RCIA’s roots grow from the early church

First Christians usually entered church through long initiation rites

On the First Sunday of Lent, people from many parishes will travel to St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay (and cathedrals across the country) for the Rite of Election with Bishop David Ricken (or other diocesan bishops).

A copy of the Book of the Elect is carried by a catechist in 2011 at the Rite of Election at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The Rite of Election is a part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the way that the Catholic Church prepares new members for full participation in the sacraments and the life of the church. The Rite of Election includes the recording — in the Book of the Elect — of the names of those preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil.

Many of us may be familiar with hearing about the RCIA — or the RCIC (Rite of Christian Initiation of Children). However, not everyone realizes that it is really an ancient rite of the church.

New Christians were adults

In the earliest days of Christian faith, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, new Christians entered the church in the same fashion. Most were adults, or members of families, who heard the preaching of the Gospel and they wanted to live as they saw the early Christians living.

Since there were many persecutions of Christians, those entering had to be well prepared in case they had to answer for their faith with their lives. A formal preparation process — called the catechumenate — had developed by the end of the second century of Christianity.

Not long after, an even more structured process, with a longer preparation time before one could be baptized into the faith, developed. It lasted about three years.

Rather routine

However, not long after Christianity became the formal religion of the Roman Empire — under the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century — joining the Christian church became something people did rather routinely, but often later in life.

However, while adults waited until later, they wanted their children baptized sooner. So, the practice of infant baptism arose, often because of high infant mortality.

However, baptizing infants also meant that the other sacraments of initiation — Eucharist and confirmation — were delayed. This was because of the perceived need to teach the faith to baptized children once they were old enough to understand it: around the age of reason (roughly age 7). This was not the case in the Eastern Church, where infants, even today, receive all three sacraments at one time.

As the missionary efforts of later centuries arose — including in the Americas — entire villages were baptized en masse, with little or no catechesis. The process of detailed study and preparation from previous generations became vestigial. The only place it remained, in some form, was largely in the formation practices of religious communities.

Thus, by the 20th century, the catechumenate of the first centuries had become a distant memory. However, some French missionaries began to revive elements of the ancient formation process to counteract the negative effects of previous centuries’ village-wide baptisms and to elevate the quality of formation in discipleship.

Full restoration

It was not, however, until the Second Vatican Council, when the bishops called for a restoration of the preparation of new members of the church: “The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps, is to be restored and to be taken into use at the discretion of the local ordinary” (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, n. 64, 1963).

A provisional ritual for the catechumenate was distributed to bishops in 1966, but it was not until 1972, when the rite was fully published in Latin (Ordo initiationis christianae adultorum). An English translation was issued in 1974 and, in 1986, the U.S. bishops approved the present edition of the RCIA. In 1988, it was made mandatory in the United States.

Thus the cycle of prayerful preparation and community support for those seeking to enter the church became reunited with the Lent to Easter cycle (with a continuing period lasting until Pentecost), just as it had been in the early days of the church.


Sources: vatican.va; TeamRCIA.com; adult faith formation at dphx.org; cathoclidoors.com; Catechism of the Catholic Church; The North American Forum on the Catechumenate; “Straight Answers” at catholicherald.com; and usccb.org