This workshop was presented by Sharon brewer of Canberra Goulburn diocese.
Sharon Brewer is a wife and mother to four children. After her family her second passion is her involvement in parish life. For the last 23 years she has been involved with the parishes of St Francis of Assisi, Calwell and more recently Corpus Christi Parish, South Tuggeranong. Sharon first became involved through the Parish Social Group and then offered her help with parish administration. As the Tuggeranong Valley became one of the fastest growing areas in Australia, Sharon assisted with Baptism classes for many families. Over time she became more involved in the sacramental preparation of children. In recent years she has been developing programs for Older Child Baptisms, Teenage Sacramental Programs, adult faith formation and assisting with the RCIA program. Additionally she has collaborated in the publication of a quarterly parish magazine and the Corpus Christi Parish Prayer Book.
At the start of the workshop Sharon asked for a show of hands of cradle Catholics vs converts, and then how many of the converts had been through an RCIA process as opposed to one on one sessions with a priest. About 3 or 4 had been through an RCIA process.
Sharon then went briefly through some of RCIA handbooks and publications on offer from various Australian dioceses. Some of them are hardcopy, others are DVD sets or can be downloaded from websites. The choice of which resources to use has to be made on pastoral level and not on a practical level. To use the same handbooks year in and year out does not take account of the different mix of enquirers in each 'intake' and what would suit that intake best.
From visiting parishes in the Canberra Goulburn diocese and asking about their RCIA experiences and retention rates, it was clear that the smaller more isolated parishes had better retention rates than the bigger city parishes. This is likely to be because the smaller more isolated parishes have stronger, less fractured communities, than bigger city parishes.
One way to get greater involvement and understanding in the parish about the RCIA is to hold an Open Night rather than an Enquiry Night. If people know more about the RCIA process they are more likely to invite someone to come along, and to get involved themselves.
One trend we have noticed is that there are more children / teenagers wanting to become Catholics in the school setting. The challenge is how to run the RCIA / RCIC at the schools and still link them into the parish. The parish has to go to the young people, and cannot expect the young people to come to the parish to do the programme. Currently 'The Christ We Proclaim' is being re-written for the Australian context and is being field tested. Look for it to be available for use in the next 12 months.
Another trend is that 15 years ago new enquirers would come knowing that they would have to get their marital issues sorted out before becoming fully initiated Catholics. Now we are finding that people are getting towards the end of the RCIA programme before finding out that they need to get their marital status in the eyes of the Church sorted out, together with all the tears, disappointments and delays that situation causes. It is very important to do an interview process at the start of the RCIA journey in order to get all those things out into the open (re-marriages, de-facto relationships, blended families, any need for annulments etc) so that they can get worked on while the RCIA is going on. While the interview process cannot be an interrogation, it still needs to be both pastoral and thorough.
What are our enquirers / seekers seeking?
Enquirers have different needs and cannot be treated the same. Here are some common scenarios. At the workshop participants were broken up into groups and given a scenario each. Then they had to answer two questions:
1) Name three things your enquirer might be looking for in the RCIA process.
2) Name three things your enquirer might be looking for in the faith community
- Mr Jones is married to Mrs Jones, who has been a Catholic all her life. They have three children who have gone through a Catholic school. After 20 years of marriage, he is thinking of becoming a Catholic.
- Jessica Smith is in Year 11 at high school. Her parents are not Catholic but thought it might be nice to send her to a Catholic school. Because of her school experiences Jessica is thinking about becoming Catholic.
- Mr and Mrs Green are not Catholics, but they are interested in sending their children to a Catholic school. This was picked up in the enrolment interview process and the Parish Priest has asked them to go along to the RCIA enquiry night. They probably will attend, since they realise that they might have to get their children baptised in order to increase their chances of their enrolments being accepted.
- Patricia Brown is in her mid 60s and when she was a little girl she went to Sunday School. Now she is divorced, her children have left home, and she is feeling lonely. She is not a Catholic, but knows there is a Catholic church near where she lives and wonders if she could become a part of that community.
- Jack is in his late 20s and has a few tattoos. He's done a few crazy things and he is struggling with relationships. Could religion help him?
- Melanie is studying at a Catholic university and hopes to graduate as a teacher. She was baptised Catholic, but her parents didn't go to Mass and she did not complete her sacramental initiation. Her uni friends are advising her that she will have a better shot at getting a job in a Catholic school if she has completed the sacraments. She's thinking about it.
- Frederick White was baptised and raised in another Christian tradition. He takes quite an academic approach to life. He no longer identifies with the church he grew up in and has heard some interesting things about the Catholic Church. He's making enquiries.
- Max is engaged to Mary. She is a Catholic and would like a nuptial Mass for her wedding. Max is not a Catholic, but is prepared to do whatever it takes to please Mary. One snag, the wedding date is a few weeks before Easter.
- Will want to know exactly what is required. How much time is involved, any costs? They almost need a spreadsheet plan with dates and times etc. Detail is what they want, including who will be involved (the priest, the team, others), and how the whole process works.
- Will want a lot of flexibility - they won't be able to get there every week - does that matter? They'll be looking for the easiest path and the minimum requirements. Do they really have to do the "Easter Thing" i.e.do they have to wait that long.
- Will need a way to discuss their personal baggage/problems etc. All of them will bring baggage. Does your parish have access to counselling services or a pastoral care person? The RCIA team need to help such people address those issues outside of the RCIA meetings and should be looking for people outside the team to assist them.
- Will want to know why the Church is interested in their previous/current marriage arrangements. Make sure you get to know the person at the diocesan marriage tribunal who does have the answers. Does your parish have the resources to help them (books, DVDs, web-links)? What assistance and advice can the marriage tribunal give?
- Will want a very academic approach versus a more conversational/storytelling approach.
