholics frequently express the wish that they would have had the kind of formation those in RCIA receive. While it will be more work to bring the under-catechized candidate along, is it not also a blessing and a huge potential benefit to welcome a person who, with zeal, has become a newly formed and newly informed Catholic before your very eyes? The effort will probably be worth it.

Are there ways for those interested in your community to re-energize your whole community? Can their desire to join you “re-evangelize” current members to reflect on the privilege, joy and responsibility of religious life, and therefore make your communities a more effective witness to candidates?

Evangelization and precatechumenate

The initial phase of the RCIA is called the period of evangelization and precatechumenate. The use of the word evangelization is a bit loose: it is not as if evangelization is confined to this period. In all likelihood a degree of evangelization has already taken place in the lives of the inquirers. Some combination of life events and God’s grace moved these women and men to step forward and express an interest in becoming part of the church. At this point evangelization primarily entails the response to what has happened to the inquirers The fact that these people are presenting themselves is also the result of the parish community’s outreach to potential inquirers through publicity, personal contacts, word of mouth and other means. In this sense, reaching out to possible new members really needs to be part of a parish’s whole evangelization effort, an effort that draws on Pope Paul VI’s words in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Evangelizing is, in fact, the grace and vocation proper to the church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize….”

But some spreading of the Good News also occurs in this period after the inquirers have come forward to meet regularly as a group with the RCIA ministry team. The precatechumenate is essentially a mutual “getting to know” period. The team previews the RCIA process, while the inquirers share their stories of what brought them to this point. The good news, both of the inquirers’ stories and of what the church has to offer, is shared.

The goal of the precatechumenate is to get to the point where the inquirers feel they have enough information about the Catholic way of life to make a decision about whether they want to continue, and the team feels it knows the inquirers well enough to affirm their readiness to move to the next phase. Any potential problems the inquirers may have can be discussed. Toward the end of the precatechumenate, if the inquirers are going to continue, a sponsor is found who will accompany them throughout the entire RCIA process. At its best, the precatechumenate is a year-round activity, not merely a feeder stage that comes up only once a year. Ideally a parish would have a precatechumenate group up and running all year.

The spirit of the precatechumenate is informal, noncommittal, nonjudgmental, hospitable and open. The RCIA team welcomes the inquirers and their interest without making them feel their showing up implies a commitment at this time. Inquirers should feel free to ask about anything or express any concerns they have.

Questions from the precatechumenate period for the vocation minister Do all the able members of your community see themselves as evangelizers, especially when it comes to attracting candidates? Does your community get out a vocation message in every way it possibly can, not only through the vocation office but in its ministries, on the Internet and in other media, and in every other place it presents its face to the world? Is your effort to attract people a year-round, ongoing activity, not confined to certain times or places?

Is the period of exploration with candidates one where you hear their story and tell them the story of your community? Is enough information exchanged so that both of you get to know one another enough to allow for both of you to make good decisions about further pursuing membership? Does your account of your community’s life provide a thorough introduction to that life?

Do your initial interactions with potential candidates have a spirit of informality and openness? Do the people you talk with feel they have the freedom to ask about anything they have on their minds? Are you nonjudgmental of people enough to avoid subtly discouraging them, as if you have already begun the “weeding out” process in your mind?

The catechumenate

With the celebration of the rites of acceptance and welcome, inquirers formally enter their preparation for full membership in the church. They become candidates (the baptized) and catechumens (the unbaptized).

As the name of this period implies, the focus of the catechumenate is catechesis, especially in the areas of message, community, service and worship. Within the given constraints on time and energy, the catechumenate is the time to offer as complete as possible a general education in the Catholic Christian faith. Many times the RCIA process begins from the ground up, starting with basic questions like who is God, who am I, and what is the purpose of my life? It can also use a Trinitarian and creedal approach that starts with what faith is and what it means to believe in God, the meaning of belief in Jesus and the Gospel he proclaimed, embodied and witnessed to, and the action of the Holy Spirit.

Once this foundation has been laid, one can move on to the nature of the church and its relationship to faith. Avery Dulles’ models of church as institution, mystery, herald of the gospel, community, and servant can be particularly helpful in this area. They provide a way to understand the church in its different dimensions and to see how those dimensions must be in balance for the church to function well. The models are also useful because they overlap nicely with the catechetical emphases on message, community, service and worship. And they also serve to introduce more in-depth discussion of Scripture, sacraments, the church as communion, prayer, liturgy, morality and social teaching. In addition to these topics, people in RCIA usually have questions regarding what Catholics believe about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, especially prayer to saints, and the hierarchical and teaching authority of the church.

