Prior to formally beginning the RCIA process, an individual comes to some knowledge of Jesus Christ, considers his or her relationship with Jesus Christ and is usually attracted in some way to the Catholic Church. This time period is known as the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate. For some people, this process involves a long period of searching; for others, it is a shorter time. Often, some contact with people of faith and a personal faith experience leads people to inquire about membership in the Catholic Church.
After conversation with an advisor or spiritual guide, the person, known as an “inquirer,” may decide to continue the process and seek acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. The inquirer stands in the midst of the parish community and states that he or she wants to continue the process and become a baptized member of the Catholic Church. The local parish assembly affirms his or her wish and the inquirer then becomes a “catechumen.”
The period of the catechumenate can last for as long as several years or for a much shorter time. It depends on how the person is growing in faith, what questions and obstacles they encounter along the way, and how God leads them on this faith journey. During this time the catechumens consider what God is saying to them in the Scriptures, what changes in their life they want to make to respond to God’s inspiration, and what membership in the Catholic Church involves. Catechumens have a special connection to the Church and even though they are not yet baptized, they also have certain rights in the Church.
When a catechumen and the parish team working with him or her believes the person is ready to make a faith commitment to Jesus in the Catholic Church, the next step is the request for baptism and the celebration of the Rite of Election. This rite includes the official enrollment of names of all those seeking baptism at the coming Easter Vigil. On the first Sunday of Lent, the catechumens and their sponsors and families and members of the parish gather at the cathedral church and the catechumens publicly request baptism. Their names are then recorded in a special book and they are then no longer called catechumens, but “the elect.” The days of Lent are the final period of purification and enlightenment leading up to the celebration of initiation at the Easter Vigil. This Lenten season is a period of intense preparation marked by prayer, study, and spiritual direction for the elect, and special prayers for them by the parish communities.
The third formal step is the Celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation, which takes place during the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday night when the catechumen receives the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist. Now the person is a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church and will continue to live out his or her response to God as a member of this faith community.
After the person is initiated at the Vigil, another period of formation and education continues in the period of the postbaptismal catechesis which is called “mystagogy.” This period continues at least until Pentecost and often longer. During the period of mystagogy the newly baptized members reflect on their experiences at the Easter Vigil and continue to learn more about the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In addition they reflect on how they will serve Christ and help in the Church’s mission and outreach activities.