The past few months have been a whirlwind as I’ve landed firmly within a new diocese. Much time has been invested in engaging with staff members, clergy and lay leaders, discerning and weighing a vision for mission that will be responsive as well as challenging to our context, and considering critical issues of governance, structure and resources.
The highlights of this time have included meeting the parish communities of the diocese who have offered tremendous hospitality and welcome, and the opportunity to speak with a number of ecclesial movements and other potential partner organisations that offer the kind of evangelical energy we want to see flourish in northern Sydney.
This weekend I’ll be delivering a keynote address at an RCIA conference held biennially and hosted by the Diocese of Broken Bay. It will be a great opportunity to discuss the ways in which we seek to accompany people in their encounter with Christ. It is a ministry of the Church for which I have great passion and respect for it is at the forefront of the Church’s outreach. I owe a great deal personally to my experience of the RCIA. Below are some thoughts that I will share and I hope they may spur your own thinking on the dynamics and helps of Christian initiation.
Evangelisation in a New Time: Pilgrims and Prospects
There is nothing as joyous as the initiation or reception of adults into the life of Christ. I stand here as a beneficiary of that process when I was baptised and confirmed on a Wednesday night in November of 1999. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church on the eve of the new millennium at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background.
A small but powerful group had accompanied me through conversion and initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, and learning to trust. In sharing this portion of my own story and in the following reflections on RCIA in the context of the new evangelisation I hope to affirm your dedication to the RCIA as a vital sign and mirror of the Church in its deepest identity as a community of evangelising disciples.
A Developing Faith
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and the prophetic zeal of Pope Francis, it is today commonplace to speak of the Church and its need of development or reform, that is, change. From the laments and incitements of Evangelii Gaudium, to contemporary Catholic literature such as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation there has been magisterial, critical and popular recognition that what is most needed at this stage of our history as Church is a re-appreciation of evangelisation, the making and maturing of disciples, as the essential mission of our Church.
A ‘new evangelisation’ is sought, ‘new’ not in message or substance as if we have somehow graduated from the one Gospel given in Jesus Christ, but an apostolic outreach that is fresh in energy, intent and method for we seek to evangelise in a context that is something other than a carbon copy of times past.
Certainly, there is continuity. Today adults, as ever, come forward to be initiated as an expression and consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ from a variety of personal and cultural backgrounds. Through their initiation, these pilgrims die to self and rise in Christ who is their new way of life and they enter into this new life socially, joining a community that professes Jesus to be the source of their life and salvation.
However, the ways and practices of Christian initiation have varied throughout the history of the Church. We only have to recall the early second century when potential catechumens presented for baptism after two to three years of preparation, involving multiple exorcisms and even a dash of salt. The danger of persecution within an intolerant Roman Empire restricted exposure of catechumens to the sacred mysteries of faith while sponsors played the role of prudent guarantor for the trustworthiness of their initiates. We see the shape of Christian initiation evolve yet again with the penitential theology of the Church. Many a convert in the patristic age chose to remain a catechumen until the end of life in the hope that a quick baptism before death might erase all the more sin. Even the formula of baptism itself has undergone development and with it the catechesis that has accompanied preparation, with baptism first simply in the name of Jesus, then the more creedal, interrogative formula recorded in the Apostolic Tradition before the straightforward trinitarian formula we employ today, based upon Matthew 28:19. The catechumenate of adults and rites of initiation have developed with the life of the Church as it has confronted each stage of history.
What we learn from this rich history is that the potential and fruit of our catechumenate – restored at the direction of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 64) and now just four and a half decades old in the form of the RCIA (decreed in 1972) – is intimately bound up with the life and vicissitudes of our Catholic community as a whole. As affirmed by the Rite itself, there is an intimate and indispensable relationship between the initiation process and the total life of the parish, what could be described as ‘the community of initiation.’
Initiation in a New Time
As it stands today the Church in Australia sees some 69,000 newly baptised each year, with approximately 5,000 of these adults. (As an aside, it has been noted that the number of adult baptisms in the U.S. rose by 12% between Easter 2013 and Easter 2014, portents perhaps of a genuine ‘Francis effect’ encouraging initiation.)
In receiving the forgiveness of sins, union with Christ and incorporation into his body, the seal and sanctification of the Spirit, and Christ’s Eucharistic body, these twenty-first century neophytes personify and encourage our hope to be that transformative, mediating community that Christ calls us to be, a Church that is essentially ‘a life passed on’.
A more sobering characteristic of our time, highlighted by contemporary literature and recent papal teaching, is that personal conversion and ceaseless evangelisation in the Church can no longer be assumed. Indeed, diminishing rates of participation in weekly Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church present a serious challenge to our ecclesial and formative paradigms.
