The Case For R.C.I.A.
Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the October 14, 1989 issue of America, alongside another essay entitled “Against R.C.I.A.” by Father Andrew M. Greeley. You can read Father Greeley’s article here. Are you someone who has been involved in R.C.I.A. ministry in the church? What are your reactions to Fathers Greeley and Duggan? Join the conversation in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
I AM STUNNED that one trained in the disciplined empiricism of the social sciences should reveal such an undifferentiated consciousness in the field of pastoral theology. The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley’s remarks “Against R.C.I.A. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)” are embarrassingly without nuance and betray a fairly impoverished understanding of the subject about which he waxes so eloquent. Nonetheless, the stature of the man and the nature of the topic require that a serious reply be given, lest anyone be led astray by his careless ranting.
How best ought one to respond to the frontal assault launched in Father Greeley’s article? Meet the aggressor head-on with an attack on his obvious lack of credentials in his chosen subject? Dignify his groundless assertions with specific rebuttals? Or offer a more balanced vision—informed by understanding and experience—of what the R.C.I.A. is really all about? The final option seems the best course; but when dueling with a master of diatribe such as Father Greeley, perhaps the first two options also have a place.
The breadth of Andrew Greeley’s vision is phenomenal, a fact that even his sharpest critics will begrudgingly admit. For generations now he has been one of our most prolific and durable Catholic writers and commentators. But one of the dangers faced by any polymath is that she/he may be caught short in a field where depth, no breadth, is required for credibility. Those with knowledge and experience of the R.C.I.A. will undoubtedly recognize in Father Greeley’s article that bombast is no substitute for understanding, that the cute turn of phrase can easily betray ignorance as insight. One cannot help but wonder whether such misguided commentary as that found in Father Greeley’s article would have made it past AMERICA’s editors if it had been submitted by anyone other than a commentator of such renown.
But Father Greeley is always exciting to read, whether the outrage comes from his preposterous prose or wild ideas. As usual, he has managed to work into his text a wide variety of ills that afflict the church—implicitly, and even explicitly, suggesting that they are all somehow linked to this awful thing called R.C.I.A. Who could not find much to agree with, as he reminds us of boring liturgies we’ve suffered through, the oppression of clericalism, new and old, starry-eyed enthusiasts of the latest fad who run roughshod over everyone in their path? But the fact that these woes of our age resonate in all our hearts does not make a case either for or against the R.C.I.A. Clever rhetoric that knows how to tap into our reservoir of collective anger is not the same as reasoned argument, nor does it reflect well on the intellectual integrity of the one who uses it. Father Greeley asserts a great deal concerning the connections between R.C.I.A. and many of the “evils” afflicting the post-Vatican II church. But his assertions are just that: Convictions strongly felt, but singularly devoid of substance and lacking the rigor of careful critique.
THE SAD FACT is that Father Greeley seems to know little or nothing about R.C.I.A. The parody of R.C.I.A. that he attacks is just a straw man, bearing little resemblance to the real thing. I do not fault him for his ignorance of the pastoral realities embodied in the R.C.I.A. His gifts lie elsewhere. I could hardly expect him to be, all at once, a successful author, expert sociologist and seasoned pastoral minister. But my own experience as a pastor, my years of involvement with R.C.I.A. on both the scholarly and practical levels and my common sense tell me that his remarks deserve as much credibility as would my own views on statistical theory.
LEST I SEEM TO DISMISS Father Greeley entirely, I would hastily add that I can wholeheartedly join him in bashing the abuses he has portrayed. What sensible person would hesitate to join him in condemning the kind of mindless imperialism and shoddy pastoral care that he decries? Sadly, my years on the R.C.I.A. “circuit” have shown me that some such abuses do exist, that these straw men (and women) are alive and well, including in ecclesiastical malpractice and calling it R.C.I.A. Like Father Greeley, they seem to think that what they are perpetrating is what the R.C.I.A. calls for, though, unlike Father Greeley, they tend to be quite satisfied that they are doing a wonderful job. My contention, for both them and Father Greeley, is that the R.C.I.A. with its abuses is like calling for the suppression of the papacy because of the track record of the Borgia popes.
