In this section:
- Thinking about becoming Catholic?
- An overview of the Christian initiation process
- How do I get started?
Are you thinking about becoming Catholic?
God works in many different ways. Most of the time, God works through ordinary people and events—a parent, a friend, a beautiful sunset, a song, an inspiring story. Other times, we hear God’s call during crisis moments or major life-changes—a birth, an engagement, a sickness, a death. Sometimes, we just have a feeling that something is missing. No matter what your reason for thinking about becoming Catholic, our hope and prayer is that when God calls, you will respond. (If you’re reading this, you’ve already begun to respond!) One part of the Catholic Church’s mission is to help people respond to God as best they can. For Christians, initiation and on-going participation in the life of the Church are the primary responses to God’s call. Through the process of becoming Catholic, we try to help people learn how to respond to that call not just for the moment of baptism but for everyday of their lives. The way we learn how to respond is by actually doing what Catholics do. So the process of becoming Catholic is not so much about learning things as in a classroom but learning a way of life as an apprentice learns from a master and that master’s community.
An overview of the Christian initiation process
Becoming Catholic is a process. The Catholic Church has recently recovered and developed a process that some of the earliest Christians churches had used when people came to them asking to be baptized. The basic structure of this process looks like this:
Evangelization and Inquiry
A person is moved by some experience to inquire about the Catholic Church. Through some informal contact with a member of the Church, he or she begins to explore issues of faith, questions they’ve always had about the Church, or anything that has moved them to seek some kind of relationship with the Church. This part of the process can happen anytime for as long as needed.
When the inquiring person and the Church community believe that the person is starting to show some signs of a Christian faith, the person is invited to celebrate a ritual called a Rite of Acceptance into the Order of the Catechumenate. By celebrating this, the person is officially and publicly declaring his or her intention to enter into a formal relationship with the Church, learning its ways and participating in its lifestyle. This rite makes the person an official member of the Church as one who is preparing to be baptized. The person is given an official title and role to play in the Church, that of “catechumen” which means “one in whom the Word of God echoes.” In preparation for this rite, the Church also gives the inquiring person a gift—one of its own members to be a sponsor or companion of the person through the next part of the process called the Catechumenate.
During this period, the catechumen, accompanied by his or her sponsor and supported by the whole community, learns the ways of the Catholic Church. He or she participates in the Church’s prayer on Sundays and other special days, meditates on the scriptures found in the Bible, is introduced to the members of the Church by attending the parish’s various meetings, social events, and organizations, and learns how to put faith into action by serving the poor and working for justice. At Sunday Eucharist, the catechumen prays with the community and hears the scriptures proclaimed at Mass. Then, before the Church professes its faith, prays the great Eucharistic Prayer, and shares in Communion, the catechumens are blessed and sent to pray more deeply with the scriptures they have just heard and the prayer they have just participated in. The catechumens do not participate in the Liturgy of Eucharist until they have been baptized.
This part of the process has no time limit. But for the process to really have an effect on both the person and the Church, it should be at least one full year. This is because one learns how to be Catholic not from books or by memorizing facts, but from living the life of the Church. And the Church lives it life through the celebrations of the whole liturgical year.
During this time, there will be special blessings, prayers, and anointings (marking a person with blessed oil) to help strengthen the catechumen as they grow in faith. Throughout the period, the catechumen, sponsor, and church community try to discern how the person is growing in faith—what parts of the Christian lifestyle are strong in the person and what parts need more growth?; how can the Church community help the person grow deeper in faith?; how is the Church itself being blessed by the presence of the catechumen.
This discernment helps the catechumen and the Church recognize God working in the person, and it helps describe the progress the person is making during his or her apprenticeship. Ideally, after a year of participation in the catechumenate, there is more intense discernment by the catechumen and the Church community to help recognize when the person is ready to profess the Christian faith and be baptized into the Catholic Church.
Once the person is deemed to be ready to profess the faith, he or she celebrates the Rite of Election. This celebration takes place at the Cathedral with the Bishop at the beginning of the season of Lent. This rite marks the final turning point in the person’s preparation for baptism. At this celebration, the Church testifies to and affirms the readiness of the catechumen to profess the Christian faith and be baptized at the next Easter Vigil. The Bishop formally accepts the testimony given and officially declares the catechumen to be chosen for baptism. The catechumen is given a new title—Elect—because God has elected or chosen them to become a child of God through the waters of baptism. In preparation for this celebration, the catechumen chooses a member of the Church to be his or her godparent to be a lifelong companion in the faith. At the Rite of Election, the godparent is the one who will testify on behalf of the Church to the catechumen’s readiness for baptism. This Rite begins the next part of the process.
