This is Part 5 of “My Conversion Story“. This part deals with our experience going through RCIA (spoiler: it isn’t always easy to be Catholic in RCIA!).
Back in 2000, my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil by Cardinal Francis George. You’ll have to take my word that the (fuzzy) picture above is of my wife and Cardinal George.
There are two types of converts to Catholicism: those who have never been baptized (“catechumens”) and those who have been baptized in another Christian tradition (“candidates”). My wife and I were both candidates because we were validly baptized in other Christian churches.
Prior to Vatican II, if a person wanted to convert to Catholicism, the conventional approach was to visit one of the parish priests and go through the process one-on-one.
RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) is a newer innovation that is supposed to mirror the process of conversion in the very first centuries of the Church, when “catechumens” (there were no candidates then, because there was only the Catholic Church!) were formed into a community and taught the faith. Sometimes catechumens would undergo catechesis for years before receiving baptism.
For my wife and me, the road to that Easter Vigil in 2000 wasn’t easy. In fact, it was made more difficult because we had to go through RCIA. It wasn’t because of inadequate resources. Our RCIA program was well-supported by the parish. There was a dedicated team that led the RCIA group, we had a wonderful place to meet after mass, a priest who attended the meetings and led the RCIA team, and a large group of interested candidates and catechumens who regularly attended and participated in the discussions.
The problems began in the introductory sessions when, rather than offering the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a good resource for additional reading, it was urged (frequently!) that candidates purchase a copy of “Catholicism for Dummies”.
The suggestion that the best way for an ordinary Catholic to understand the profound mysteries (not to mention the intellectual beauty) of the Faith was with a book written for “dummies” did not sit well with me. (Note to self: check Amazon for an “Aquinas for Dummies” book).
The problems continued to build over the months, and finally culminated when we candidates approached the upcoming vigil and would receive the sacraments of initiation, because every convert to Catholicism needs good instruction on Confession. Converts to Catholicism, who have never been to confession and have only seen it on television and in movies (and have lots of ideas but little understanding about it) need special care and support in this area.
Confession isn’t easy. It is beautiful. It is a gift. It is a sign of God’s great and true love and mercy for us. But in fact, it’s really, really, hard to go the first time, especially for people whose first experience with it occurs after decades of living their life. A young Catholic being properly formed in the faith starts going to confession just before their first communion, when they’re seven or eight years old! Imagine the fear and anxiety of confessing ALL of your sins (for the first time), from the age of reason all the way up to present adulthood!
The way our RCIA program acknowledged this issue was seriously bad. I mean, bad.
Father, one of the associate pastors at the parish who led the RCIA team, told us that it might be nice for candidates to go to confession before being received into the Church, but that it wasn’t necessary since almost no one was guilty of committing mortal sin, which is the only reason you need to go to confession, and also because it was really only for those who were “already Catholic” and “liked to go”.
Following Father’s talk, I approached him one-on-one to ask him about what he told the group. He insisted that there was no reason for me to go to confession before receiving the Eucharist for the first time.
About eight weeks later, after reflecting on what Father told our group and researching what the Church actually teaches regarding confession for baptized candidates, I wrote Father a letter:
Following our discussion at the RCIA retreat concerning baptized candidates, the sacrament of Reconciliation, and your comments to the RCIA group on Palm Sunday, I want to reopen our discussion — this time in writing, so that my concern may be fully explained. I highly regard you as a person and as a priest, and I hope you will carefully consider the information that follows.
My understanding concerning your position on candidates and Reconciliation is that previously baptized Christians not baptized in the Catholic Church should not receive the sacrament of Reconciliation until they are received into the Catholic Church and take their first Holy Communion. I assume this is your position regardless of whether one has committed grave or mortal sin.
During our conversation at the RCIA retreat, I allowed the topic to needlessly gravitate toward the question of defining mortal sin. This was an error on my part; the question of sin is one for each person making his or her own examination of conscience. The question here does not pertain to defining types of sin or sin itself. The question is whether baptized candidates should be instructed that they must be in a state of grace before receiving the sacrament of Confirmation and first Holy Communion.