For one, the premise of a ‘conveyer belt’ which took Catholics from the cradle to grave in faith, passing through the way of the Catholic family, parish and school, no longer seems true-to-life, if it ever was. As Sherry Weddell notes, there is thin evidence to support the belief that Catholic identity simply migrates from infancy into adulthood, resulting in the slow but steady spiritual growth of Catholic adults over a lifetime. There is little reason to suppose that Catholic converts will also be carried along by some seamless cultural momentum within the Church into lifelong discipleship.
Sadly, we know the stories of the newly initiated who have journeyed with us over months only to disappear from the active life of the worshipping community, some even before the Easter season has drawn to a close. The trust, encounter, and discipleship in Christ fostered by small groups such as the RCIA yearns to be sustained by the larger ecclesial body into which the newly initiated are incorporated.
In other words, we cannot consider the RCIA and its pilgrims apart from the prospects for their continued journey with Christ in the body of all the faithful. If we are inviting people to the Gospel we must offer them a community of life in which spiritual seeds can prosper.
Much of our magisterial teaching assumes the existence of this living, active and spiritually dynamic community of faith in our parishes, not out of naiveté or ignorance of what is a more mixed reality in our parishes, but so as to underline all the more the non-negotiable nature of a culture of discipleship as the building block of all other elements of parish life, including liturgy.
Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium declares that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”. For its part, the RCIA confirms the necessity of a pre-catechumenate prior to theological instruction and liturgical preparation, a “time of evangelisation and initial conversion” which is to unfold in the presence of parish families and other groups of Christians through whom those with faithful intent can see “evidence of the spirit of Christians that they are striving to understand and experience”, all this prior to the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens. Again, the RCIA and its pilgrims cannot be considered apart from the spiritual health of the whole body into which the newly initiated are grafted. The budding of the branches depends upon the vitality of the vine.
When we take the current temperature of ‘the vine’, the whole body of the faithful, the sober reality is that 60% of those who attend Mass reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life. It is evident that many a parish culture does not nourish personal faith and a mindset that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually bear fruit.
The spiritual barrenness reported in our pews flows over to impact upon the ability and even the desire of Catholics to reach others for Christ with obvious consequences for the RCIA. Hence, some 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish. Without spiritual growth in their own lives, individuals are not able to be effective witnesses or apostles for Christ in the wider community.
All in all Fr James Mallon underlines the importance of addressing parish culture in its totality if discipleship is to be lifelong, noting smaller groups and initiatives
. . . will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation . . . will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program . . . Running evangelistic, outreach or renewal programs without addressing the necessary cultural conversion of our parishes will only leave us open to charges of false advertising.
The fruit of RCIA depends in no small part on a parish culture where the kerygma, the Great Story of Jesus, is clearly preached through substantial homilies, where the kerygma is made known through adult faith formation experiences that are a norm of community life rather than an exception, and through the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by entering into that living story of Jesus, providing witness to his Spirit alive and at work in human lives.
Indeed, in the light of the interdependency of RCIA with the community at large, I would suggest that there is an argument that catechumens and candidates, while keeping their unique identity as a group, could be a part of a spiritual and faith formation process that is open to anyone. While recognising the stages of development that mark the particular experience of catechumens, all are called to be disciples, mathētēs in Greek, meaning those who learn. All are called to be students before the feet of Jesus Master and Teacher and we cannot in this new era assume that the great numbers of already baptised have indeed heard that initial proclamation of the Gospel which Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium reminds us “we must hear again and again in different ways”. My observation from the pews is that people are grasping only fragments of the Gospel and from the outside. Furthermore, I know many veterans of faith, dedicated and regular attendees, who envy the deep learning and spiritual conversation that the RCIA makes possible but to which they ordinarily do not have access themselves.
Foundational formation involving both newcomers and more established Catholics would recollect for the community that new membership is as much a part of regular parish life as Sunday Mass. Mutual experiences of formation would allow candidates to be integrated into community life not simply during the rites of initiation but in its very life, understood as a common school of holiness and friendship with Jesus Christ. If prayer and discipleship are learned, as our tradition maintains, then all have much to gain through and with one another as common pilgrims on the Gospel way.
Having underlined this morning the inseparability of converts and the spiritual vitality of the communities they enter, a further opportunity makes itself present in our capacity to tell the stories of conversion that emerge from our tradition, narratives of holiness and transformation that can assist today’s catechumens to clarify their own life as a spiritual way.
Our firsthand experience of RCIA tells us that so much depends not simply on theological instruction or liturgical preparation but on the communication and exchange of stories, the sharing of personal itineraries of call and conversion, rich testimonies of the ways in which human lives have become intertwined with God’s.
In such spiritual conversation we enumerate together the shape of holiness, we generate a living tradition of what it means to be a holy person, we affirm the very possibility of access to and relationship with God and the capacity of human beings to respond and flourish in cooperation with his gracious and divine life.
