Part Two: Fully Initiated- Learning and Living our Faith through the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA)Read Now
I shared in Part One about the need for our Church’s pathway for those desiring to become Catholic, officially called the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA), to foster more than head knowledge of the faith and instead cultivate our call to communion through real-life holy habits and spiritual practices. Easier said than done!
In this post, I’d like to share a few ways we set out to alter the typical “classroom” paradigm—meeting for classroom teaching/discussion one night a week for six to nine months—by “pastorally engineering” a process aimed at personal belonging in the parish community and steady immersion into the mystery of faith through first-hand experience. As a matter of fact, that is what the liturgical text (the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults) is all about. Putting the words into relevant practice takes both fidelity and creativity. I don’t claim any “unprecedented” results. What I’m sharing is simply our “work-in-progress” attempts to try something different and maybe raise some discussion in your own contexts. If the OCIA process is new or unfamiliar, I hope this also gives you a better idea of what’s involved.
Stage One: The Period of Evangelization and Inquiry (Pre-Catechumenate)
People inquire about becoming Catholic at all points in the year (some parish OCIA programs meet all year round, but we don’t). I meet with them, listen to their story, share basic information about the OCIA process, and encourage them to get involved in parish life if they aren’t already. I then ask them to do two things to prepare for when our formal OCIA program begins (in October): 1) If not already, simply begin attending Mass every Sunday, and 2) Read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end.
In October, when OCIA sessions officially begin, we have class every Monday night up until the beginning of Advent. This Period (Evangelization and Inquiry) is entirely about the proclamation of the Kerygma and the basics of Christianity, no matter what stage or knowledge of faith. (Of course, each class goes into more depth and discussion as you would imagine).
The only readings I ask during this period come from the Bible- by this point (over two months), they will have read the entire Gospel of Matthew and other important passages of the Old Testament and New Testament. Each class includes teaching and doing a form of prayer together (e.g., Sign of the Cross, Examen, Lectio Divina, The Lord’s Prayer, etc.). We can’t just tell people to pray- we have to teach them by doing it with them!
Each Session is focused on a single question:
Week 1) Who is God?
Week 2) Who am I?
Week 3) What is Salvation?
Week 4) Who is Jesus?
Week 5) Why Did Jesus Die?
Week 6) What is the Resurrection?
The last session (7) on “Who is the Holy Spirit?” actually takes place during a 9am – 3pm group Advent retreat day on Saturday of the beginning of Advent (for the Annunciation). On this retreat day, which we celebrated at some Catholic historical sites in Baltimore, we also celebrated the Rite of Acceptance of Catechumens, which signals the transition to the next stage of OCIA. The Four Stages of OCIA are built around the Liturgical Year.
One more critical thing; before we move on to Stage Two of the OCIA, I ask them to select their sponsor/godparent. The sponsor is the most important individual for their OCIA journey. Their sponsor must be able to fulfill the program requirements, which beyond merely fulfilling canon law criteria, include attending Mass with them or their family every Sunday and Holy Day, and completing all of the “Missions” with them. Yes. For this reason, I effectively “require” their sponsor to be a parishioner. I do not assign sponsors, but, if necessary, as pastorally responsible, I will seek to introduce and create the relationship with a potential sponsor (disclosure: I haven’t had to do this yet). The impetus was our parish’s mentor-model marriage preparation program, but I simply see this as discipleship happening in pairs (Mk 6:7; Lk 10:1). I mostly refer to the sponsor as their companion (literally, “to share bread with).
Stage Two: The Period of the Catechumenate
This stage comprises the bulk of the candidate’s time and formation. Having gone deep into the Kerygma, we now delve into topics like What is the Creed? What is the Church? Who is Mary? and each of the sacraments. This Stage runs from the beginning of Advent to the beginning of Lent.
During this stage, the group stops meeting every Monday and meets one Monday a month. Instead, the Catechumen and their Sponsor are sent out “two-by-two” to accomplish specific “Missions” with their companion. Each “Mission” is designed to illuminate an aspect of the mystery of the faith by participating in that sacred time and space.
The Mission is accompanied by readings from Scripture, the Catechism, and the writings of the saints along with some reflection questions. (I do not use any “textbooks”- primary sources only!) I personally put together a workbook for each stage that I call “Field Guides” that simply contain the readings and, most importantly, the “Missions” I ask them to accomplish with their Sponsor.
