By Mary Morrell, Correspondent

In the ancient Church, committing to life as a Christian was no walk in the park.

It was a commitment that could cost a person his life, or the lives of family members. Still, the Church grew.

Those many adults making this commitment of faith, at the possible cost of persecution, torture and death, needed to be fully instructed in the life of a Christian and what it meant to be a member of this new Christian community. It became clear to Church leaders that a formal initiation process for those converts coming in to the Church must be developed.

This year, the Church in the U.S. is marking 30 years of using the restored ancient rite of initiation, adapted and expanded for use in a new time and with a changing Church.  In 1988, the U.S. Bishops made the restored Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults mandatory in the United States, providing “a sustaining tool of faith development among adults seeking entrance in the Church and its sacramental life these part 30 years,” said Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education.

In the Diocese of Trenton, more than 500 individuals are welcomed into the Church each year through the RCIA process, including catechumens – those seeking Baptism, and candidates – those already baptized but seeking to complete initiation through reception of the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation.

Parishioners may be most familiar with this integral process of the Church based on what they see during Mass.  For example, as part of the RCIA, those who wish to become Catholic stand before their parish communities at Mass and express their desire to be baptized. Or when the parish sends forth their prospective catechumens to be named as “the elect” during the Rite of Election with the bishop. 

Not all Catholics, however, have witnessed the fulfillment of this process or are aware of its significant impact on the growth of the local and universal Church.

By looking back into the history of the earliest Christians, it becomes clear that this process of initiation, also referred to as the catechumenate, was integral to the continued growth and the powerful discipleship of the early Church.

Following the Apostolic era, the initiation process for adults continued to develop until it came together as a structured, three-year period of formation.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and became a patron of the Church during the fourth century, the demands of a rapidly increasing number of converts caused the catechumenate, (in this sense, meaning the formation process), to suffer. In the fifth century, the practice of initiation began to be focused on infants, with Confirmation and Eucharist being separated from Baptism.

By the 12th century, when infant Baptism had become the norm, the catechumenate, for the most part, had died away, and by the 16th century, entire villages and communities were being baptized en-masse with little or no formation (Nick Wagner, History of the RICA, TeamRCIA).

The work of the Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of the catechumenate in 1966, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Catholic bishops approved the present edition of the Rite with U.S. adaptations, national statutes and a national plan of implementation, making it mandatory two years later.

“The restoration of the ancient rites of initiation,” noted Father Zeis, “has deep roots in preparing men and women to make their life-long commitment to the faith but also prepares them to be living witnesses, missionary disciples who further their faith-journey through supporting others, encouraging others to make that same faith journey. It truly has developed discipleship among its members and that discipleship is at the heart of the New Evangelization called for by our most recent popes.”

The RCIA process that is used today follows the ancient formulary, and takes those seeking to become fully initiated into the Church through a series of stages and liturgical rites all within a Christian community.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “From the time of the apostles, becoming a Christian has been accomplished by a journey and initiation in several stages. This journey can be covered rapidly or slowly, but certain essential elements will always have to be present: proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion”(1229).

At the center of the process is ongoing conversion – the fundamental and continuing commitment of a life given over to God, and in particular, for Christians, a life given over to Christ.

During February’s Rite of Election, which was attended by 185 catechumens, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., underscored the foundation of the RCIA as being a deep relationship with Jesus Christ and the significance of a community of faith.  He explained that the RCIA not only instructs those seeking initiation into the Church but also the community, which is renewed in faith as it welcomes new members into the Church.

 “To be a Christian, to become Catholic and to be known by that name means something to you who are catechumens,” he said. “Catechumen is a Greek word … you know what it means? ‘One in whom the Word echoes.’ The Word of God. The Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

“Your election today … God’s call and your acceptance – also means something to your godparents and sponsors. It means something to this community of faith who surrounds you … with their witness and prayers and support and to our local Church of the Diocese of Trenton,” said the Bishop in his homily.

Steve Bulvanoski, diocesan RCIA coordinator, also stressed the importance and value of the vast number of “excellent RCIA leaders, both on the diocesan and parish levels, along with well-trained RCIA teams who have worked long and hard in this valuable ministry.”