May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

So, You Want to Be a Catholic? Step One

I'll be honest. The Catholic Church does not make the conversion process easy. Just finding information about the process can be even more challenging.

Having sampled several faiths and discussed many others, I know that many Protestant churches simply ask for a profession of faith. In the more evangelical branches, they may expect you to come to the altar and accept Jesus as your savior. Some may expect, but not necessarily require, that you be baptized. Sometimes, joining a new church may take only a few moments.

Not so with the Catholic Church, which asks you to go through a process over the course of about six months leading up to Easter. That means, you have to be ready to get started in the fall and ready to be confirmed in the spring. No midsummer revival meeting conversions here.

So, how do you get signed up? I consider myself fairly savvy, and I have been Googling since the beginning, but I must admit that finding information about converting was a challenge for me. I tried my parish's web site. Turns out "Catholic education" was about children. Searching "Catholic conversion" connected me to many sites and blogs about others who became Catholic but did nothing to set me on the right path. Sure, I could have asked someone at the church I was attending, but I was brand new in town and I'm actually a bit introverted. (I don't order pizza delivery because I'd have to talk to the delivery guy--ironic considering that I'm in the relationship business, but that's a story for another day.)

Finally, one day last fall, I caught an announcement at the end of mass that the new candidates were having a meeting and I worked up enough courage to ask the Sister what she was talking about. It was then that I discovered RCIA. I had seen those initials on the web sites and in the newsletter, but I had absolutely no idea what they meant--Roman Catholic Intelligence Agency, perhaps?

As it turns out, RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Even had I seen it spelled out, I don't know if I would have understood that this was for new people. It could have meant that's how you become a nun or a priest or even a member of the Knights of Columbus from all that I could tell. But, now that I finally knew what to look for, information was plentiful.

Here are the basics you need to know about RCIA to get started:

Each parish, which is centered on the church you attend, should offer the program starting in the fall. Although the length of the process can vary, most parishes have a set timetable leading up to the night before Easter. That timetable is governed by several key moments of ritual that are determined by the collection of parishes that make up your diocese, which is led by the Bishop or Archbishop. During this period, potential candidates are expected to attend mass once a week (although you are not allowed to partake in the Eucharist, which you know better as Communion) and to attend a weekly session with the other interested people in your parish. This session is used to help you understand more about the beliefs, tenets, and rituals of the Catholic Church, and to help you prayerfully explore whether this is the right path for you. The sessions are usually led by a priest, deacon or religious (the Catholic term for nuns, monks, friars and others who take vows but are not part of the clergy.) The groups may be small, so you get a lot of attention. My group included five women of varying ages and one young man. It just depends on how many there are in your parish at that time. Faithful attendance is not strictly required, but it is highly encouraged. You may also have one-on-one meetings with the leader of your RCIA program and/or your parish's pastor and/or deacon depending on how your parish prefers to operate.

Around Advent--the weeks before Christmas--a diocese-wide service is held for all of those who wish to proceed. If you have not previously been baptized, you will become a Catechumen and will begin to prepare for baptism. If you have been baptized, you will become a Candidate. By this point, you will have been asked to select a strong Catholic to be your sponsor. The sponsor's role is help provide you individual guidance, to present you to the parish and to take part in the forthcoming rituals with you.

After that, you will continue your weekly sessions and mass attendance, but you will also become a bit of a "star" within your parish. You will be formally presented in front of the congregation on a couple of occasions. If your church has several weekly masses, you may be presented at all of them. Then, you're big shining moment comes on Holy Saturday, the night before Easter, when you finally partake in the Eucharist.

The process is a journey that will enable you to explore what you believe and why you believe it. Ideally, there is never any pressure to complete or continue the process. If you want to stop or you want to keep exploring for a longer period of time, you are welcome to do so. In my parish, I felt warmly embraced and welcomed. I enjoyed learning more about the church, and I grew a lot as a person and as a child of God.

Perhaps it did take less time for me to join the Protestant churches to which I previously belonged, but I never felt as secure in my faith, as assured of my decision, or as close to my Creator.