This summer, I took my annual vacation to Austria. I’ve been going to the same city, from the same airport, in the same month for the past 8 years. What can I say, I’m a creature of habit! I packed my case, I booked my taxi to the airport and assumed I’d be sat in my favourite restaurant by 7pm with a tall glass of cold beer and a steaming plate of delicious spätzle. Naturally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong! First, the taxi was late. Then the check in desk computer went down. After that, the flight was cancelled after a four hour delay and I found myself on a plane to Germany instead with a promise of a “really quick train transfer across the border at the other end”. I finally arrived at my hotel in Austria at a quarter to midnight feeling more than a little tense. But despite the shaky start, I had a wonderful holiday in my favourite city and pretty soon I forgot about the stress and the frustrations of that first day. As the poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry” and in life, we often think we have things under control only to find that something happens and we’re left feeling a lost.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve faced exactly that situation and sadly, it’s been within my RCIA course. I had assumed that I’d complete the course at my local parish, be received into the church at Easter and could start to live my life as a happy and contented Roman Catholic in a congregation that I knew, liked and felt comfortable in. Unfortunately, my assumptions were wrong. Before I go any further, I want to stress that this post isn’t designed to shame anybody or to set one group above another. But in the despair of feeling totally lost, I looked around online at the experiences others were having in their own RCIA programmes and it seems that my experience isn’t exactly unique. There are big issues with RCIA and sadly, the result seems to be that many just walk away. Having said that, others couldn’t be happier in their parishes and many complete a course that they loved so much they take an active part in the following year. For some, RCIA is a wonderful experience. For others, it’s painfully difficult. The variation from parish to parish can be stark and really it comes down to what resources your parish has to hand. Priests do their best but sometimes there just isn’t the time, money or interest to invest in anything long term. Many have to rely on volunteers to lead their RCIA courses and so it becomes a bit of a lottery as to what sort of catechist you’ll actually end up with.
In my case, things started well and I don’t doubt the good intentions of the course director (who wasn’t our priest) but they quickly descended into something deeply concerning. It all began a month or so ago when a guest speaker was invited to talk to my group about the history of the church. Up until that point, the classes had been pretty ecumenical. There had been no mention of anything particularly Catholic and I think that was because in the inquiry stage of RCIA, people are still working out why they’ve enrolled and what they really believe. A slow introduction to anything new is usually a good idea and so it wasn’t particularly concerning that we hadn’t heard much in the way of Popes, Saints or the Catechism. But at this particular lecture, things changed pretty quickly. We heard about the early days of the church, the beginnings of the modern Catholic Church and the schisms that had occurred over time. And then the lecturer dropped a sentence that caused a few concerned looks from my fellow classmates: “And if the church isn’t careful, it’ll end up with another one on it’s hands”. What followed was a passionate diatribe on the evils of the pre-Second Vatican Council church. The Latin Mass was “cold, unfriendly and alienating”, altar rails were “quite frankly pathetic”, confessionals were “prison cells”. It was explained to us that “Before the council, the church only cared about sin. Now we don’t focus on it. It’s about community”.
Of course, we could debate that statement for decades and never reach an agreement so I want to quickly fast forward to give you an idea of other statements that were made by both the guest speaker (who became a frequent visitor) and by the course director who was basing much of the course material in resources written by the guest speaker. “The curia is alien to us, what is says isn’t really relatable anymore”. “We’re all equal so why can’t we just ordain women?”. “Same sex marriages in churches are inevitable so what’s the issue?”. One that particularly raised my blood pressure significantly was, “We really need a third Vatican council to get rid of these silly traditionalists. They just hold us back”. Based on questions I’d asked or statements I’d offered in group discussions, I’d pretty much been branded as “too conservative” and “too traditional”. So by this point, with the political agenda stepping up a gear, I naturally began to feel extremely unwelcome. Classes became a chore. I’d return home in a foul temper, unable to pray, unable to concentrate on anything but what I saw as an assault on truth. I couldn’t stick my head in the sand any longer. I had a difficult decision to make.
I could have bitten my tongue and carried on. I would have been received into the church at Easter and then I could have found a new parish that was far more orthodox in it’s approach. But reception into the church is a monumental step in a persons life. For me personally, it will be the happiest day of my life and something I’ve longed for for two years. The church in which I worship should feel like home. And I didn’t feel comfortable in being baptised and confirmed in a parish which had made it pretty clear that there was a very different agenda to follow and that I’d be expected to toe the line or keep quiet. It was a painful decision but this week, I sourced a new parish and met with the priest there. I explained the situation and I was shown so much kindness and understanding that it felt as if a huge weight was being lifted from my shoulders. Not only did the priest reassure me that I was right to have such concerns, he made arrangements for me to join the RCIA programme he leads and promised me that it wouldn’t affect my reception into the church at the Easter Vigil 2018.
So I want to stress to people who face difficulties as I did with their own RCIA journey that what you find at one parish, may not be the same as what’s being offered at another. Your first step should be to talk to your priest and explain your concerns but sometimes (as in my case), this isn’t always possible. Parishes have their own politics, allegiances and friendships. Being outside of the church, it can feel disrespectful or pushy to weigh in with your concerns. But if your priest isn’t receptive to your comments (and most absolutely will be, I promise you), then you have alternatives. It may not be as convenient in terms of it’s location but nobody said this would be an easy process. Speak to other priests in your diocese, try other courses until you find one that’s right for you. Obviously you can’t just switch up every time someone says something questionable and what I’m advising here is for those in the worst case scenario as I found myself to be in. But our church is blessed to have so many wonderful priests and they have dedicated themselves to helping people, to supporting them, to comforting them. That goes for you too, regardless of whether or not you’ve been baptised or confirmed yet. Priests want to help. Take the offer.
We all experience bumps in the road but our dedication to what we know is true and right cannot waiver. As the Gospel of St John tells us:
6 If we say that we are in union with God while we are living in darkness, we are lying because we are not living the truth.
7 But if we live our lives in the light, as He is in the light, we are in union with one another.
There are always going to be disagreements and differences of opinion but we know what we’re called to and we know what’s expected of us. We have to stand up for what is right and sometimes, that means stepping away from what’s popular. As Pope St John Paul II said, “The truth is not always the same as the majority decision”. Take courage in your faith. Remember that you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re making a stand for Jesus who must be the focus of our entire lives. Speak with humility and charity, never be boastful or full of pride. But never be forced into accepting something you know to be wrong. Ultimately, it’ll simply lead you away from God and not closer to Him. Our church has seen some wonderful valiant truth seekers – and truth tellers. Follow in their example. If the journey you had in mind is interrupted, don’t be discouraged. It’s a test of your faith and it won’t be the last one you’ll ever experience. During this difficulty, I took great comfort in Our Lady. A mother always wants whats best for her children so ask her to help you and she will. “Mother, I’m struggling”. That’s all it takes. I pray that each and every one of you enjoys your RCIA programme, that it’s joyous and truthful and that it leads you home to Jesus.