Giving hope

RCIA Summer Conference offers help in reaching the faith-seekers

By Gabrielle Nolan

The Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Christian Formation hosted its annual RCIA Summer Conference at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City on June 24.

The conference theme was “Leading them Home: Catechetical and Pastoral Insights for the Divorced and Seeking,” and speakers Tyler Ross  and Deacon Bill Jacobs discussed evangelization methods to reach out to those who desire full communion with the Catholic Church.

Deacon Jim Bello, diocesan director of Christian Formation, welcomed nearly 50 RCIA catechists and deacons to the summer conference.

“The reason today is so important is because I think a lot of us hear all the time that we as Catholics have a way of telling people they can’t come into the Church,” Deacon Bello said. “I know as the director of Christian Formation for the diocese, and as an RCIA coordinator in my parish, when that announcement is made every year that if people are still in the process of seeking a decree of nullity, they can’t come in at the Easter Vigil. And that’s generally been what we’ve told people. So, today I would like for us to open our minds and our hearts to be able to say, how can we say yes to people and help them and minister to them as they try to come back into or come to the Church. And that’s what today is about. It’s about welcoming people into this beautiful faith.”

‘The one Body of Christ’

Mr. Ross, a canon lawyer and judge for the diocesan tribunal who is a parishioner at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, led two presentations for the conference. His first presentation, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: How Protestants Are Already Catholic,” reflected on the nature of baptism and how best to serve unbaptized versus baptized people in RCIA.

Tyler Ross, a judge for the diocesan tribunal, leads a presentation about catechizing on Catholic marriage.

Mr. Ross read a selection of the Catechism of the Catholic Church from paragraph 1267: “Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: ‘Therefore… we are members one of another.’ Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.’”

“Protestant baptisms, with a few exceptions, are valid baptisms,” Mr. Ross said. “And so, if their baptisms work, the passage I just read from the Catechism applies to them as well. They, too, are baptized into the same Body of Christ, made members of the same Church.”

“Theologically speaking, any Protestant who is baptized is actually baptized into the Catholic Church. Why? Because there is no other church, and there is no other baptism. You’re baptized into the one Body of Christ, which is constituted by the one Church of Christ,” Mr. Ross explained.

“So, in this way, all baptized Protestants are already Catholics… but of course, they are only what the Catechism calls ‘imperfectly united’ into the one Church of Christ. … One must also believe everything contained in the deposit of faith, as well as submit to the lawful authority,” Mr. Ross said.

“Protestants are baptized, but they don’t believe everything contained in the deposit of faith, nor do they submit to the lawful authority. The Eastern Orthodox are baptized and believe, basically, everything contained in the deposit of faith, but they reject the lawful authority, right, the pope. Only in the Catholic Church does one find the fullness of the Christian religion, fullness of sacraments, fullness of faith or belief, and fullness of authority. Nevertheless, the dignity imparted at baptism is not lost on Protestants. We can affirm both of those things: they are imperfectly united, but they are united,” he added.

Mr. Ross noted that in addition to RCIA classes at the basilica, there is a separate track called mystagogia.

The RCIA group contains unbaptized and baptized people, while the mystagogia group contains those who are baptized and evangelized and catechized.

“One of the great benefits to what I’ll now refer to as the mystagogia program or mystagogia track is that it can be tailored to the unique needs of the evangelized and catechized,” Mr. Ross said.

He shared with the catechists that there is no requirement that baptized Christians wait until the Easter Vigil to come into the Church.

“It appears that the Church even deems it preferable to receive these candidates as soon as they’re disposed,” he said.

Mr. Ross asked the crowd how that would look in a practical parish setting: Could there be multiple times during the year for confirmations? Could the overall timeframe commitment be shorter for those candidates who are more prepared?

For the mystagogia track at the basilica, Mr. Ross created a curriculum for two-hour classes over a span of 12 weeks. There are three cycles per year, with a month break in between.

Mystagogia differs from the traditional RCIA classes in both timeframe and length of topics. There are challenges, as well, such as integrating the candidates into parish life in a smaller timeframe, and a separate mystagogia track can require more time from staff or more staff in general.