At the very least, all baptized candidates should be informed that the sacrament of Penance is available to them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1310, states, “To receive Confirmation one must be in a state of grace. One should receive the sacrament of Penance in order to be cleansed for the gift of the Holy Spirit…” (See also paragraph 1319). Despite its seemingly clear language, this passage alone does not refute your contention that Confession is open only to Catholics.
The U.S. Conference of Bishops addresses this ambiguity, however, and makes it clear that all candidates should be in a state of grace. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate #36 (Nov. 11, 1986), states, “The celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation with candidates for reception into full communion is to be carried out at a time prior to and distinct from the celebration of the rite of reception. As part of the formation of such candidates, they should be encouraged in the frequent celebration of this sacrament.”
Accordingly, there is no distinction between candidates baptized in the Catholic Church and in other denominations. In his article, “How to Become a Catholic,” (published in The Rock, September 1995), apologist James Akin cites the U.S. Conference of Bishops, stating that “Christians coming into the Church should receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before their reception into the Church (there is no established point for when they should do this) to ensure that they are in a state of grace when they are received and confirmed” (emphasis mine).
Finally, the text of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, under the section entitled Preparation of Uncatechized Adults for Confirmation and Eucharist, says this: “The following pastoral guidelines concern adults who were baptized as infants either as Roman Catholics or as members of another Christian community but did not receive further catechetical formation nor, consequently, the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. (Sec. 400, p. 241)… During the Lenten season penitential services [the scrutinies] should be arranged in such a way as to prepare these adults for the celebration of the sacrament of Penance” (Sec. 408, p. 242).
I believe that the sources I have cited constitute an adequate, if not considerable framework on this issue. I do not count myself any more or less sinful than any other person; I only know that I needed absolution so that I could be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit at Confirmation. I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church at the age of 13. As a teenager and young adult, I sinned. Some of the sins I committed were mortal. Despite my sinfulness, I sought out the Catholic Church, recognizing the Church as a gift of Christ’s loving mercy, and I joined RCIA. I took seriously St. Paul’s warning that we must receive Jesus “worthily” (1 Cor 11:27-29); for me, this meant that thesacrament of Reconciliation before Confirmation and Eucharist was not optional, but compulsory. If we are not all sinners, why do we need the Church (why do we need Jesus)?
This issue is very important because each sacrament of the Church is an encounter with our Lord Jesus, including the sacrament of Reconciliation. The cleansing and healing mercy of God experienced in Reconciliation prepares the candidate, as nothing else can, to receive the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and the Body and Blood of Jesus in Eucharist. As His faithful, we have an obligation to approach Him in a state of grace. Likewise, all candidates, as “The Elect” and enrolled into a special order of the Church as such, should be given the opportunity to also receive their first sacraments in a state of grace. It is my hopeful prayer that you will consider this letter in the spirit it was delivered – that is to say in the love of God’s only Son and in the love of fidelity to the teachings of His Church. Moreover, as always, you and everyone in RCIA will remain in my prayers. I humbly hope that you will keep me in yours.
My wife and I went to Confession before the Easter Vigil (thank God).
Father never directly responded to my letter. A few months later, Father was appointed pastor at another parish (a promotion), but not before telling the other members on the RCIA team that I might be a “problem” for other candidates. When we signed up to be sponsors the following year, the RCIA team leader called me and indicated that “Father had some concerns about you returning as a sponsor.” I promised that I would be on my best behavior.
Pray for our priests. We have many, many, good priests, who diligently and earnestly teach and preach the faith. I’m not saying that Father wasn’t a good priest. But for whatever reason, his message to our RCIA group was that this sacrament of the Church would not assist in the spiritual formation of most people. That’s a shame, because Father should have been speaking with joy about the immense value of confession for anyone who wishes to approach Jesus in a state of grace.
We should never be ashamed to be Catholic. There are seven sacraments of the Church. Jesus gave them to us. They are offered to us by His Bride, the Church. Graces are poured out through them. We need them.