RCIA leaders from the Diocese of Wilmington are motivated and inspired each year by those inquiring about the Catholic faith. Educating others about Catholicism is a fulfilling experience, they claim, as they watch non-Catholics and Catholics alike grow deeper in their love for Christ.
One leader, Alma Pawlikowski, is convinced that converts make some of the best Catholics.
"When you’re a cradle Catholic your parents have you christened at two months old," she said. "As a convert, you get to make the choice. You get to say ‘I want to be Catholic.’"
Pawlikowski understands that decision firsthand. She converted to Catholicism in 1996 through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program at Our Lady of Fatima in New Castle. Drawn to the "comfort and joy" she experienced during her own conversion, she joined the RCIA team the following year.
Most parishes run RCIA programs from September to Easter and some are year-round. For Pawlikowski and RCIA team members at St. Francis DeSales in Salisbury and Immaculate Conception in Elkton, the inspiration and fulfillment they find teaching the faith in RCIA outweighs any inconveniences of their long-term commitment.
Pawlikowski, who was raised Methodist, married Teddy, a Catholic, in 1960. During their marriage, Teddy never pushed her to convert. She recalls her husband reminding her, "You have to do it for yourself and not someone else."
When Teddy passed away in 1992, Pawlikowski, now 70, was touched by the way the congregation at his parish cared for her. "The priests were so good and the parishioners were with me and it pulled me through a lot. That’s one of the reasons I became Catholic [four years later]. When it was over, I was still drawn to the program. So I joined the team."
Fatima’s RCIA, a cooperative venture with two other New Castle parishes, Holy Spirit and St. Peter the Apostle, meets every Wednesday evening from September to the Easter season. Pawlikowski attends every session. "If we’re asking students to commit themselves, we need to commit ourselves, too. We don’t ask students to do anything the team won’t do."
Pawlikowski understands the timidity of newcomers. "They are so shy at first. I mean, they’ve been raised something else. But once they start listening to the truth of the Catholic religion, it becomes so fulfilling."
The Easter Vigil Mass when most students become Catholic is the most rewarding part of being an RCIA team member, Pawlikowski said. "Just seeing them receive the sacraments, it’s so special. They just bubble with excitement, so happy and so accomplished. It’s very rewarding. Every year you think ‘this has been the best year to do this.’"
RCIA as refresher course
Like many converts, Narcy Zionkowski, 72, of Immaculate Conception Parish in Elkton, found himself "tongue tied" at his first RCIA meeting — only Zionkowski wasn’t there to convert, he was there to learn more about his own religion, Catholicism.
"At that point in my life I was inquisitive. I wanted to see what it was all about," he said. "Growing up when I went to Mass it was in Latin. We had a small prayer book we prayed out of and the priest had his back to us and we didn’t know what was going on. So, at 58, I started to learn."
Though shy, Zionkowski said he liked what he heard at his first meeting. Eventually he found himself attending meetings weekly and actively participating in large and small group sharing. "It opened my world. I wasn’t freezing up in front of people like I did before; I wasn’t tongue-tied. I was able to share witness stories of my life. I got confidence and self-esteem."
Zionkowski maintains the greatest reward of the ministry is being a sponsor, which he still does from time to time.
"Something awesome happens to your student at the Easter Vigil. And they share these things with you."
He recalled an especially memorable year where he was paired up with a teenager. "He was 17 and I was 71, so we just reversed the numbers around and got along great. You just get this connection with people."
No deadline for commitment
For Owen Schweers of St. Francis DeSales Parish in Salisbury, Md., the connection he makes with soon-to-be Catholics happens "at the very best time." As part of the inquiry team, Schweers, along with his wife, Loveta, work with newcomers to the RCIA. "You can see the growth of people, from curiosity to commitment. It’s a real blessing to see that happen."
The RCIA program at St. Francis DeSales runs year-round. "You don’t know when new people will come. This way we don’t have to say ‘wait until September.’ We can pick them up as soon as they call."
Because the program runs all year, Schweers and his wife take a three-month shift over the summer.
The time it takes for students to "graduate" from the inquiry phase to the catechumenate phase (the phase where more in-depth preparation for reception of the sacraments takes place) varies from person to person. "Some take a year, some take three or four months. Because of the way we do it we can have an individual plan for each person and we’re not trying to hit a deadline to meet the vigil. It works really well."
Every Tuesday night in the summer, the Schweers conduct the hour-long meeting which consists of personal reflective work and traditional teaching programs. "We go through parts of the Mass, things that we know people sometimes misunderstand. We want to teach them what we’re saying [during Mass] and why we say them and what they mean."
The incentive to working in the RCIA program, said Schweers, is seeing the church growing, particularly during these hard times. "People said the church was dying in the scandals, and yet we have visible proof it’s growing. These people are interested and they become good members of the church. That’s the Holy Spirit working right there."
Printed with permission from the Dialog, newpaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.