Sunday, May 6, 2007

RCIA sessions

As we get toward the end of another year of RCIA it seems appropriate to reflect on what has happened in the past and also to reflect on what the sources have to tell us about what we are doing. As I read blogs on the topic of the RCIA (about 400 postings in a typical week according to Google) I notice a variety of opinions about what form RCIA sessions ought to take. Some critics of the RCIA complain that sessions consist only in participants talking about their feelings and consequently that these types of sessions are a waste of time. Others place strong emphasis on the knowledge content of the sessions. These people seem happy with a traditional question and answer catechism format for RCIA sessions. Each of these visions of catechesis are partly correct but incomplete in some way.
Jane Regan writing in Toward an Adult Church[i] gives a thoughtful summary of the various roles of catechesis. First of all catechesis informs. That is it presents the information needed to be an active member of the church. Secondly, catechesis forms. That is it introduces people to the way of life of the community of believers. Thirdly, catechesis transforms. That is, it provides people with a call to conversion. Regan maintains that effective catechesis needs to attend to all three of these dimensions and that, for example, a catechetical program that focused purely on informing its students would not necessarily produce desirable long term results.
Linda Vogel in Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith[ii] gives us additional insight into what form adult religious education sessions (like RCIA) ought to take. She writes that the people who come to us have a great want and need.
· They have experienced some kind of disruption in their lives that needs attention.
· They need to reflect on their own experiences. (Their own journey or their own story.)
· They bring with them a new readiness to hear the words of the Christian story.
· They bring new eyes for seeing the connections between their stories and the story of the Christian community. (They are ready to see how they fit into the Church).
· They bring a readiness to celebrate all this through remembering and ritual. (This is an interesting observation in light of the fact that Vogel is a professor in an Evangelical college and was not writing about the RCIA at the time.)
· They bring a readiness to act on their new experiences and understandings.
Finally, Margaret Brillinger writing in Adult Religious Education[iii] gives us five basic principles of adult learning.
· Since adult learners are more in control of their own learning than children the role of the adult educator is more of a coach, supporter or facilitator and less of a knower or imparter of information. This for me is always a temptation. When time is short it is very easy for me to lapse into the lecture or even (heaven forbid) the preaching mode of subject delivery.
· Adults bring with them a variety of experiences and insecurities. They need to be treated with respect and to be able to collaborate with each other in the project of learning.
· Adults learn best when they have some input (or stake in) into the planning of a learning session. They need to have a sense of responsibility for what, why and how they learn.
· Adults need to be able to make a connection between their own experiences and what is being presented in the learning session.
· All people (including adults) have a variety of learning styles. Learning is enhanced by a variety of activities and structures that appeal to a range of learning styles.
So, what does this tell us about the general “shape” of an ideal RCIA session? First of all, it indicates that lecture is not an ideal format for an RCIA session. Secondly, I should point out that the specific focus of a session is going to differ depending on what stage of the RCIA we are in (sessions at the inquiry phase have a different focus than later sessions in the journey). I should also point out that some authors like Thomas Morris[iv]strongly suggest that lectionary catechesis is the ideal for RCIA. I would only point out that such a method makes huge demands regarding preparation of sessions on an RCIA team that is largely made up of volunteers.
Finally, it seems to me that generally a session should begin with prayer. Next, a topic should be introduced in such a way as to invite the participation of the group as well as an encounter with the teachings of the Church regarding this topic. Next should follow activities that engage the participants in some way. I think that it is important here that the conversations that take place here do not just focus on the feelings of the participants. These are important but the story of the Christian community has to be included in the conversation as well. Then should follow some kind of wrap-up where participants review what has been experienced as well as the teaching of Scripture and of the Church. Lastly, each session should conclude with a prayer.
This general picture of an RCIA session has some important implications. For me, the most important one is that of time. If we are to provide a fairly comprehensive catechesis (as the Rite requires) and if we are to follow a general format like that suggested above time appears to be at a premium. How many minutes are needed for an effective topic session? How do we get all of the needed topics into the limited number of evenings available? Additionally the catechist needs time to prepare for these sessions. I think that the most important skill for these sessions is the skill of preparing and asking appropriate questions. The leader can not simply direct the sessions (remember adults learn best when they are in charge of their own learning) but needs to anticipate the directions that the group might go in their discussions. The role of the lectionary is also important. We have been devoting the first quarter of our sessions to the lectionary. If we put more emphasis on dismissal catechesis would that be a sufficient emphasis on the lectionary? Lastly comes the question of print resources for RCIA sessions. There are many available. In our Parish we currently use the package prepared by Liguori publications. We use the handouts mainly for the participants to read following the evening session. Is there a better way to use these resources? Do participants actually read them? Is there a better set of resources that we could use?

[i] Regan, Jane E. Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formation, Loyola Press, 2002.
[ii] Vogel, Linda J. Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith, Jossey Bass, 1991.
[iii] Brillinger, Margaret Fisher. Adult Learning in a Religious Context. Adult Religious Education: A Journey of Faith Development, Gillen and Taylor ed. Paulist Press, 1995.
[iv] Morris, Thomas H. The RCIA: Transforming the Church, Paulist Press, 1997.

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