New Members Of Church Need Push To Branch Out
Some 15 years ago, either the North American Forum on the Catechumenate or the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate conducted a survey on how many Catholics who joined the Church through RCIA remained active members. The results were a shocking – 50% nationally. Hopefully, more remain active in the Church today.
There are probably many reasons for this:
1) perhaps our parishes did not make our new members feel welcomed;
2) maybe we did not connect them with the larger parish during their formation;
3) perhaps we did not help them look at the reasons they wanted to join the church (sometimes people hope to save their marriages; others because their grandmother who just died would be happy with their decision – these are just a few of my experiences over the last 34 years); or
4) after being in faith-sharing sessions for a year, we do not connect them with any continuing-adult-formation classes or small faith-sharing groups, and they need continuing formation in the faith and support from others.
The RCIA ritual encourages the new members to meet on a regular basis during the first year after entering the Church to continue sharing faith and to support each other. Often, they have more questions following their initiation than before as they become more familiar with the church’s religious practices. Monthly gatherings are good ideas.
I remember when I was temporary administrator at Holy Cross Parish in Fort Branch, I asked a senior parishioner if he would consider being an RCIA catechist. He thought about it for several weeks; then told me that he didn’t feel comfortable with that ministry. However, he offered to host a BBQ for the new members at his home. He captured what the RCIA is all about – welcoming new members into our conversations, into our homes, and our parish communities. Every Catholic has a ministry to play besides being a catechist.
During the Easter Season of first year, we always took our new members to St. Meinrad Archabbey for Sunday Mass and dinner. I told them that Mass is celebrated somewhat differently because at that time the Abbey Church was two-tiered. We sat on the top tier for the Liturgy of the Word and stood around the Lord’s Table for the Eucharist. Mass certainly was different that Sunday. Just as the homily began, the private alarms went off for the monks on the volunteer fire department. They rushed out of Church ripping off their albs as they went! I explained later what was going on – that this was not what I meant when I said that Mass would be different at the Abbey!
During this first year, it’s a wonderful opportunity to take them to the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, the Poor Clares in Evansville, and to visit other churches especially during the Easter Season when they are beautifully decorated. May and October devotions at Monte Casino near St. Meinrad also are unique experiences for them. We need to provide as broad an experience of church as possible.
We also need to integrate our new members into small faith-sharing groups in our parishes if we have them. This is where parishioners really learn to be church to one another in sharing faith; in caring for one another when someone becomes ill; or when someone has a baby and they provide food for the family and babysit their children. We cannot keep them in the RCIA “nest.” We need to help them branch out into the larger parish. Small faith groups are wonderful ways to do this; it also encourages the small groups to make room for new members.
We spend so much time preparing people for initiation (just like for marriage), but provide them so little after their initiation (or after marriage). We must be mindful that they need our ongoing support if we want them to remain active members of our faith communities.