Period of Purification and Enlightenment
This part of the process usually takes place during the season of Lent, about forty days before Easter. During this time, the elect, godparent, and Church community begin an intense discipline to prepare for the Easter celebration at which the elect will be baptized. This discipline includes intensified prayer, fasting, and works of charity and justice.
The Church sees itself as a participant in the great drama and struggle between good and evil, between God and the devil. From this perspective, this period of Lent and this intense preparation by the Elect is somewhat like the final moments before a great battle, and it may be when the Elect and the Church are at their most vulnerable. When faced with the awesome invitation to baptism in the midst of so much pain and suffering in one’s life and in the world, it can be easy to lose heart and lose faith. In a way, it is like an engaged couple with cold feet before their wedding day—Will I be worthy enough for this person? Can I stay faithful when society makes it so easy to not be? Am I making the right choice? Is this really what I want? It is no accident that Lent takes place in spring when (in the northern hemisphere, at least) nature is at its most turbulent and the new life just springing up is most vulnerable.
For this reason, the Church prays fervently for the Elect in rites called Scrutinies. Through these rites on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, the Church prays that God will strengthen the good things that have been growing in the elect’s faith life and will remove the barriers that keep the elect from trusting completely in God. During this period, there are also other prayers, blessings, and anointings for the Elect to give them the courage they need to profess their faith in God.
Initiation and Mystagogy
On the night when the Church commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, the Elect are asked to renounce the devil and profess their faith in God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Before the whole community, they are baptized with water and anointed with the oil of Chrism. They are given a new name—Christ, or Christian—and they participate for the first time as members of the faithful in the great Eucharistic Prayer. The climax of their initiation is at the altar when they share for the first time in eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ, completing their full transformation into the image of Christ by becoming what they eat.
For the next fifty days of Easter, and often for the next year until the next Easter, the newly baptized (now called “Neophytes” which means “new plants”) gather on Sunday with the Church to exercise their special role at the Eucharist. Just as newlyweds have a certain glow about them which is infectious for all who see them, the Neophytes are powerful living breathing signs of Christ alive in the world today. They serve as reminders for the Church that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death. In them, the Church continues to have faith in God who is stronger than any pain, suffering, or doubt we can imagine.
For this reason, throughout these fifty days, the Church looks at the Neophytes and what they experienced at the Easter Vigil when they were baptized. Through special preaching at Mass and prayerful discussion throughout the week, the Church tries to uncover the deep meanings of what happened to the Neophytes. This is called “mystagogy”—an study of the mystery. When something so profound happens to you, you need time to “unpack” it, to understand how it has changed you and your perspective, to connect it to all the parts of your life and discern how you are being challenged to live differently now that you have experienced it. It’s like trying to explain falling in love to your child. Really, you have to experience it to know what it’s like and to understand what it means.
As a Church, we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, and we are called to practice mystagogy our whole life long. For just like falling in love, our understanding of what it means to be Catholic grows and develops as we experience it more and more through the life of the Church. For this reason, the process of “becoming Catholic” really doesn’t end at baptism or even with the last day of the Easter season. Becoming Catholic is a process we do our whole lives as we continue to grow deeper in faith, in love, and in hope for the sake of the world.
How do I get started?
The way to begin this process of becoming Catholic is to get connected to a parish community. Ask Catholic friends and neighbors about their own parishes. Visit some parishes near your home. Don’t be afraid to ask a Catholic friend to go with you to a Mass and to ask questions of those you meet. Know that most priests and parish leaders you’ll meet at a Sunday Mass would be very happy to talk with you about becoming Catholic, but oftentimes, these are the very people who are most busy with preparing the Sunday celebrations. So Sunday might not be the best day to engage them in a long conversation. On Sunday, consider instead a brief hello and introduction if they have not yet welcomed you. Let them know that you’re new to the Church and are thinking about becoming Catholic. Then ask them when might be a good time to talk with them more. Oftentimes also, there will be an informal gathering after a Mass for coffee and refreshments. Feel free to meet other parish leaders and parishioners in this informal setting.
The Catholic Church has been blessed abundantly by its recovery of the initiation process outlined above. In seeing the amazing faith that the catechumens, elect, and neophytes express, our own faith is renewed and strengthened. However, the initiation process has also challenged us to be a Church of deeper faith and vigorous hospitality. As in the process of becoming Catholic, the Church today is also learning how to be a more faithful image of Christ who welcomed the stranger. If your first experience of Church is not as welcoming as it should be, we hope that you would give us another try.