For Deacon Michael Eash, RCIA director of St. Bernard Parish in Appleton, the journey through the Rite of Election, the scrutinies and the reparation rites are especially dear to him as a convert to Catholicism himself.
“I grew up Protestant and became Catholic when I was 26,” he said. “I was at that age where I was searching for what was ‘true’ and the more I found out about the Catholic Church, the more I found that it is the fullness of faith.”
He has been involved in the RCIA for the last 20 years in parishes in Indiana and Illinois through various moves.
Throughout the past four years that Deacon Eash has served at St. Bernard Parish, he has enjoyed learning of the various reasons people are drawn to Catholic conversion.
“It usually involves a relationship of some sort. A friend, fiancé, spouse, or someone has inspired this person to inquire about the Catholic Church,” he said. “I think that it is a great testament that when we live out our faith, we can attract others to say, ‘I want to see what this is all about.'”
With a team, and sponsors to assist the catechumen and candidates through the RCIA journey, Deacon Eash also enlists members of the parish to become involved and in so doing offer a sense of family and community. This year, Deacon Eash has one catechumen, but he has had up to seven in the program in past years.
“The time from the start of the process to the initiation of sacraments is around six months,” he said. “Mystagogy lasts from Easter to Pentecost. It seems like a bit investment of time, but the phrase I hear most often is ‘I can’t believe it’s done already.’ The time is needed for a couple of reasons. Number one, there is so much material to cover and number two, I don’t ever want anyone to feel rushed. It is a very big life decision and not one that should be taken lightly, so time is needed to make sure that it is the right decision at the right time.”
The greatest challenge in organizing the RCIA program is in matching up schedules to ensure that the class time works for everyone involved, he explained. Class lasts a couple of hours each week, and the candidates and catechumens prepare at home as well.
Deacon Eash said his goal is to make people comfortable. “I have never had anyone drop out. I really try to take the time up front to meet with each individual to make sure it is a good fit for the person and the church,” he said. “I have had a couple of people really question right before initiation, but that just tells me that they are taking it seriously. I would never let anybody join the church that wasn’t absolutely positive they were ready.”
At the end of the RCIA year, Deacon Eash reevaluates the program, making changes as needed. The resources used to address the wide spectrum of individuals going through the process need to fit those who have a limited knowledge of Jesus and Christianity as well as those who have a significant Evangelical Christian background.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the backbone of the process, but it is way too much for someone just starting their journey,” he explained. “What has worked very well over the past few years are the books, ‘A Well Built Faith,’ by Joe Paprocki and ‘Essentials of the Faith,’ by (Norbertine) Fr. Alfred McBride. After the initiation sacraments, there is a period called mystagogy, where the neophytes learn how to put their faith into practice. For this period, we use the book, ‘Practice Makes Catholic,’ by Joe Paprocki.”
Journeying through RCIA is a transforming process, according to Deacon Eash. Most of those who go through the process develop a spiritual maturity originating from a sincere discernment and devotion to learning about and becoming ready to live out their faith.
“What I find most rewarding is helping adults explore and question what is really important in their lives to them,” he said. “When I see someone whose faith is a minor part of their lives start to make faith a major part of their lives, it is very rewarding. I know that they are really finding out what matters in life.”
In the weeks that follow the Easter Vigil, neophytes are looking for their place in the church community. To keep them active, parishioners can make them feel welcome by encouraging them to be part of an activity, a group or a ministry.
“This is one lesson that our parish had to learn,” said Deacon Eash. “Our two candidates from last year are active as lectors and are doing a great job. It will be a part of the program going forward that, at the end of the process, we need to make sure the newly initiated are involved in some way, be it big or small.”
According to Deacon Eash, the RCIA program is a two-way relationship between the catechumens/candidates and the parishioners. The parishioners pray for the candidates and their ongoing formation, and the candidates serve as a great witness to the parishioners.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from parishioners how moved they are by seeing adults make that commitment,” he explained. “A lot of times, I think we take our faith for granted and when we see someone standing up in front of the parish going through the various rites of initiation, it makes us take notice and perhaps say to ourselves, ‘Do I take my faith that seriously?'”