In his final crescendo of criticism, Father Greeley points an accusing finger at the “liturgists” who are trying to impose the R.C.I.A. on the rest of us, and then he tags them with responsibility for an incredible list of transgressions committed since Vatican II. Liturgists would undoubtedly covet the kind of power ascribed to them by Father Greeley. But, alas, “they”’ are as little to blame for all our ills as is any other single group within our raucous church family. Indeed, they have not even succeeded in educating Father Greeley that the “Mass of Resurrection” refers to our Easter celebration and is a misnomer when applied to the Funeral Mass.
In the conspiratorial universe of Father Greeley, the spread of the R.C.I.A. is bound to be an ‘imposition” of some group or another (liturgists, hierarchs who “mandate” it, movement groupies). But the reality is quite otherwise. The spread of the R.C.I.A. both in our own country and elsewhere has happened as the result of a remarkable and quite unexpected grass-roots movement. Those responsible for its spread are neither hothouse academicians nor office-bound bureaucrats. Rather, they are the true “experts” in pastoral care, i.e., those on the front lines who minister day in and day out with sisters and brothers looking to come to God by way of our Roman Catholic tradition.These are the folks—the ordinary laity whom Father Greeley so condescendingly defends, along with their professional co-workers in ministry—who have discovered by experience and learned by study that this “sleeper” of the liturgical reform is a precious gift of the Spirit to help in the renewal of the church. The North American Forum on the Catechumenate, the group which has emerged to sponsor implementation of the R.C.I.A., is not part of any “official” church structure. It is an organization of parish ministers, an authentic grass-roots movement that grew out of positive results with the use of the R.C.I.A. in the early days following its obscure promulgation. In a mere seven years it has grown to a membership of 18,000 persons, not because of faddism or shallow enthusiasm, but because the people of God have found in the experience of the R.C.I.A. the breadth of the Spirit, bringing fresh air and new life to individuals and communities longing to enter more deeply into the ways of God.
IF THE R.C.I.A. is not all of the bad things that Father Greeley would have us believe about it, then what alternative understanding have we to offer of a more positive nature? For the thoughtful observer, it should come as no surprise that the initiation rites of a religious body contain explosive potential for the renewal of that group. Father Greeley’s peers in the social sciences have long ago demonstrated the primal force of initiatory ritual in the human community. Cultural anthropologists, psychologists, experts in ritual studies, even sociologists, recognize how the initiatory experience functions not only to form new members but also to redefine and renew the group itself. Theologians reflecting on the significance of the R.C.I.A. have insisted on its normative status and theological weight in a variety of ways. They are simply using the jargon of their own field to say what the social scientists have taught for years. Perhaps it will be more palatable for Father Greeley to hear from his distinguished colleagues in the social sciences that the R.C.I.A., as the premier initiatory statement of the Roman Catholic Church, is of ENORMOUS significance, and not just another program that will fail as it becomes routine and its groupies move on to the next fad.
The genius of the R.C.I.A., as Father Greeley correctly notes, is connected to its insight that becoming Christian is a process, not an event, and that of necessity its context is the life of a local community of faith. What he seems to be unaware of, in addition, is the integral part played by the wedding of ritual and catechesis in that communal process. The “dismissal” of catechumens at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, when properly done, is not experienced as “ordering someone out of the church,” as Father Greeley described it. Rather, it is experienced as a warm invitation to feast more richly on the real presence of Christ in the Word, mediated by a community of living tradition in the person of the catechist. As a statement of liminality for those in the process of “becoming” but not yet there, it is also unsurpassed by any of our other rituals. Given Father Greeley’s frequent praise of the sacramentality of our Catholic tradition, it seems strange that he would miss the potential of this provocative sacramental procession.
The deep sacramentality of the Catholic tradition, however, has always expected miracles of grace to be at work in the church’s rites.
