Deep roots, everlasting faith uncovered through RCIA journey this Easter
April 22, 2014
HOUSTON — At the start of Lent, more than 2,300 candidates and catechumens were presented at the Rite of Election in parishes around the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. With the celebration of the Resurrection, those elect received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion this Easter.
In recent years, the local diocese has ranked among the highest nationally in faithful received through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). While the papacy and lived example of Pope Francis — who celebrated his one-year anniversary as Holy Father this past March — certainly inspired many in the increasing population of Galveston-Houston to explore the Catholic faith, there are other movements taking place in the hearts and minds of those seeking catechesis.
The reasons for individuals to enter RCIA are as numerous as they are varied, according to Dr. Sharon Skeans, catechetical curriculum consultant for the Archdiocese and RCIA team member at St. Mary Church in Plantersville. While catechumens (unbaptized) bring a “myriad of questions” to the inquiry phase of RCIA, candidates (those baptized in other religions) most commonly ask about aspects of faith unique to Catholicism, such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the infallibility of the Pope and Purgatory.
“I have found that both groups, however, continue to be amazed with our devotion to Scripture — (familiarity with Scripture is) the number one misconception about Catholics,” Skeans added. “Our constant challenge is to individualize formation in order to ‘transform’ the candidate’s spiritual life.”
Maggie Ragusa, the associate director of faith formation (Adult/Sacraments) at Prince of Peace Church in Houston, said that it is also common for many to want to learn more about Catholicism outside of RCIA commitments.
“They become very interested in the Church, the history of the Church,” she said. “I’m always amazed when I hear from folks who — on their own, without anybody prompting them — go online or buy books and do all of this research about the history of the Church. They simply want to be aware of why at this point in time we do the things the way we do them. Well, of course there is historical precedence and we try to go over all of that in our sessions.”
Some candidates even find their way to the Church through their own research and experience, said Betty Plessela, an RCIA sponsor at St. Mary’s since 2005.
“I know of a couple who came to RCIA and on their first interview made it known that they believed everything about the Catholic Church and were ready to become a member,” she said. “They were very knowledgeable about the Scripture and had completely read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They only needed to be more versed in the structure, customs and the liturgy of the Catholic Church.”
The fact that RCIA is a process and not a “program” ensures the sustainability of those initiated to remain Catholic and become more active in parish life, Skeans explains. A notable milestone for catechists is when each candidate — at different times in the process — concludes that the Catholic Church provides all the necessary tools for loving Christ and doing His will.
She said approximately 95 percent of those initiated and remaining in the St. Mary’s community become active members of various ministries that reflect their gifts and talents. Involvement ranges from becoming RCIA sponsors and catechists to being trained as annulment facilitators.
“During our sessions, we spend some time having different staff people come in and talk about their ministry,” Ragusa said. “They go into detail about things like outreach, including our food pantry. (Prince of Peace’s) outreach ministry has a huge program for helping families at Christmas time. We have a lot of families who are still part of RCIA who want to participate. It is amazing how many people return and want to be RCIA sponsors after they have gone through the process. If they have children who are involved in faith formation, they very often get involved in all of that, as well.”
Such involvement extends beyond those with prior RCIA experience. Plessela became a sponsor at St. Mary’s after she was “put on the spot” by a candidate at the time.
“I felt I was not qualified to help anyone with such a need about the Catholic Church,” she said. “After some thought I took on the task, because I felt the most important support I could give was to be there when I could, to pray for them. If I couldn’t answer a question, I could direct them to someone who would know the answer.”
Several years and candidates later, she now considers her dedication to RCIA as a great gift in her life and is thankful for the “small part” she has in each of the journeys.
“I am constantly learning more about my faith from the programs presented for the candidates and from the questions asked by the catechumens and candidates,” Plessela said. “Hearing the amazing journey that led them to the Catholic Church inspires a deeper belief for me in the Holy Spirit. Being a part of their growth is very humbling and rewarding.”
As insightful and enlightening as the RCIA process is, some challenges persist — particularly canonical issues regarding marriage and the need for annulments.
