ViewpointLectionary-based catechesis for converts is inadequate

Recently, I received a letter from a woman in Portland, Oregon, with the question,

“What do you think of lectionary-based catechesis for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults [RCIA]? I became a Catholic three years ago and I was amazed at how little I was taught using this approach. Surely there is a better way of preparing adults to become Catholics? What would you recommend that I might read to help deepen my knowledge of the faith?”

My answer to the woman’s letter was more or less along the following lines, and I believe it may be relevant to people thinking about or reflecting back on their conversion process. (I hope it may also provoke RCIA catechists to think further about their ministry):

Lectionary-based catechesis is a method of teaching the faith to children and adults that uses the Sunday Mass scripture readings as the basis for catechetical sessions. It is popular in all types of catechesis nowadays, and is widely promoted by catechetical organizations and publishers.
The strength of lectionary-based catechesis is chiefly that it keeps Christian formation closely connected to the liturgy and helps Catholics and Catholics-to-be to know the scriptures and to use them in all aspects of their lives.

In the RCIA, the reflective sessions which take place after the dismissal of catechumens at Sunday Mass are primarily lectionary based. The catechumens are sent forth after the homily “to reflect more deeply upon the word of God.” In these sessions, unofficially called “breaking open the word,” future Catholics are led to apply the scriptures they have just heard to their lives, and to make a personal connection between the homily (itself properly scripture based) and their own growth in the faith.

However, lectionary-based catechesis is only one element in the whole process of Catholic education and formation. It has to be complemented by a more comprehensive and systematic presentation of the faith. Sunday morning lectionary-based sessions are not enough to expose catechumens to the necessary breadth and depth of faith. In many parishes, this fuller approach is achieved by having a second session during the week in which the doctrinal, sacramental, and moral components of faith are explored systematically.

For this, some text other than the lectionary is necessary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) should be introduced to catechumens and its resources drawn out in formation sessions. A more user-friendly text for the beginner is the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA), published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006. This book is cross-referenced to the CCC, and catechumens are constantly referred to other works of theology and the spiritual life.

The use of the CCC or the USCCA—or any kind of catechism—is discouraged by many catechists and well-known speakers on the RCIA.  They fear the return of a Baltimore Catechism approach to catechesis. While lip service is paid to the doctrinal and moral dimensions of faith in the newer catechesis, the emphasis is more often on personal reflection and the sharing of stories. Not surprisingly, new Catholics like yourself often complain that they did not learn a great deal in their catechumenal formation.

New Catholics should see the RCIA as the beginning of life-long formation. They can continue their education by participating in more substantive adult sessions in their parish, by working their way systematically through either of the catechisms I have mentioned, or joining a well-run and solidly-focused scripture study group. I would also recommend Fr. Robert Barron’s outstanding video series, Catholicism.

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