Father Greeley offers four fictional cases to illustrate the “mindlessness of the R.C.I.A. paradigm.” What he offers are clever stories showing the rich diversity of experience and needs which people bring to the church in their search for God. What he reminds us of—rightly so—is the importance of ministry to this diversity that will respect individual differences. What he fails to realize is that the R.C.I.A. offers precisely that kind of pastoral care. Bertha, Coenobius, Jucundus and Sarah have this in common: They have all approached the Roman Catholic Church, in the person of Father Prudens, seeking help with their spiritual journey. Their conversion stories and their needs are certainly different. But they all look.to the church for support in their journey.
The R.C.I.A.’s understanding of how we best minister to their conversion experience calls for us to immerse them all in the life and common struggles of a community of faith where they will discover both their uniqueness and their common ground. Coenobius may need and profit from conversations with scholarly Father Prudens about the religious aesthetics of Peter Paul Rubens. But I’d wager his spiritual health will be better served by inviting him to share deeply each week with Sarah and the others the meaning of the Sunday Scripture as it is heard and lived in the context of the Catholic tradition.He is not, in fact, seeking to enter a community of literary critics, but a church where rich and poor, unlettered and degreed, saint and sinner, literally rub shoulders and offer a sign of peace every Sunday. What has been so invigorating to R.C.I.A. ministers around the country is the way conversion happens when small groups of uniquely different individuals gather to listen prayerfully to Scripture to share its meaning in the light of Catholic tradition and their own lived experience, to work together to build up God’s reign, and to celebrate the stages of their conversion using rituals that resonate authentically with their growing faith.
FATHER GREELEY is not alone in his suspicion that exaggerated claims are being made for the R.C.I.A. But there is a history even longer than Father Greeley’s list of best-sellers of those who are skeptical about divine power at work in our rituals. The deep sacramentality of the Catholic tradition, however, has always expected miracles of grace to be at work in the church’s rites.Whether expressed in the 4th-century rhetoric of mystery religions (the disciplina arcani), 12-century scholastic jargon (ex opere operato) or 20th-century buzzwords, (R.C.I.A.), we Catholics have always held the church’s sacred rites in the highest esteem. That a priest of Father Greeley’s reputation should title an article “Against R.C.I.A.’’ and then proceed to belittle the rituals by which the church marks a convert’s spiritual journey is almost beyond belief. What enchantment with his own rhetoric could lead this champion of authentic catholicity to protest against the church’s baptismal ritual “when it is imposed as an obligation on those who have never been baptized”? To quote Father Greeley: “Give me a break!”
You will discover, I am certain, that they too long for the grace of sacramental rituals that celebrate their stories of conversion, their struggle with sin and the triumph of God’s grace in it all.
I WOULD INVITE Father Greeley and other skeptics of R.C.I.A. to walk with Bertha, Coenobius, Jucundus and Sarah over a period of many months as they gradually uncover deeper and deeper layers of God’s call in their lives. Be a sponsor to one of them and listen to the stories of brokenness and healing, death and resurrection, that gradually emerge within the nurturing womb of the catechumenal community. Watch the awe on their face at the Rite of Election when the bishop speaks directly to them of God’s choice. Speak of sin and slavery with them, and then experience the effect of a community that celebrates the Rite of Scrutiny with power and passion. See if election and scrutiny are experienced as mere “historicist and academic” concerns by those who are touched by the transforming power of Christ’s grace, mediated in the sacramental rituals of a faith community that knows and understands how R.C.I.A. is meant to be celebrated. Watch the already baptized whose spiritual journeys have led them to seek full communion with our Roman Catholic Church, and see if the R.C.I.A. rites adapted for their use are experienced as “enthusiastic shallowness.” You will discover, I am certain, that they too long for the grace of sacramental rituals that celebrate their stories of conversion, their struggle with sin and the triumph of God’s grace in it all.
In short, my invitation is to recognize the R.C.I.A. for what it truly is: a visionary gift of the Spirit to the church of our time, a remarkable instrument of individual and communal conversion, a clarion call to renewed ministry on the part of all of the baptized, a striking blend of ritual and catechesis, pastoral care and spiritual formation at their best. If the parish where you worship, Father Greeley, is offering anything less, then you’re being cheated badly and may well have grounds for divorce!