By the end of the Second Stage, here is a list of what they will (in theory) have done together:
So, as you can see, even though we are not meeting in class every week, the participants are actively engaged, even more engaged than once a week class. Not to mention, this shifts the weight of pastoral responsibility and formation upon the sponsor—facilitating good memories and fortifying a deep bond of faith and friendship along the way. The Missions framework promotes a journey of faith built upon discovery and self-initiated learning. Imagine being an inquiring candidate or catechumen and having a trusted friend or mentor who performs and discusses these actions with you. That’s discipleship!
From a minister’s point of view, on a very practical note, this helps solve the problem of having to compete with Monday nights and schedules or doing “make-up sessions.” The participants must plan and complete all their “missions” on their own time. This way, no topic is (in theory) left uncovered. These “missions,” however, are not busy work or boxes to check, but ordinary Catholic practices that introduce the candidate (and sometimes their sponsor) into a Catholic way of life. They are engineered for immersion into the liturgical and communal life of the parish, diocese, and universal Church. It’s not merely talking about being Catholic, but simply going out and doing all the things that Catholics are called to do on a regular basis. We learn by living!
The requirement to “Pass Go” onto the Third Stage of OCIA is simply having completed these Missions and attended the monthly in-person Sessions that go into more teaching depth on special topics like the Eucharist and Holy Orders.
All these missions prepare the candidate and catechumen to participate in the Rite of Election at the cathedral, which happens at the beginning of Lent and signals the transition to Stage Three.
In Part Three (final) of this blog series, I will discuss Stage Three and Stage Four of OCIA and how this different paradigm has helped us foster a mentality of full initiation—both into the sacraments and the Parish Community and Universal Church—as the true goal of becoming Catholic.
Part One: Fully Initiated- Learning and Living our Faith through the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA)Read Now
The Easter Season is an opportunity to celebrate and reflect gratefully on the faith journeys of those adults newly received into “full communion with the Catholic Church” by participating in the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—at the Easter Vigil. The official process, typically covering 9 months to a year in most parishes, with origins in the Early Church, goes by the name of the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, or, O.C.I.A. (Most Catholics are familiar with “RCIA,” however the name has changed since the updating of liturgical texts).
OCIA is easily one of my favorite ministries to participate in and coordinate. Like any ministry, while filled with surprising joys, it also presents unique challenges that call for thoughtful renewal regarding our faith’s rich tradition and treasures. (Usually the joys and challenges spring from the same soil!) For example, each new group of candidates (baptized non-Catholics) and catechumens (non-baptized) includes a very wide range of cultural and educational backgrounds, motivations and levels of commitment, and personal/family situations to pastorally navigate. OCIA is not ministry terrain for impatient or intolerant Catholics.
We must face the reality that seeing our Church and parishes grow simply means learning how to make disciples “from scratch” through the challenging, beautiful work of evangelization and conversion followed by inviting and accompanying them into full communion with the Catholic Church. For adults who want to become Catholic, OCIA is the pathway. That means a robust OCIA ministry will be absolutely crucial in the future for parishes.
Some readers may be surprised, even disturbed, at the attrition rates of newly confirmed adult Catholics who not long after the Vigil do not return to Mass. It is not merely a failure of catechesis (truly, the same problem occurs at parishes with outstanding and Orthodox teaching). It is not the job of parish leaders to complain or blame. It is our problem—not theirs—to solve.
In the words of the late theologian Dallas Willard, “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.” That can be true of OCIA or any ministry structure.
This year, I decided to explore some new practices—attempting a small paradigm shift, actually—that I found rewarding both in terms of the overall formational experience/quality for the candidates and catechumens and even for the ministry leaders (including myself). It’s really nothing “new” at all; in fact, we followed more thoroughly and precisely the liturgical texts than ever before. I’d like to share a few of those practices, which admittedly are far from perfect. I even told my participants the truth from the beginning: I was experimenting with a new structure, it might be bumpy, there would be tweaks, and to provide me feedback along the way. (For the record, they were amazing, adaptable, and very forgiving).
Before that, let me say a brief word on this “paradigm” shift.
It begins with a theological proposition: We learn the faith best by living it (that is, actively participating in it). This is a pastoral truth succinctly expressed in the ancient liturgical axiom Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” I am ever more convinced that we need to move away from programs that merely tell people about God and the Catholic Church and instead facilitate sacred time and space to actually encounter and reflect on the experience of the mystery itself by practicing the different “means of salvation” (prayer, scripture, saints, fellowship, works of mercy) contained in the Church’s spiritual storehouse.
