Most parishes start their RCIA programs in September and end on Pentecost Sunday the following spring.
There are a few problems with this, however.
First of all, the acronym “RCIA” does not, properly speaking, refer to a program even though it’s always used that way. Rather, “RCIA” refers to the book that contains the rituals associated with the process by which one is initiated into the Church. Its proper name is the catechumenate or, if you prefer, Christian initiation.
Old habits die hard, but we should try to get into the habit of calling the process the “catechumenate,” not “RCIA.” Not only is this more accurate, it more clearly distinguishes between the process of initiation and that of entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. They are different. Those who are baptized in another ecclesial community are already in some sense part of the Church and so the process should reflect that. As Vatican II taught “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3).
Second, it’s been said many times before, but it bears repeating: the catechumenate is a process, not a program. It’s not meant to fit neatly into a fixed schedule. The catechumenate is a “gradual process” (RCIA, 4) in which the first two periods –inquiry and the catechumenate – can last any length of time (RCIA, 7). The only fixed period is during Lent. Even the last period, mystagogy, which coincides with the Easter season, is in principle open-ended because growing in our faith and fathoming the mysteries we celebrate never ends.
The open-ended nature of the catechumenate makes it all the more important that parishes have some kind of year-round process for welcoming newcomers. At the very least, it seems to me, every parish should have an “Inquirer’s Class” of some sort that meets once a month, much like Baptism classes. Also, a year-round catechumenate would mean doing the Rite of Acceptance more than once a year. Parishes that have a year-round process do two or three a year.
The year-round catechumenate is important because it allows the inquirer to start the process when they’re ready. “The Holy Spirit blows where it wills.” It’s up to Him to decide when someone is ready to become Catholic. It’s not unusual for parishes to tell someone in May, for example, “Sorry, RCIA doesn’t start until September. Come back then.” No! You need to do whatever it takes to make that person feel welcome right now, and get them started in the process, even if that means doing something like taking them out for a cup of coffee. If you have a regularly scheduled inquirer’s class, you can invite them to that. Have something to give them at least: a brochure explaining how one becomes Catholic (which we can provide) or a booklet explaining the basic teachings of the Church (which we also have). The point is, do something! And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell them to come back later, or go somewhere else.
To learn more about how to implement a year-round catechumenate, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org