RCIA is the name commonly used for the process of adults becoming Catholic. These initials come from a book called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the Catholic Church’s official document for the sacraments of initiation for adults and older children.
For many people, the term “RCIA” has come to mean a long series of classes about Catholic beliefs. Mention “RCIA,” and most people imagine How-to-Become-Catholic classes. But what the Catholic Church envisions for Christian Initiation is far more encompassing than that. What the Church’s official book says differs in several ways from what is commonly understood by many in the USA.
Rather than “Catholic classes,” the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults calls for a wide-ranging process of initiation that does include instruction about Catholic beliefs and practices, but also helps the new Christians gradually learn to pray, to have faith in God, to follow Jesus, to become acquainted with the parish, to take part in service, to practice love of others, to join in worship, and so on.
This process of making new Christians is meant to be a training in all aspects of Christian life. Christian Initiation engages new members in all four key areas of religion: beliefs, morality, worship, and community.
“RCIA” is often understood to be a program for anyone who wants to become Catholic. Actually, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was written to help people who seek to become Christians and followers of Jesus Christ. It is for people who are not yet Christians and have not been baptized.
This means that the long process of initiation given in the book was not intended for Christians baptized in other denominations who now wish to become Catholic. Baptized Christians who desire to transfer membership into the Catholic Church celebrate a ritual called Reception into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church. In the Rite of Reception into Full Communion, the Church asks for the parish to provide a preparation that is both doctrinal and spiritual, suited to the needs of the individual person. But this preparation is not intended to be the same as for those becoming Christians.
Often when people use the term “RCIA,” they are referring to the preparation process (of classes) leading up to baptism. But as the title of the book suggests, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a book of rituals.
These rituals include ceremonies that mark the steps for people as they progress toward becoming Christians, initiate them with sacraments, and integrate them into the parish as full members.
“RCIA” is not over when it’s time for the sacraments, but reaches its climax with baptism, confirmation, and eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
It continues for the Easter Season (Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday) as new believers reflect on their experience of celebrating the sacraments in the midst of the parish community. The RCIA is a series of rites for the initiation of new believers before, during, and after baptism.
The RCIA, then, is a ritual book of the Catholic Church. It gives the ritual for initiating new Christians with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. It gives rituals to help the new believers as they grow into followers of Christ and members of the Church. It describes how to tell when people are ready for these rites, and how to help them live up to what they promised in those rites, with the grace of God.