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.