Throughout the period of the catechumenate, the RCIA leadership team also looks for evidence of conversion on the part of the candidates and catechumens. Have their ways of thinking and acting changed? People going through RCIA are almost always in the process of conversion. Their conversion may have started before they entered RCIA—in fact, it may have brought them there—and it certainly should continue in RCIA and beyond. They entered the process at a certain stage of faith, which will hopefully continue to develop. They benefit when others acknowledge their progress and encourage them to continue.

At the same time, it is wise not to press too hard for signs of conversion on the part of the candidates and catechumens. As part of their conversion, they are leaving behind parts of their identity and moving into new ways of being. In these “liminal moments,” candidates and catechumens are somewhat exposed and vulnerable.

Questions from the catechumenate period for the vocation minister Might your discernment and formation processes, especially when you are dealing with undercatechized individuals, benefit from a “catechumenate” period? This could be a time in which the people with whom you are working go through a process of education in the faith tailored to their level of knowledge. Perhaps you could come up with a short but solid minicurriculum of Catholic studies. Would it help for your candidates to have a “sponsor,” someone from the community who would walk with them through their discernment process? The relationship could be as formal as spiritual direction, which many communities already utilize, or as informal as a friendly companion who has experience of religious life and can help the person discern his or her compatibility with it. Is the discernment process sensitive to your candidates’ stages of faith—as well as their capacity to grow? Do you acknowledge progress in your candidates’ discernment and encourage them in finding their vocation?

Purification and enlightenment

The Rites of Election (for catechumens) and the Continuing Call to Conversion (for candidates) mark the end of the catechumenate and the beginning of what is known as the period of purification and enlightenment. At these rites, the candidates and catechumens express their final decision to become members of the church, and the church, in the person of the bishop and the assembly, affirm their call to membership.

In this period the emphasis is not on catechesis in terms of internalizing information, but more on spiritual preparation for celebrating the sacraments of initiation. This period coincides with Lent, the Rite of Election usually taking place on or around the First Sunday of Lent.

As the elect approach full initiation, they use this period to deepen their spiritual connection with the church, primarily through growth in prayer, both personal and public. But, with the whole church, they are also deepening their relationship to the paschal mystery. They prepare for Easter, not only as the time of their initiation, but also as the celebration of the passion and resurrection of Jesus.

Throughout both the catechumenate and enlightenment periods, minor rites are celebrated in addition to the major rites. These include anointing and other blessings, scrutinies and presentations of the creed and Lord’s Prayer.

This period ends, as does Lent itself, with the Triduum and the celebration of the Easter Vigil. At the Vigil, as part of the initiation rites that with the liturgies of the Word and Eucharist make up the vigil, the unbaptized are baptized, confirmed, and receive communion with the rest of the assembly. The baptized are received into the Catholic Church, confirmed, and receive communion with the rest of the assembly.

Questions from the purification and enlightenment period for the vocation minister Do you offer a balance of education and spiritual preparation to those interested in being part of your community? Do you find ways to integrate education and spiritual preparation while giving each of these areas enough attention on their own? Is there a place in the discernment process for “minor rites”—informal blessings, presentations and so on— that would symbolize and celebrate the candidates’ journeys through discernment?


This Greek term means “entering into the mysteries” and refers to the period of reflection on membership in the body of Christ on the part of the newly initiated. It formally lasts from Easter to Pentecost, but of course it, like conversion, really lasts a lifetime. This period also presents an excellent opportunity for the newly initiated to find their place in the church community, whether that be in a parish group or ministry or simply settling into the vocation of being a practicing Catholic.

One unique thing the “neophytes” have to offer is what one writer on the RCIA has called a “charism for evangelization.” While, as we know, evangelization is the responsibility of all members of the church, the newly initiated’s experience of responding to evangelization, experiencing conversion and taking concrete and courageous steps to connect with a Christian community are fresh in their minds and hearts; and they may be able to share this experience with others in a special way.

Questions from the period of mystagogia for the vocation minister What efforts does your community make to help candidates, those in formation, or even those recently professed to find their place in the community’s life? Do the recently professed have an opportunity, such as a retreat, to reflect on what they have just experienced, or do they tend to plunge into ministry without looking back?

Have you ever considered asking the recently professed to take advantage of their experience by devoting some time to vocation work?


While forming and educating newcomers in the faith, the Rite of Christian Initiation often elicits profound, life-altering experiences. Catechumens and candidates grow, learn and are stretched. It’s not hard to find parallels in vocation ministry. Deep-seated transformations frequently occur during the process of discernment with a vocation minister. The discerner often discovers new depths and new identities within him or herself. RCIA offers vocation ministers fruitful terrain for reflection as they seek new ways to walk with those who turn to them in trust.

Joel Schorn is editor of VISION magazine, published by the National Religious Vocation Conference and TrueQuest Communications. He was part of a parish RCIA process for several years, both as a candidate and member of the ministry team. He is also the coauthor with Alice Camille of A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics (Loyola Press).

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