A friend of mine recently told me that at her small Evangelical church the ladies make baskets of homemade cookies each Sunday. These goodies are handed out to any visitor attending their church that day. In exchange, the ladies get the visitor’s name, address, and phone number and arrange a home visit with them the following week. Their cookie ministry is the opening salvo in an orchestrated outreach to welcome people into their church and invite them to become members. My friend shared that she believes it is an important part of her Christian faith to actively welcome new members and to help interested individuals and families to join their church. As for membership, the person has only to publicly state their desire to join and they are accepted as members that same day. There’s not even a baptismal requirement since her church doesn’t teach that baptism is necessary for church membership.
Becoming Catholic is, to say the least, a bit of a different story. We have a process lasting between six or eight months during which persons desiring to become Catholic meet in a group setting for prayer, instruction, and guidance. This is called RCIA or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. It’s modeled on the practices of the very early Church and has been more widely-implemented in the last 20 years or so. Back when I joined the Church in 1977 the process was a bit more informal. Okay, it was a LOT more informal. As a college sophomore with a year of Catholic theology and philosophy under my belt, I met three times with my local pastor before receiving the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Holy Communion–all on the same day. There was no exhaustive instruction in Church history or dogma, no in- depth discussion of the Sacraments, no time for reflecting on what it meant to journey from my Southern Baptist roots to the Church of Rome. I swam the Tiber in record time and arrived in St. Peter’s Square hardly knowing what I’d done. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. And it was wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me though. I certainly don’t fault the pastor (now deceased) who took me in. At the time, he was doing exactly what most every other Catholic pastor was doing. But my lack of preparation took me years to sort out. To begin with, I thought my becoming Catholic was a private matter between me and The Lord. My understanding of salvation and redemption remained very Protestant. I was confused about the Saints and about Mary. Purgatory had me flummoxed and confession scared me to death. What had drawn me to the Church was the Holy Eucharist and that’s what (Who) I clung to. But my early years as a Catholic were a kind of blur of questions and uncertainty. Thankfully, I was attending a solidly Catholic university surrounded by faithful professors and priests who formed my faith community. And I was able to study in Rome, which never hurts.
Looking back, it’s a wonder I remained Catholic through those early years of my infancy in the faith. For everyone who complains about how hard it is to become a Catholic let me just say: savor your journey through RCIA. Every parish doesn’t have a 5-star program, but allow yourself to be immersed in the process anyway. If you’re being called to the Catholic Church, it’s Christ who is calling you and He’ll be there with you every step along the way. You can enrich your experience by becoming a part of your parish’s faith community even before you’re a full member. Go to Mass every Sunday and make a holy hour of Adoration as often as you can. Read the Catechism and write down your questions. Read some of the Gospels every day and listen to what Jesus might be saying to you in them. Make friends with the parish secretary–she or he knows everyone in the parish and all the programs and ministries that might interest you. The priest’s schedule might be very busy but his secretary can be a great resource for you.
And remember that the journey to becoming Catholic isn’t just about you and God. Catholicism is a family of faith that includes your RCIA group and sponsors, your pastor and lay ministers, the parish and the larger diocese, the worldwide Catholic Church, plus the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. We’re all in this together. Be patient with us and with yourself. Remember that most RCIA programs begin in late summer or early fall and usually meet every week until Easter when you’ll receive the sacraments and come into full communion with the Church. Call your local parish and ask about their RCIA schedule. Your months of preparation will lay a fertile groundwork for a lifelong faith.
“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are one thing…”
—-St. Joan of Arc