Mandated for updating by the Second Vatican Council which occurred from 1962 through 1965, the RCIA or Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was revised and restored by the Church in 1972. National statutes for the United States were approved in 1986 and finally mandated for use in September of 1988. Prior to 1972 the format for those entering the Church was a convert class or individual instruction by a parish priest. Thomas Merton, Twentieth Century convert, monk, and prolific writer, who more than anyone else brought me into the Church, said about his own conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Story Mountain, "six weeks of instruction, after all, were not much, and I certainly had nothing but the barest rudiments of knowledge about the actual practice of Catholic life."
In a dramatically shifted focus since that time, men and women, responding to an often inexplicable call, are welcomed into the local parish community and offered an opportunity to deepen their experience of conversion and response of faith to the Word of God which has begun to infuse their lives. This represents a restoration of the ancient practice of initiation into the Church through a process of discerning and ritualizing stages of conversion, leading to sacramental initiation through Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharistic celebration at the Easter Vigil.
In this process, conversion is the operative word since it means a "turning" or transformation of the whole person's life, not just a change in intellectual understanding. Furthermore, it occurs on God's timetable rather than our own as I found out when I began to explore becoming a Catholic in 1991. Shortly after becoming an inquirer, I naively announced to the director of the RCIA that I was eager to get on with the program of instruction.
I found out that the RCIA is much more than a program of instruction. It is an experiential sacramental process in community within the context of our ongoing spiritual journey in life through Christ. As a process, the RCIA is not just for inquirers, catechumens, and candidates, but it is a powerful focus for spiritual renewal and growth for the entire parish community which witnesses the rites of the process throughout the liturgical year.
During my period as an inquirer and candidate, I was exceedingly grateful for the patience, understanding, acceptance, support, encouragement, and wisdom provided by those associated with the RCIA as I grappled with many personal, spiritual, and theological questions and problems. An important realization was that our modern, scientifically and humanistically trained intellects are often blind to the crucial truths of the Word. Thomas Merton once said, "Our faith is directed to the grasp of truths revealed by God, which are not simply accessible by reason alone." As an engineer I appreciate the words of John C. H. Wu, Chinese scholar and Merton-writing collaborator, who, when commenting on our modern culture, suggested that, "there is too much love of science, and too little science of love."
The RCIA is a watershed process along our spiritual journeys which have their beginning and ending in God. Again calling on Merton, perhaps he expressed it best when he wrote, "Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening and of an even greater surrender to the creative action of grace in our hearts."
Flannery O'Connor, the American novelist and short story writer, once wrote a friend who was considering converting to Catholicism: "I don't think of conversion as being once and for all and that's that. I think once the process has begun and continues that you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it. I measure God by everything that I am not. I begin with that."
Often I have worried about my lack of humility blocking God's entrance into my life. Denise Levertov's last book of poems, This Great Unknowing, contains a reflection entitled, For the Asking, which offers hope based on the enlightened struggles of St. Augustine.
("You would not seek Me if you did not already possess Me." - Blaise Pascal)
Augustine said his soul
was a house so cramped
God could barely squeeze in.
Knock down the mean partitions,
he prayed, so You may enter!
Raise the oppressive ceilings!
didn't become a mansion large enough
to welcome, along with God, the women he'd loved,
except for his mother (though one, perhaps,
his son's mother, did remain to inhabit
a small dark room). God, therefore,
would never have felt
fully at home as his guest.
it's clear desire
fulfilled itself in the asking, revealing prayer's
dynamic action, that scoops out channels
like water on stone, or builds like layers
of grainy sediment steadily
forming sandstone. The walls, with each thought,
each feeling, each word he set down
expanded, unnoticed; the roof
rose, and a skylight opened.
The RCIA process as a spiritual journey is often perceived as a search for god. That the truth may lie in the reverse is movingly illustrated in Moments of Joy, another poem from Levertov's, This Great Unknowing.
A scholar takes a room on the next street,
the better to concentrate on his unending work, his word,
his world. His grown children
feel bereft. He comes and goes while they sleep.
But at times it happens a son or daughter
wakes in the dark and finds him sitting at the foot of the bed
in the old rocker; sleepless
in his old coat, gazing
into invisible distance, but clearly there to protect
as he had always done.
The child springs up and flings
arms about him, presses
a check to his temple, taking him by surprise,
and exclaims, 'Abba!' - the old, intimate name
from the days of infancy.
And the old scholar, the father,
is deeply glad to be found.
That's how it is, Lord, sometimes:
You seek, and I find.