Most importantly, OCIA must be “pastorally engineered” to facilitate belonging in the local (parish), particular (arch/diocese), and universal church by gradually and steadily incorporating them into the holy habits and practices of faith in community. Those recent converts who fall away from the Church aren’t bad people and may have even learned much about the faith. Yet, even while receiving the sacraments, it’s as if they were not “fully initiated” at the basic human and relational level in which faith lives and grows. For the great success stories of those who do “catch” the faith over those months, there’s always another determining factor more relevant than class attendance.
Here’s an obvious but under-appreciated fact in parish programming: People live busy and complicated lives. For example, this year I have a married couple in OCIA together. They have three young children under age ten. Is it reasonable to expect both parents to attend class at Church every Monday evening from 7:00 to 8:30pm for six or nine months? I submit it is not, and it isn’t because they aren’t “committed” enough. We’ve had single parents who work nights and weekends, seniors who do not drive at night. Moreover, while I cannot deny it is an important element of a strong OCIA, the classroom approach does not habituate the practice of faith in everyday life. We need ministry systems that work with and for those whom we serve.
You may not personally be involved in OCIA, but I think it is worthwhile for everyone to become familiar with how the process works because it is truly a parish-wide ministry. If I am authentically fulfilling my baptismal call to be a missionary disciple and evangelizer, sooner or later every Catholic will find him or herself accompanying someone through OCIA, right? At least, every Catholic is responsible for fostering a place of belonging, a true family of God, when we receive our new brothers and sisters into full communion each year.
In Part Two of this post, I would like to reflect on some of the practices I tried this year in my parish setting that aimed to create a fuller participation in what it means to be Catholic for life.
January 1, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, one of the holy days of obligation in the Church. This celebration is a special way to celebrate Mary’s special role in God’s plan in the Christmas story, as well as a way to start the year full of grace, ready to tackle those New Year’s resolutions. Although the practice of New Year’s resolutions is not distinctly Christian, our resolutions gain a new significance when we attend to Mary’s story.
Discern Your Resolutions
The story of Mary’s call to motherhood is a paradigm of Biblical discernment. When Mary received Gabriel’s announcement, “She was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). In faith, Mary wrestles with God’s calling. Even after her great “Yes,” and giving birth, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), revealing she is still learning what her vocation means and how to live it.
What’s this got to do with New Year’s resolutions? Discernment is a spiritual, prayerful decision-making process between possible courses of action. What specific habits or practices is God calling you to work on this year? There are plenty of worthwhile resolutions—there’s a million things I need work on—but it’s just not all possible to accomplish in a year, or ever. Prioritize resolutions that strengthen your personal vocation.
Expect Without Expectations
Mary’s faith is “expectant” but without “expectations.” In other words, Mary expects God to act in her life, but doesn’t place limitations on who, what, when, and where. Mary trusts the angel Gabriel’s words, “nothing will be impossible for God” and is free to live and say, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:37-38).
Maybe God will bring about the outcomes of your resolution through unexpected ways or people. That’s the way it often works in scripture and the lives of the Saints. When you give God permission to act on his terms, you are free to boldly expect that God will do new and great things in your life this year.
Make Room For Others
Even free from original sin, God uses other people to accomplish his plan in Mary’s life. Mary’s story was made possible through her reliance upon truthful friends and family. Her cousin Elizabeth speaks truth and hope into her situation (Luke 1:42), and her husband Joseph goes to heroic lengths to let God’s call come to fruition.
Share your resolution with someone you trust. Whether it’s a major lifestyle change or not, ask them to keep you accountable, and always with prayer. Accountability also prevents goals from becoming purely self-centered or even idols from seeking God first (e.g., just to impress people at the beach). No one can accomplish your resolution for you, but you can find people to accomplish it with you.
Resolve to Live the Truth
Mary shows the true path by always making everything about Jesus. “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). A true personal change will always lead us to more fully reflect our true identities as sons and daughters created in the image and likeness of God.
But the truth is, sometimes resolutions are born of self-loathing or lies we’ve bought instead of the desire to more fully reflect God’s truth. This often happens with body or image-related resolutions; to be thinner, smarter, stronger, etc. While these aren’t de facto bad things, the tendency becomes seeking physical solutions for a spiritual or psychological wound that really needs healing. That’s why discernment with spiritual direction and honest accountability is vital. Exercise programs or supplements say we should consult a physician first- but it’s also true when it applies to spiritual exercises for our soul! Mary and the saints save us from spiritual self-medication, which close us off from the Divine Physician.
