Jason Pearson was raised a good Baptist and was active with a church in Lake Forest, but felt something was lacking in his spiritual journey. When he and his family were homeschooling with a group of Catholic families, “We saw something different in their level of devoutness and spirit,” Pearson said. “We were drawn to that.”
The interest led Pearson to St. Edward the Confessor Church in Dana Point and, eventually, to the Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, program.
Each year across the diocese and throughout the U.S., thousands of those led to Catholicism are confirmed and receive the sacraments during the Easter season after completing RCIA programs. They can be baptized Christians from Protestant denominations, spouses of Catholics seeking to join the Church, or those who have never been religious. The latter group receive their baptism as Catholics.
In 2014 the Pearsons were among a group of about 40 at St. Edward joining the Church. Their five children, who took age-appropriate classes, were baptized during the Holy Saturday service. The family has been involved in the Church and RCIA ever since.
“We were looking for a more holy experience,” said Pearson, 49, a graphic designer. “We love the liturgy. It was a joy to see all the kids baptized on Easter Vigil.”
Eileen Smith, who leads Adult Faith Formation at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, said the welcoming of the new parishioners into the faith involves the entire Church communion. “For the elect, it’s very powerful,” she said.
According to the Official Catholic Directory, in 2016 there were 39,721 adult baptisms and 71,809 people received into full communion nationally.
“The U.S. has the most robust approach to RCIA in the world,” said Katie Dawson, director of Parish Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, adding that in many places in the world no adults join the Church through the process.
The RCIA grew from Vatican II and a desire to make the Church more welcoming to those not born in the faith. Rather than one-on-one instruction, the Church embraces a communal approach. In 1972 the Vatican promulgated the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, which was approved by U.S. Bishops in 1986 and evolved into RCIA.
The process is not for the faint of heart — or faith. It begins with a period of inquiry, to allow those considering the faith to ask any questions. They meet with RCIA team members and are guided to Bible and theological readings and classroom instruction.
“It’s very much an organic dialogue process,” Dawson said.
Those led to continue begin the rituals during the Easter season with sponsors to guide them. In the rite of election, participants state their intention to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. It is followed by a period of purity and enlightenment involving intense reflection and discernment. This is followed by sacraments of initiation: baptism (if appropriate), or profession of the faith, confirmation and first holy communion, usually during the Easter Vigil or Holy Saturday.
The mystagogia occurs after Easter, and is a time of reflection, celebration, and, as Smith says, new members “unpack the mysteries” received from God before going out and evangelizing. Children, generally age 7 and older in the RCIA, receive age-appropriate instruction in separate classes.
In a number of Churches, RCIA begins in the fall with weekly one- or two-hour classes and extends through Easter. Those are the shorter programs.
Smith asks those who take RCIA to take at least a year of study, discernment and contemplation. The U.S. bishops say the process “should extend for at least one year for formation, instruction, and probation for those who have had no previous experience with living a Christian life.”
“This is God’s timing, not mine,” Smith said.
Dawson said her father entered RCIA three times before fully committing.
Smith also tells of a woman who started with RCIA at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in about 1990, one of the early years it was offered. The woman left before completing the process, attended Saddleback Church for many years, then returned in 2019 to complete RCIA and convert.
“It reminded me of the journeys people take,” Smith said. “God is never done with us.”
As Dawson said, “Baptism is not graduation, it’s merely a beginning.”
Smith admits that to some the RCIA can seem intimidating. She tries to allay fears.
“I tell them to come and see. Let’s talk about Jesus,” she said. “It’s his Church, but you have the free will to say, ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
For Pearson, Lent is one of the best times of year.
“I video testimonies each year and we show them during Mass in the Easter season,” he said. “New blood from the RCIA is the fire of the Church.”