“We have had a great success with the mystagogia program at the basilica,” Mr. Ross shared. “In four cycles, as I mentioned, we have taught 44 people, all of whom who were received into full communion.”

“My hope now is that we can all take these ideas, pray on them, and discern together how best to show Christ to everybody, meeting people where they’re at,” he said.

The indissolubility of marriage

Mr. Ross’ second presentation was titled “The Hardness of our Hearts: Becoming Catholic without a Declaration of Nullity.”

He began his talk by saying that if a person approaches RCIA with real faith and a sincere repentance of all their sins, there are no circumstances in which they should be turned away.

“What keeps people from becoming Catholic?” he asked. “One place we can start is the profession of faith… ‘I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.’ If someone can make this profession of faith, one can be Catholic. Or to say it a different way, if someone is going to become Catholic, they need to be able to say this. They need to believe as the Church believes.”

“If the Church expects this kind of faith of anyone desiring to become Catholic, not to mention everyone who is Catholic, then all who make this profession must be able to adhere to the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage,” Mr. Ross continued. “If someone cannot make this profession of faith, one cannot sincerely, at least, be Catholic. The alternative is so-called cafeteria Catholicism… I’ll take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, I’ll leave that. A faith that picks and chooses what to believe is not divine faith but rather human opinion.”

Mr. Ross discussed the Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, quoting Scripture from Romans 7 and Mark 10.

“What is important to note here is that being unable to dissolve a marriage bond is what Jesus is pointing out is how marriage was from the beginning,” he said. “This means that today, no matter the country or religion or beliefs of the parties, if they get married, they are establishing a bond that is dissolved, as Paul says, by death alone.”

“If then the parties attempt to divorce to get remarried, what they are actually doing, per our Lord and Paul, is committing adultery,” he continued. “On the most fundamental level, even if all parties involved think they aren’t, or even if all parties involved are OK with the new union, they actually are committing adultery. Our opinion on whether something is a sin doesn’t change the fact that a given action is a sin, though it might lessen our culpability for it. Not knowing that something is a sin might mean you’re not guilty of it, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do something wrong.”

Mr. Ross discussed his work as a judge in the diocesan marriage tribunal, where he interviews parties and their witnesses every day.

“When people make the statement, I need an annulment to become Catholic, it implies I as a tribunal judge am either the one preventing them from becoming Catholic because of rules or I’m somehow making them persist in their adultery, and neither of which I am doing,” he shared.

“So, what am I dancing around saying here? Well, it’s good news and bad news, depending on how it’s received. The good news is no one has to wait for a declaration of nullity in order to become Catholic. The bad news is the sin preventing such a person from becoming Catholic will require them to believe with faith that their current civil spouse is not their real spouse in the eyes of God, and to behave accordingly,” he continued.

Mr. Ross acknowledged the difficulty in having this type of conversation with RCIA participants, but he said there are some useful tactics involved in delivering the message.

“If you have the luxury of working with a group of Protestants, you can appeal to Scripture,” he said. “In no less than five places in Scripture does the Holy Spirit, through the human authors, teach us that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and vice versa.”

“If on the other hand you’re dealing with the unchurched, it can become a bit more involved. I always simply start by telling people that Catholics believe that marriage is for life, and most people when they hear that will say ‘yeah, sure, everybody believes that.’ To which I will then usually respond, well for us though, once the spouses make their vows and say till death do us part, death alone does the part. ‘So, I can’t end my own marriage?’ No, you specifically said you wouldn’t. So that’s one approach.

“Another approach I take, usually following upon that, is to help them understand why we believe God made marriage this way in the first place. This is a tactic that can work on unchurched people as well as churched people,” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Ross tries to first talk about marriage and indissolubility before getting into the issue of divorce and remarriage, allowing the candidates and catechumens an opportunity to come to conclusions on their own.

“So, the baseline expectation for these people, as with the rest of the people in RCIA, is to assist them in believing with faith all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God,” he continued. “In the case of the divorced and remarried, it implies an acceptance of their objective state before God and a legitimate repentance, which includes a willingness to turn from the sin in which they find themselves. And this really is the only prerequisite to become Catholic, right, repent and believe.”

Mr. Ross brought up the case for annulments.

