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.