Catechesis, Sacraments & the Mystery of Conversion

Seventh Day of Christmas and Feast of St Melania the Younger, Nun of Rome

christ-teaching_Square.jpegFOR SEVERAL years, I served as a catechist in Blessed Sacrament’s R.C.I.A. program. R.C.I.A. stands for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is the program and process for bringing adults into the Catholic Church. In its purest form, the adults have never been baptized or catechized as Christians. The program and process combines both catechesis into Christian doctrine and preparation for reception of the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion. In many parishes, however, sometimes the adults who attend the classes and participate in the liturgies were baptized in other Christian communities or were Catholics who had been baptized but never received the other Sacraments.

In addition to the adults inquiring about becoming Catholic, parishioners serve as sponsors throughout the program, accompanying the inquirers through the usually seven month program—up through Easter, when at the Vigil, the Catechumens (those not baptized) and Candidates (those baptized) are received into the Church.

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As I continued to serve as a catechist, teaching classes on topics ranging from God and Creation and the Trinity (always trying to avoid heresy there!) to the Communion of Saints and Marian doctrine and devotion, I saw that on our own, we were destined to fail in our efforts to bring new Christians to birth.

All our information and data could provide the intellectual background—important and essential material for these adults—but only the grace of the Sacraments effected the conversion we and they sought. Something—everything—in these adults was going to change because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, the Communion with Jesus, and the forgiveness of sin.

Otherwise, the process would be like Rex Mottram’s attempted conversion in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He wants to join the Church just to make the Marchmain family happy and facilitate the grand wedding Julia has always dreamed of: “Just you give me the form and I’ll sign on the dotted line.” Of course Mottram is an extreme case: as the priest, Father Mowbray (“renowned for his triumphs with obdurate catechumens”), tells Lady Marchmain, “He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.”

I never encountered that attitude while teaching R.C.I.A. classes. But I realized that whatever good (or ill) we did in our attempts to transmit the Christian faith, the Sacraments didn’t just complete the work, they were the Work. We were participating in the great mystery of conversion and it was only after the neophytes had been baptized, confirmed, and had received their first Holy Communion that they had received the graces of those sacraments. After the Easter Vigil we needed to repeat the lessons of catechesis as the neophytes had now experienced what we had only been describing to them before.

The ancient Church knew this and there was a period of Mystagogy assigned for the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. Fathers of the Church from Saint Ambrose to Saint Leo the Great, including Saint Cyril of Jerusalem and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, instructed the new Christians on the mysteries they had just received. It should be noted that Mike Aquilina, one of our speakers, in collaboration with Scott Hahn, created a mystagogical devotional based upon the Fathers’ instruction of their neophytes: Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. Even Christians who received the sacraments of initiation years before can benefit from renewal and review of that teaching.

Stephanie Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers and at Eighth Day Books. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at

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