“As long as the couple is presumed to still be married to their original spouses, any romantic relationship will be adultery. But what if we can overturn that presumption? What if we can prove that the original marriages were invalid? If we can do that, then we can allow the parties to now finally get married. So, there is a possible way out, but please note, it is their own choice to take on a life of continence, which can prevent them from becoming Catholic, not a declaration of nullity.”

He also mentioned that a declaration of nullity is never a guarantee.

“It’s certainly possible that the invalidity of the previous marriage is not proven, and if it can’t be, are we to prohibit these people from joining the Church forever? No, by no means. Notice here that it is the declaration of nullity that is the fallback option, if you will. Most of us are probably operating in the reverse, neglecting to call and invite these people into the continence that Jesus is calling them to, telling them to get the annulment and only bringing up continence after they can’t make their case for nullity. That’s backwards. We have a duty as catechists to share with people the good news, which includes the good news of the indissolubility of marriage. And if we neglect to do that out of fear, their sin becomes our sin, too.

“What do we make of the parties who refuse to acknowledge their state and behave accordingly? Well, to put it simply and bluntly, they appear not to believe, I would say even to reject, what our Lord says about marriage and how He calls us to live. And as we discussed earlier, this scenario is the only one in which the Church would prohibit someone from becoming Catholic,” he said.

Mr. Ross acknowledged that the Church’s teaching is hard to hear and to teach.

“This is a hard teaching to hear, and a hard heart might be easy to come by if you’re the one being told all of this in RCIA. On the other hand, it’s also a hard teaching to teach, and a hard heart might be easy to come by if you’re afraid of the reactions you might get,” he said.

“If we’ve done our jobs well in RCIA, we would be teaching them that the Catholic Church is necessary with all the proper qualifications,” Mr. Ross continued. “But if we’re also telling them that they cannot enter the Church because of their marital state and not giving them any solutions to fix it, we are effectively permanently banning someone from grace, and finally from salvation. This constitutes a serious abuse.”

“Similarly, using annulments as a scapegoat is another abuse. I’m talking about those situations where we say, ‘you need an annulment before you become Catholic,’ and then we allow them to persist in their adultery. They are able to get the required annulments, but they never repented of their state the whole time. As an RCIA catechist I’ve solved the practical problem, but I haven’t actually helped bring about a true conversion. That person is still in the dark about marriage, divorce, and remarriage and how that all relates to Jesus and the Church and the indissoluble new covenant,” he added.

Mr. Ross concluded his presentation with a final question: Is the Eucharist worth it?

“As catechists, we should be able to help them answer that question correctly, with tact and great love,” he said.

“We anticipated that Tyler’s expertise as a canon lawyer and catechist would stir the interest of our parishes,” Deacon Bello shared. “Each of his presentations was designed to encourage those seeking full communion in the faith to experience evangelization and learning as a more welcoming, and in many cases, expedited journey into the beauty of Catholicism. Tyler took some very difficult material and presented it in a way that was thorough but practical.”

Deacon Bill Jacobs makes a point in his presentation at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City.

Seeking the Catholic faith

Deacon Bill Jacobs of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa led a presentation titled “Before the Beginning and After the End: Matters of Inquiry and Mystagogy for RCIA Catechists.”

Deacon Jacobs discussed the challenges and opportunities of encountering faith-seekers after the RCIA program is well underway.

“We all recognize that the Holy Spirit inspires individuals, and people respond to those inspirations at unpredictable times,” he said.

“It is important to note that while this seeker moment, right, from the moment they call the parish, it may mark the formal start of their initiation, but it’s not the beginning of their faith journey,” Deacon Jacobs continued, noting that each seeker has a lifetime of experience and is on a journey.

“These experiences have eventually led to the gift from the Holy Spirit of the strength and the courage to make the phone call. So, recognizing that it is that action of the Holy Spirit that drives our seekers to us, and we must respond in kind, not with a registration form or a stack of papers, not with a date for when the next sessions will start,” he said.

