|By Maioremlaetitiam2 via Wikimedia Commons|
The RCIA process is intended to enable the individual to explore and truly understand the teachings, beliefs, mission, and function of the Catholic Church as well as the individual's responsibilities to God and to others and his or her own role within the parish and community. Unlike other denominations in which I have participated, the Catholic Church takes conversion very seriously. No other church I ever joined, ever asked me to participate in a single discussion about doctrine, liturgy or anything. They simply asked whether I wanted to join the church, I said "yes," and that was that.
Joining the Catholic Church is more complex, and I think that is a very good thing. The process of this "rite of initiation" takes prayer and discernment. It asks you to consider if this truly is the path you wish to follow. This is true with every rite of the Church. For instance, one meeting with the officiating clergyman will ever be sufficient before a Catholic wedding. This is serious. The Church takes it seriously and it expects you to take it seriously, too.
Having said that, the process is not difficult. I found it to be very rewarding. In my own parish, RCIA is led by a dedicated, loving and amusing Franciscan Sister assisted by an older married couple whose attention and care is warm and friendly. Each RCIA participant selects an established (and observant) Catholic as his or her sponsor, and the sponsors also attend the meetings, events and ceremonies whenever they are able. It enables the "newbies" to build connections with each other and with the "old" Catholics in a truly supportive environment. You can ask questions and express your ideas without feeling anxious that you might sound dumb or that you might be judged in some way.
Most of the time, the RCIA group meets weekly beginning in late summer or early fall through Easter. Individuals are also encouraged to attend Mass weekly and to find other ways to participate in parish life. As time and your understanding progress, you will be invited to participate in various rites like being presented to your Bishop and to your own Parish. In my Parish, we have three English-language Masses each weekend, so our RCIA participants are invited to come to each Mass to be formally presented to and prayer over by the congregation.
Along the way, if you decide that you don't want to continue, you may stop at any point. Likewise, you are welcome to return. Most of the participants complete RCIA and receive their first Eucharist during Holy Week around Easter, but others take longer to make their final commitment. I have found the U.S. Church to be fairly flexible in helping devoted RCIA candidates (or "catechumens") reach their goals even in extenuating circumstances. For instance, one college-age woman from our parish, took her RCIA instruction in another part of the country where she was attending university, but she was permitted to return to her home parish to celebrate her confirmation there.
If you think you might be interested in exploring Catholicism, even if you don't know whether you wish to convert or not, now is a great time to seek out the person in your local parish who is responsible for RCIA. Find out what is involved and start down that path. It is never too early or too late.
For instance, several years ago, an older lady in my parish asked our priest when RCIA would be starting. She had attended mass at our church for decades. Her children and grandchildren had attended the local Catholic schools. The priest knew her and her family fairly well. "Oh," he asked, "Do you know someone who would like to join the Church?"
"Yes," she said, "I would." In all those years of active participation, she was the only member of her family who was not Catholic. But, at Easter 2013, she stood beside me as we made our profession of faith together.