RCIA Dismay

A friend’s father called the other day and announced that, after many years of staying away from the Church, he was finally going to seek instruction in the Catholic faith. It was a moment of tremendous joy for his daughter. And yet the next moment is always the hardest: Where will he get instruction? To whom can we safely send him? Where can an intelligent adult in America today go to get instruction in the faith that won’t send him running away screaming from the Church in agony?

This is a terrible question to have to ask, but it comes up nearly every time one hears about someone who has decided to come into the Church. Great! But uh-oh, they’ll first have to “get through” the miserable gauntlet of RCIA classes, in which they’ll likely learn next-to-nothing about the Catholic faith, or at least nothing they don’t already know and know in a more adult fashion than they’re likely to have it presented to them. One often hopes for them merely that they can “weather the storm.”

I suppose it’s true that if they’re not tough enough to bear up under the annoying obstacles thrown in their way by most RCIA programs, then perhaps they’re not ready for the kind of martyrdom the Catholic faith requires in contemporary American culture. But if we were going to put deliberate obstacles in the way of people converting to test their resolve, I wish those obstacles had at least something to do with the kind of serious existential decision involved in becoming Catholic, and weren’t the kind of obstacles that arise when people make the Catholic faith seem like something for eight-year olds or left-over hippies from the seventies.

I can remember very distinctly when I was in high school, and not at all Catholic. I had a number of friends who were “Christian.” I liked them. Now and again, I would go with them to their “youth ministry” get-togethers, and I thought: “This is all very interesting.  Not for me, of course, but pleasant enough I guess – if you like waterfalls, guitar music and all that.”  I never particularly liked sitting around a campfire singing guitar music, nor am I a big fan of s’mores, so quite naturally I assumed: “I’m just not very religious.”  “Religion is okay for these people,” I thought; “it’s just not for me.” 

It wasn’t until later in my life, when I started to read the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, that I started to realize: “Hey, this Catholicism; they’ve got some people who can think.  Maybe there’s something to this.”  Then I had the privilege of mixing with some people who actually took their Catholic faith seriously – life and death seriously. They were intellectually serious and existentially engaged. It was intoxicating.

      St. Ambrose addressing the young St. Augustine (Tiepolo, c. 1750)

Unfortunately, when it came time to take RCIA, the local parish priest, who was a very nice man, but not altogether on the ball, told my friend Paul (a future priest of the Oratory) and me that, because we were going to be out of town for several weeks during the semester, we would have to wait to enter the Church for another year. We were devastated.

Fortunately, we were able to go to a nearby Dominican priory and get instruction from a Dominican Master of Sacred Theology, the remarkable Fr. Benedict Ashley. He began at the beginning of the Creed with “God the Creator” and worked his way along, item by item, without notes and nearly without pause, except to ask if we had any questions. We had a few, but he had ready answers. It went on for hours. Paul and I were exhausted, overwhelmed, and completely hooked. It still ranks as one of the most impressive intellectual displays I’ve ever been privileged to witness.

My instruction in the faith was dramatically different from the many horror stories I’ve heard since:  “The leader of our RCIA class said we don’t have to accept the Immaculate Conception. Does that sound right to you?”  Or: “Our RCIA teacher told us not to worry about the Church’s teaching on contraception and homosexual marriage, and that soon they’ll be accepting women priests. Is that true?”  No, and no; they’re both wrong. But both stories are all too familiar.   

In too many parishes, “Religious Education” is done by just about anybody in the parish other than a priest, no matter how insignificant their training and no matter how short a time they’ve been Catholic. Why is that? We send young men who want to become priests to four years of training in college-level philosophy and then four more years of training in graduate-level theology. And then, when it comes time to teach people the faith, we call the sweeper in off the streets to raise up the next generation and educate them in the faith. For the most part, the highly trained theologian is nowhere to be seen. St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, did the catechism classes himself.  Take a look at his wonderful little book The First Catechetical Instruction, which shows exactly how he did it.

What is the priest doing?  Many important things, but often things for which he has little or no training at all:  Raising money, making up budgets, dealing with committees, paving the parking lot, re-insulating the church building, etc. He’s doing things that are best done by laity trained for those jobs. He’s doing everything but doing catechesis for the next generation of Catholics so as to secure the future of the Church. Am I missing something here, or are we making some rather odd investments of our time and resources?

Please pray for my friend’s father. He seems authentically interested in joining the Catholic Church. The question now is whether his resolve is strong enough to survive the RCIA “ministry” bureaucrats of his local parish.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.