“Whoever greets this seeker must greet them as Christ would greet them. Unfortunately, time, malaise, and bureaucracy have a tendency to rule our parish offices and staff. You and I can be overburdened with the weekly grind of teaching and coordinating RCIA. More often than not, seekers aren’t greeted by Christ but with a form to fill out. We need to begin the initiation process not with forms and paperwork and schedules, but with simple conversation. It is all about personal contact. This contact is absolutely invaluable in order to demonstrate to these seekers our faith and the excitement that we feel in hearing that they want to join our faith community,” he added.

Deacon Jacobs suggests that, after the seeker contacts the parish, parish-office staff offer a solution to welcome them, no matter where the parish’s RCIA program is on its timeline.

The first option: continue one-on-one with the seeker.

“Pair up a seeker with a trusted and available parishioner. This person could get to know the seeker and discuss things about the Catholic faith periodically with them until a formal inquiry opportunity becomes available,” he said. “Conversely, a married couple or another group of individuals could invite a seeker and their spouse to join them for dinner on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. Again, these would be informal sessions by design. This also affords an opportunity to assess the seeker’s needs and determine the best way to serve them going forward.”

Option two: have monthly inquirer drop-in sessions.

“A priest or deacon or competent layperson or RCIA team member could field questions or offer a short presentation on an element of our faith, nothing too heavy yet. Give a personal testimony or lead a reflection on a fitting Scripture passage. This could be an evening once a month. … Potential sponsors could be invited to those same sessions and eventually paired up with the seekers who progress in the process. Parishioners who are looking for some way to introduce their friends or their coworkers to the faith might welcome this as a no-commitment event to which their non-Catholic context could be invited on an ongoing basis.”

Option three: providing good books for the seeker to read.

“Now I bet you could think of lots of introductory titles that might help spur a seeker to know more about the faith, but you shouldn’t just hand them that book and say see you in September,” Deacon Jacobs said. “You should ask them to periodically visit with a priest or deacon or a competent layperson for discussion on what they read in the book.”

Option four: invite the seeker to plug into existing parish programs.

“Consider other parish programs like adult-ed classes, book studies, Bible studies already going on in the church,” he said. “Men’s groups, women’s groups, they often start at different times during the year, so you can invite the seeker. … Be sure to give a heads up to the program coordinators.”

Option five: playing “catch up.”

If the seeker is baptized and well catechized, there may be an opportunity to catch them up on all that has happened in the RCIA class.

“Now the problem with using the catch-up approach is it’s easy to rush a person through that material without allowing proper time for reflection and conversion, and it also may be logistically difficult for you because you know, people gave talks the last three months… so it may not be easy to play catch up,” Deacon Jacobs shared.

Lastly, Deacon Jacobs invited the catechists to consider how they might serve their catechumens and candidates after the Easter Vigil.

“If the Holy Spirit has influenced these new Catholics through the catechumenal process, and if we have done our jobs well, they’re excited to grow further in the faith and to explore the faith more deeply,” Deacon Jacobs said. “In addition, we have spent time in the formation process not only teaching them but also forming them into a community, a community that is worth sustaining and continuing to foster after the Easter Vigil.”

He encouraged catechists to invite those newly entered into the Church to their parish’s first Communion and confirmation Masses, as well as communal penance services, infant baptisms, and the Sending of the Neophytes Mass at the cathedral.

Deacon Jacobs praised the RCIA catechists in attendance.

“I want to say that I don’t think that all of you get enough acknowledgement for the great work that you do with RCIA, it’s sometimes a thankless job. … Many souls come to experience the richness of our Catholic faith through your efforts,” he said.

Deacon Bello said that “any conversation with Deacon Bill is sure to be entertaining and informative. His energy during the start of his presentation paved the way for some great information designed to help our catechists and parishes anticipate and navigate some common obstacles before, during, and after the normal RCIA cycle. Deacon Bill’s presentation was well-received, practical, and will be useful in many ways as we prepare to launch our RCIA Programs in August and September.”

“This conference was assembled for the purpose of helping our RCIA coordinators and catechists provide a more welcoming and efficient program for those seeking to learn more about this beautiful Church,” Deacon Bello continued. “Both Tyler Ross and Deacon Bill Jacobs did exactly that. I believe these presentations will be beneficial to each parish to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and continue our diocesan growth in faith and number.”

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