On Holy Saturday, the Catholic Church in the United States receives tens of thousands of men and women in to the Church. Parishes welcome these new members through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). A ceremony bringing men and women into full communion with the Catholic Church. Below are some questions and answers related to these events:
- What is the RCIA?
The RCIA, which stands for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, is a process through which non-baptized men and women enter the Catholic Church. It includes several stages marked by study, prayer and rites at Mass. Participants in the RCIA are known as catechumens. They undergo a process of conversion as they study the Gospel, profess faith in Jesus and the Catholic Church, and receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist. The RCIA process follows the ancient practice of the Church and was restored by the Second Vatican Council as the normal way adults prepare for baptism. In 1974, the Rite for Christian Initiation for Adults formally was approved for use in the United States.
- What are the steps of the RCIA?
Prior to formally beginning the RCIA process, an individual comes to some knowledge of Jesus Christ, considers his or her relationship with Jesus Christ and usually is attracted in some way to the Catholic Church. This time period is known as the period of evangelization and precatechumenate. For some people, this process involves a long period of searching; for others, it is a shorter time. Often, some contact with people of faith and a personal faith experience leads people to inquire about membership in the Catholic Church.
After a meeting with the pastor or a member of the parish RCIA team, the person, known as an “inquirer,” may decide to continue the process and seek acceptance into the order of catechumens. The inquirer stands in the midst of the parish community and states he or she wants to continue the process and become a baptized member of the Catholic Church. The local parish assembly affirms his or her wish and the inquirer then becomes a “catechumen.”
The period of the catechumenate can last for as long as several years or for a much shorter time. It depends on how the person is growing in faith, what questions and obstacles they encounter along the way and how God leads them on this faith journey. During this time, the catechumens consider what God is saying to them in the Scriptures, what changes they want to make in their life to respond to God’s inspiration and what membership in the Catholic Church involves. Catechumens have a special connection to the Church and, even though they are not yet baptized, they also have certain rights in the Church.
When a catechumen and the parish team working with them believes the person is ready to make a faith commitment to Jesus in the Catholic Church, the next step is the request for baptism and the celebration of the rite of election. This rite includes the official enrollment of all the names of those seeking baptism at the coming Easter Vigil. On the first Sunday of Lent, the catechumens, their sponsors and families, and members of the parish gather at the cathedral church and the catechumens publicly request baptism. Their names are then recorded in a special book and they are no longer called catechumens, but “the elect.” The days of Lent are the final period of purification and enlightenment leading up to the celebration of initiation at the Easter Vigil. This Lenten season is a period of intense preparation marked by prayer, study and spiritual direction for the elect, and special prayers for them by the parish community.
The third formal step is the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. It takes place during the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday night, when the catechumen receives the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist. Now the person is a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church and will continue to live out his or her response to God as a member of this faith community.
After the person is initiated at the vigil, another period of formation and education continues in the period of the postbaptismal catechesis, which is called “mystagogy.” This period continues at least until Pentecost and often longer. During the period of mystagogy the newly baptized members reflect on their experiences at the Easter Vigil and continue to learn more about the Scriptures, the sacraments and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In addition, they reflect on how they will serve Christ and help in the Church’s mission and outreach activities.
What is meant when people refer to men and women coming into “full communion with the Church”?
Coming into full communion with the Catholic Church describes the process for entrance into the Catholic Church for:
- Men and women who are baptized Christians, but not Roman Catholics. They receive the sacrament of confirmation and make a profession of faith bringing them into full communion with the Catholic Church (but they are not baptized again).
- Men and women who are Catholic, but have not received the sacrament of confirmation. They receive confirmation, which completes their initiation process. They to make a profession of faith bringing them into full communion with the Catholic Church (but they are not baptized again).
To prepare for this reception, the people who are called “candidates” usually participate in a formation program to help them understand and experience the specific teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. Some of their formation and preparation may be with catechumens preparing for baptism, but the preparation for candidates is very different since they already have been baptized and committed to Jesus Christ, and many of them also have been active members of other Christian communities.
- What is the Holy Saturday rite like?
The Holy Saturday Liturgy begins with the Service of Light, which includes the blessing of the new fire and the Paschal candle, which symbolizes Jesus the light of the World. The second part consists of the Liturgy of the Word with a number of Scripture readings. After the Liturgy of the Word, the candidates are presented to the members of the community who pray for them and join in the Litany of the Saints. After the Litany and prayer for the elect, the presider blesses the water placing the Easter or Paschal candle into the baptismal water. Those seeking baptism then renounce sin and profess their faith, after which they are immersed into the baptismal water three times with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In some situations, the water may be poured over the head of each candidate.
After the baptism, the newly baptized are dressed in white garments and are presented with a candle lighted from the Paschal candle. The newly baptized are then confirmed by the priest or bishop who imposes hands on their heads and invokes the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints them with holy oils called sacred chrism.
The Mass continues in the usual fashion. Now, the newly baptized participate in the general intercessions in bringing their gifts to the altar and they share in the offering of Christ’s sacrifice. At the Communion of the Mass, each of the newly baptized receives the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood, for the first time.
- What does the white robe symbolize?
The newly baptized are dressed in a white garment after baptism to symbolize they are washed clean of sin and are to continue to walk in this newness of life.
- What does the candle symbolize?
A small candle is lit from the Easter candle and given to the newly baptized as a reminder to always walk as children of the light
- What does the sacred chrism symbolize?
The sacred chrism or holy oils is a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to the newly baptized. Also, it is a sign of the close link between the mission of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who comes to the person with the Father in baptism.
- Why was this ancient rite restored?
It was restored in the Church to highlight the fact that the newly baptized are received into a community of faith, which is challenged to realize they, too, have become different because of this new life in the community.