“But once they are catechized about the Sacrament of Matrimony,” participants accept the view of the Catholic Church, Skeans said. “There is also the matter of discerning each individual’s level of understanding of the faith in order to extend the formation process.”
The challenges are continuously trumped by the triumphs in RCIA — such as the various liturgical rites celebrated throughout the RCIA process, as well as “Breaking Open the Word after the Homily” and deepening the faith of the candidates along with the faith of the parishioners, Skeans said.
“The candidates timidly begin a rite like lost sheep, yet end the celebration like a pep squad for the Lord,” she said. “The ‘ah-ha light bulbs’ also click on as they learn about Apostolic Tradition, Scripture and the intricacies and history of the Mass.”
St. Mary had 150 registered families in 2000; it now has approximately 850. Three children and one adult catechumen and five candidates were initiated during their recent Easter Vigil Mass. With the parish’s year-round RCIA, others were also initiated last fall.
At Prince of Peace, 42 total adults and children received Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist on the Easter Vigil. Whitney White will be among 28 candidates to be received in full communion at Prince of Peace on April 26. White, born and raised Episcopalian, describes her late teens and early 20s as “rebellious.” When she became a single mother, she joined a non-denominational church but did not discern Catholicism at the time — in fact, White admits to dedicating herself to debunking many of the Church’s core beliefs.
“I took only what I had heard about the Catholic faith and spent a lot of time researching why it was wrong,” she said. “I wasn’t going to stop until I could prove how organized religion was not ‘Christian.’”
A year ago, her perspective changed after she met her now-fiancé — a devout Catholic.
“He attended my church a few times and I his, but when I entered Prince of Peace, I had the overwhelming feeling of love,” she said. “Everyone was so nice and welcomed us with open arms. When we were engaged, I knew I not only wanted to be married in the church, but take Communion with my husband and understand fully what the Catholic faith really means. Thus, started my RCIA journey.”
Carrie Cunningham, a candidate for Baptism on Holy Saturday at Prince of Peace, lived near the church and had heard great things about the parish community from friends and family members who attended Mass regularly. After speaking with Ragusa, she was convinced that it was the right place for her to begin her journey to become Catholic.
“My first impression of the RCIA process was that it seemed impossible to complete all that was necessary to become Catholic in such a short period of time,” Cunningham said. “The process itself can seem daunting because many, like myself, have to juggle many things at once; however, I realized if I looked at the process on a week-to-week basis, it really wasn’t that overwhelming.”
White also embraced the depth and detail of the faith formation.
“My challenge was accepting the fact that I judged so harshly on something I knew nothing about,” she said. “With every class, I sometimes would ask a contradicting question in order to ‘prove’ my point. I was doing exactly what I accused the Catholic faith of doing. But with the backing the Catholic faith had with Scripture and history, I felt the sheets over my eyes open.”
Both White and Cunningham are grateful for a strong support system they received from family members, sponsors and parishioners throughout the process. They are particularly thankful for those accompanying them on the journey.
“My mother is actually going through the process with me so I felt even more comfort with her by my side,” White said. “My sponsor has been my best friend since second grade. She guided me and helped me with questions and anything I needed while going through this.”
Cunningham said her journey was “much more enjoyable and rewarding” with the love and support of friends and family.
“My parents are very excited and proud that I’m finally joining the Catholic community,” she said. “My fiancé, who is Catholic, accompanies me to each and every class. My future mother-in-law has been a wonderful sponsor. And Maggie has been such a supportive cheerleader to myself, as well as everyone else involved in the RCIA process."
Actually receiving the Eucharist “will be what finally ends my confused, judgmental past and fill it with love and support for those who are or will be going through what I’ve gone through,” White said. “After all of the work, tears, confusion... there is always God.”
Cunningham anticipates growing more in her faith as she attends Mass and stays active in the parish community. “The RCIA process doesn’t really end on Easter; being part of the Catholic community is meant to be life-long and everlasting,” she said. “Religion is like any other important relationship we have — it takes nurturing, growth, patience and understanding to sustain and thrive. I see positive changes in my life already and I believe it is because I’m growing in my newfound faith.”