I propose that the RCIA can provide for catechumens in our time invaluable guidance on the basic tenets of our faith, the rhyme and reason of our liturgical rites but also, crucially, testify to the ways in which lasting conversion can actually come about under the influence of grace. Those entering a life of faith, not to mention those already in the pews, are in need of a clear sign or witness that the life of faith is indeed possible, worthwhile and of ultimate significance and value.
In reflecting on my own experience of conversion and that of others who have come into the Church as adults, I am mindful that the transition into Christian life is anything but abstract, whimsical or sugar-coated. It is oftentimes a formidable journey, not without loss, and quite literally world-changing in its consequence. Friends and relationships change as do priorities, lifestyles and life choices and directions.
Our rich spiritual tradition helpfully offers a multitude of concrete lives and trajectories that can affirm and nourish this transition from an old way of life to a new life in Christ. The great stories and holy witnesses of our faith provide, in their own way, “an assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).
What are the most compelling narratives of holiness that the RCIA can bring forward to uphold and foster trust in the momentous ‘crossing over’ from the old self to the new, for twenty-first century pilgrims? What are those stories that we can tell to show that Christian faith indeed makes a human life coherent?
To offer classic examples, the itineraries of St Paul, St Augustine, and a St Francis delineate by different routes the way in which total Christian conversion is possible and how one can engage the world as a new creation in Christ. These are stories of our tradition worth telling. Their biographies and standing as models of holiness provide neophytes with a tangible vision of the way in which God promotes our flourishing in the particular circumstances of our life. It is not a stretch to assert that some of the spiritual stagnation in our pews may be attributable to the plain fact that many Catholics have no vision at all as to how the life of holiness could be pursued or ultimately take expression.
Take the story of St Francis of Assisi as an outstanding paradigm of our tradition. We recall here a young man of excess and indulgence, one who lives a dissolute life bankrolled by the wealth of the family business. Knowing no limits and characterised by exorbitant passions and intemperance, we learn that God’s work of grace in Francis does not cut out or obliterate this trait of excessiveness, does not excise his tendency to wild abandon but rather transforms it from within. Francis remains a man of excess but now becomes excessive in his poverty, radical in his self-sacrifice, zealous in his self-abandonment and self-donation to others.
The ascetic friar of Assisi brings forward for us the journey of holiness as inclusive and transfigurative rather than severe or caustic as the spiritual writer John O’Donohue adeptly explains:
The Christian life has always been a struggle towards perfection. Yet the recommended models of change have been very damaging, either metamorphosis, where the old self was expected to graft onto a supernatural level and become abruptly sanctified, or moral surgery, whereby the undesired dimensions of one’s life were cut out. Such externalist violence is always resisted by the psyche’s organic and inclusive spiritual instinct. Transfiguration is in harmony with the deepest rhythm of the soul because nothing is denied, excluded or forced. Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart.
We learn that authentic growth in holiness is not about ‘metamorphosis’, the idea that we can simply shed the past, our very personality and history, and become someone entirely new. This is illusory. Nor is growth in holiness about moral surgery in which we simply excise or cut off whatever is found to be undesirable within us. As witnessed in St Francis’ life, the image of transfiguration is more apt, a gradual process in which we enter into and are attentive to every aspect of who we are, even those inevitable dimensions of darkness within ourselves, ‘lifting them up to the Lord’ whose Holy Spirit brings about transformation within, and not despite, the conditions of our life and character.
By such great narratives I believe neophytes as much as the already baptised can find encouragement to acknowledge the all-too-human reality which is inescapably ours – light and shadow, wheat and tare – and open this mixed reality to God’s love and grace which heals, redirects and transforms our very weakness into God’s strength (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).
I suggest that the dynamics of Christian conversion are well carried by the stories of those who have gone before us in faith, in the restless interiority of a St Augustine, the passionate poverty of a St Francis, the change of heart worked within the religiosity of a St Paul. These models need not stereotype holiness but give shape and substance to the possibilities that are there for all of us. These holy lives open us to more than what we may have yet imagined for ourselves, and so hold powerful relevance to our spiritual accompaniment of the enquirer, catechumen and the newly baptised by way of the RCIA.
In the midst of a changing ecclesial landscape and by its privileged access and accompaniment of unique and varied lives touched by Christ, the RCIA remains a gift and mirror to the Church, expressing its identity and vocation to be evermore an evangelising community of faith. Noting the particular challenges of Christian outreach at this time of history, Pope Francis remarks,
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.
In the work of the RCIA may we continue to offer that which is beautiful, most grand, appealing and most necessary, the Good News of the Gospel given to us in Jesus Christ, and the spiritual accompaniment of those who have walked the way of faith before us.
 Rite of Christian Initiation 9.
 Vatican Secretariat of State, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2012.
 Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 67-70.
 Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1079.
 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no. 36-37, 39.
 NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.
 Ibid., 17.
 Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation (Twenty-Third Publications: New London, CT, 2014), 94.
 This approach is also recommended by Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 230.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.
 John O’Donohue, ‘The Priestliness of the Human Heart’, The Way 45.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.