**This post was originally published on 12/30/2015.
I am grateful for the occasion to share just a few reflections on my discernment journey and priestly ordination during the pandemic, the “COVID class” of 2020! It was about one year ago—March 2020—with less than two months before graduation from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD and ordination scheduled for June when those plans began to change.
Like the many high school and college students preparing for graduation, my deacon classmates and I (and the rest of the seminary) were sent home to complete our coursework alone online. Like the many engaged couples preparing for their summer weddings and receptions, our priestly ordination dates were postponed and receptions cancelled. While trusting in God’s grace and purpose, how could I help but feel at least a little disappointed and even frustrated? And yet, therein lie some important lessons God wanted to show me about the life we are each called to live.
Every vocation—life’s path and purpose—begins by accepting our way is not always God’s way, and our time is not always God’s time (Isa 55:8-9). And yet, I’ve slowly recognized a great freedom in that fact. A vocation is not about “planning out” your life, or making sure things happen the “right” way. Life does not follow a predetermined script. A vocation is not an intellectual puzzle we work on and hope to “figure out” (or else fail…), but a stepping out in faith day-by-day. Vocation is more about letting go of the controls to be free enough to move in the direction God beckons. A vocation is always a dynamic response to God’s call from a place of freedom and love. And so, while a vocation does involve making a free choice, it’s not about calling the shots in life or predicting the future, but trusting God with the simple question, “where and what next?”
Due to the COVID lockdown of 2020, I realized the date and circumstances of my ordination were beyond anyone’s control. Some suggested having small, private ordinations so we would become priests “sooner,” even if we still couldn’t yet go out and serve in parishes, but respectfully, I personally disagreed with that idea. The pandemic re-affirmed my conviction that we were becoming priests for the people of God, not for ourselves. Compared with the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic, the waiting game was an easy burden to bear.
The background of the pandemic created a new context to reflect on what shape my life and ministry might take. In our society’s fixation on “finding our best selves,” the gospel-centered vocation acknowledges that “whoever loses his life for my [Jesus’] sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). Vocation is part of our personal participation in the great “mystery of faith,” the “Paschal Mystery” of Christ’s death and Resurrection the Church celebrates most powerfully in Lent and Easter. We cannot experience the true Jesus without both his Resurrection and Cross, and so every authentic vocation will have both its cross (struggle and sacrifice) and its resurrection (joy and victory). However you discern, expect your vocation in life to feel like both at times. Amidst the hardship of our world, a small taste of the patient suffering of the Cross leading up to my ordination turned out to be a small but precious gift not to take for granted.
For months during quarantine, I watched medical professionals and other essential workers care for the sick and deliver basic needs—the corporal works of mercy—on the local, national, and international stage. As a deacon waiting in the wings to be deployed to a parish, I felt primed to be sent and make an impact. But all I could do was stay home and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. That summer I did not feel heroic or “essential.” Having been fed a steady diet all through seminary of “the Church needs you!”, I had to accept it wasn’t my moment to be a hero or an influencer. My call was behind-the-scenes mission support, not leading the charge on the front lines.
Following Jesus’ instruction to “watch and pray” (Mt 26:41) as others experienced trial and suffering in hospitals and homes challenged me to rid myself of any pretensions of being a priest as being God’s biggest hero. Vocations—religious or secular—motivated by the muscular desire to save the Church/world and solve Her problems almost always end up hurting people in strongarmed attempts to fix whatever they perceive as broken. Before the Cross, there are times all we can or should do is “behold” the brokenness and hurt (Jn 19:26).
On the eve of ordination, that forced inactivity was excruciating, but it also drove home a humble admission behind every vocation: I need God more than God needs me. The Cross is essential to Jesus, and beholding Jesus in the sick and suffering, God became more essential to me. To “behold” is not to evade responsibility, but to see that our suffering does not go unnoticed and unredeemed. Not coincidentally, it is on the Cross that we truly see Jesus as our eternal High Priest, the model of priesthood, who is willingly sacrificed for the redemption of our sins.
And so, the experience of being ordained a priest during the pandemic, while full of spiritual and personal challenges, also became the occasion for greater reflection on my identity, vocation, and mission. The delay was not lost time, for any time spent with Christ in prayer or service is only counted as gain. I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ on August 22, 2020. Behold and follow the Cross, and who but God knows where it may lead!
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
For more resources to accompany you through the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.