- Will want to know how you live your life of faith - you need to be honest and vulnerable. Be prepared to share your struggles in detail. Be prepared to share how God has worked in your relationships. If you share at this level they will be able to begin a relationship with you, and through your experiences get the courage to start building a relationship with God.
- Won't know what to expect at all.
- The person who comes who doesn't know what they want will be the hardest to satisfy.
What are our enquirers / seekers looking for in a faith community?
- They will be looking for the very same things that cradle Catholics are looking for in their faith community.
- They will be attracted by ministry (especially hospitality), music (good liturgy) and message (something to nourish the soul and to chew over) - "The Rebuilt Story". Until a parish starts doing these three tasks well, parishioners will not begin to invite newcomers to their Churches.
- They are looking for relationships, with God and with the parishioners.
- They want to feel that they belong on the journey to God together with the congregation.
- They want to learn how to find their way to God through prayer.
Keeping it going
Just because an enquirer has started the journey into the church, it doesn't mean that they will finish it.
- The enquirer tells you 'I'm exhausted. I've got to have a break'. That means they are beginning to drift away. In such cases it does help to have non-team parishioners praying for the enquirers and verbally reminding them of those prayers once in a while.
- It is crucial to build the expectation that the initiation process ends at Pentecost not at the Easter Vigil, and even after Pentecost they haven't finished learning and growing – and that this is a full lifetime's work. If there is an expectation that there are some vital follow-up sessions/events/experiences, they will come.
- Keep reminding them that the time of mystagogy (the life long journey of growing closer to God) is not an "add-on" or "optional extra" but something essential. (Ed. Would you teach a youngster the road rules then give him the keys of the car and give him or her no further driving help? Of course not! Theory is one thing, practical experience is quite another). Build up some excitement for the post-Easter Vigil learning and sharing.
- The RCIA team needs a break. The usual programme from August to March/April is a long haul. To keep things fresh and interesting it is worthwhile introducing some new team members during Holy Week who will be involved in the mystagogy process. That will lighten the load a bit.
- Some team members will need pastoral care themselves. Team members should be looking out for each other and alert for the early signs of burnout.
- Consider options that don't necessarily involve the team, eg. other parishioners or other parish groups, diocesan follow-on and adult ed. programs.
- The downer after the high.
- The newcomers may feel that they are not special any more. Now they are just another Joe Bloe in the pew. To illustrate this, one mum had post-natal depression and had attempted RCIA three times. Prior to becoming a Catholic she would go up in the Communion procession and receive a blessing, maybe the sign of the cross on her forehead. Now she was receiving the Body of Christ, but she wasn't receiving that physical touch and she really missed it.
- The newcomers may feel like they are on their own with no one to turn to for further help or advice (particularly if the team are busy with a new intake of enquirers).
- We should look out for tell-tale comments like "it doesn't matter if I miss Mass every now and then, because no one will miss me if I'm not there, so it doesn't matter if I come or not'.
- Consider giving them a regular task to do in parish life.
- Foster a sense of gratitude so that the transition from consumer to both consumer and contributor is smooth. We need to have answers for how they can support the local parish and for how the local parish can support them.
- The parish needs a plan at the parish council level for integrating the new Catholics into parish life. It requires both thinking and planning to make it happen.
- Get your parishioners involved along the way. Make some of your RCIA meeting nights 'open nights' for anyone to attend. However if you do, make sure that the hospitality is excellent (ie far more than tea, coffee and a biscuit). It is very important that the team regularly attracts fresh blood and doesn't become a clique.
- Get your new candidates onto e-mailing lists for both the parish and the diocese, eg Cath News, parish bulletins, diocesan e-zines.
- Get them to tell their story in person (at church, in schools) and to write it down too, and publish them in your diocesan magazines and online eg http://myfamilymyfaith.org.au/
- Help them to discern their gifts and charisms and encourage the use of them. They need to understand how the Holy Spirit has gifted them beyond what they were already good at. The Called & Gifted programme is good for this. http://bne.catholic.net.au/asp/index.asp?pgid=11362
- Consider what could they offer the next RCIA process
- Ask the bishop for some words of encouragement and send it to them in a letter from him.
- Send birthday and Christmas cards, and 'one year since the Easter Vigil – how are you going?' cards
- Personally invite them, by phone, text email, to events such as Faith formation and social events.
- Offer once in a while to come and take them to Mass so that you can go together for coffee afterwards
- Introduce them to good internet links and websites and YouTube clips.
- Give them personal encouragement.
- Don't underestimate the importance of excellent sponsors. These will be their role models, their encouragers and their listening ears. The right sponsor makes an enormous difference, since their role will last much longer than the RCIA process. Discourage if you can sponsors who are friends at a similar point in their faith journey as the candidate. If necessary, live with it and appoint a mentor for them instead.
The Catholic Enquiry Centre has brochures that can be downloaded for free. http://www.catholicenquiry.com/
Fr Robert Barron 10 one hour DVDs http://www.catholicismseries.com/study-program
Australian Catechumenate Network http://www.ozcatechumenate.org/
At Home With God's People, http://www.ahwgp.com/asp/index.asp?pgid=11988 from the Archdiocese of Brisbane
Fr Robert Barron, YouTube 'The Real Presence' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJjW3LXuHzo
The Skit Guys http://skitguys.com/ Christian video clips
Encouraging words from Pope Francis
"All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us His closeness, His word and His strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without Him; what you have come to realise, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others". (EG 121)
"So what are we waiting for?" (EG 120)
The next blog-post will be about the keynote talk on trends in the National Church Life Survey – which may get posted in two parts.
Some of the workshops have been made available as podcasts via www.xt3.com
To access them visit http://www.xt3.com/library/view.php?id=17454