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CARING FOR NEW CATHOLICS
Cheryl Graham worked in education for thirty years, the last seven of which were at the Catholic Education Office in Melbourne. Her continuing interest in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in her parish led her to pursue this theme in her Masters research project. Currently, she is working as a Spiritual Director and remains involved with the implementation of the RCIA in the Small Church Communities in the Belgrave parish.
Recently I conducted a research project in a large Melbourne parish. The target group for the research project were all those who had been initiated (approximately 100) from the inception of RCIA until the time of beginning the project (twelve years) 1
The main purpose of my project was to determine retention rates and to identify sociological factors associated with retention or cessation of involvement.
After completing the project I came to a number of conclusions about how we might better retain those at risk of ceasing their involvement and about the relationship of effective retention to the integration of RCIA with the parish community. These conclusions may be a starting point for discussion in all Catholic parishes concerned with the care of their new members 2
Who fits in?
Previous research suggests that the typical convert is female, over 30 years old, lives in her own home, is married with young children, is already baptised and joins the Church mainly for family reasons 3
The participants in my research who conformed most closely to this profile were also those who were more likely to retain their involvement.
Several other factors were found to be significantly associated with converts who stayed involved. Firstly, their own perceptions about whether they fitted in to the community easily. It is not surprising that those with a profile similar to the typical convert were more likely to see themselves as fitting in easily since this profile is fairly typical of Catholic Church-goers generally and in particular the parish where the study was conducted 4
A second crucial factor proved to be the number of and intensity of close ties converts had with people in the parish. A significant number of female converts in the parish studied were already attending Mass and had been involved in sacramental preparations with their children. They already had many close ties with other members of the parish.
A third and related factor which proved highly significant was the degree to which the important people in their lives were Catholic and supported their conversion. Survival rates were low for those who lacked the support of important people in their lives.
Other factors which were important included some previous history of attending Church, some early childhood religious training, and the length and continuity of the initiation process. Retention rates were significantly better for those who did all their preparation for initiation in the one parish, who attended meeting regularly and who had a preparation period of at least eight months.
Who is at Risk of Ceasing Involvement?
It stands to reason that those who ceased involvement are likely to lack many of the characteristics above. For example, is was typical of converts who stayed involved, when asked why they joined the Catholic Church, to give family reasons combined with another reason such as a search for the meaning in life. In contrast, those who ceased involvement usually did not state family reasons for conversion and typically, gave only one idiosyncratic reason rather than a combination.
Similarly, if the socio-economic profile of converts was atypical they became more likely to cease involvement. One of the most significant of these factors was instability in the marriage but probably the most 'at risk' people were those who joined the Church 'on their own' for some reason - widowed, divorced, not yet married, married but unsupported by their partner.
Many of those who were 'on their own' also fell into the category of those who felt they did not fit in. More than half of those who ceased involvement felt too different from the people in the parish to fit in, even though most of them said they felt welcomed in the community. Some of their comments may be instructive.
Sharon said she felt alone because 'coming to Mass without my husband made me feel like I wasn't 'the typical Catholic family'. I felt I belonged to the parish but I didn't fit in. I felt I didn't know as much and I wasn't as good a Catholic as they were. I wasn't 'in the know'. Unless you're born into it you're not quite a part of it.'
Hilda explained that she realised her marriage was breaking down and left before it happened. This way she would avoid embarrassment.
Linda explained that people in the parish were supportive of her in a crisis situation but not when they disagreed with her lifestyle. 'I felt I was being judged. They only want to know you if you're downtrodden.'
Marlene found the parish very welcoming but did not feel at ease. 'They seemed to have everything together. I felt unclean. When they shared their bad times they seemed so mild I couldn't share mine.'
Dianne was quite outspoken about in her criticism of the community's lack of openness to difference. 'I am not interested in neatness, order, niceness and respectability.'
People often come enquiring about the Catholic faith at times of turmoil in their lives. It is unrealistic for a Catholic community to think it can meet all their needs and expectations or for the community to blame itself for the way its new members may subjectively perceive it. On the other hand, the above perceptions new Catholics may have of their community do challenge the community to some self-examination. Such questions might include:
How inclusive is this community?
How ready is this community to value the contribution of those who are different or marginalised in some way?
Can community members go beyond superficial hospitality and charity to learn from the rich life experience such people bring to share?
Survey participants were asked to designate up to eight important people in their lives and then explain whether their important people were members of their parish, Catholics in another parish or non-Catholics. For a large proportion of those who stayed involved, most or all of their important people were members of the parish. By contrast, for a large proportion of those who ceased involvement, most or all of their important people were not members of the parish.
They were also asked to indicate the attitude of their important people to their conversion - whether they respected their interest in Catholicism, were indifferent to it or opposed it. All of those who encountered indifference or opposition from most of their important people ceased involvement. Significantly also, none of the involved group had more than one important person who was indifferent to their interest in Catholicism and none had any important people who opposed their interest in Catholicism.
It seems clear that indifference or opposition from significant people in their lives, especially family members, is likely to predispose converts to cease involvement unless there are significant close relationships with parish members to counteract this.
My deduction from this observation is that it is not enough for catechumenates to form close ties with RCIA team members. After Mystagogia, team members have to turn their attention to a new set of enquirers. By the time Mystagogia ends new Catholics need to have developed several close relationships with community members other than RCIA team members. In recent times, in the parish studies each catechumenate was attached to a Neighbourhood Support Group made up of Catholics living in the vicinity of the catechumen. An interesting side effect of this strategy was that, not only did new Catholics feel a greater sense of belonging and commitment but this was also true for many Catholics who had been in the parish for many years and who until joining a Neighbourhood Support Group had felt on the margins of the community. Each parish needs to develop effective opportunities for new members to integrate into the community and form close ties with its members.
The RCIA process itself also seems an important factor in retention. More than half of those who ceased involvement did not go through a recognisable RCIA process lasting eight months or more with four clear stages and/or their RCIA process was very disrupted by inconsistent attendance or changing parishes midway.
Another significant factor seems to be previous Church experience. A greater percentage of those who ceased involvement belonged to no previous Christian denomination and/or had not been attending Church prior to conversion. All bar one of those who ceased involvement had little religious training in childhood 5
In my experience one of the most difficult aspects in the RCIA process is the discernment of readiness. There is often the temptation to hasten the process of initiation and this is sometimes justified especially for those who have been actively involved in the Catholic parish or in a church of another denomination, but even in this case some caution is in order. Even for these people it takes time to understand the distinctive nature of Catholicism and to discern whether they have a real commitment to it.
For those with little previous experience of Church the more time taken in preparation the better. Specific attention needs to be given to developing an understanding of institutional Church - its reason for being; its relationship to the Gospel and the Kingdom of God; its history; its strengths and weaknesses; its everyday implications; the commitment involved in membership. For some people in today's society commitment itself is an issue. For such people it takes time to learn and develop commitment.
Caring for New Catholics
In the light of the above research findings and my own experience with RCIA the following recommendations seem appropriate.
During the RCIA process:
Maximise the contacts prospective converts have with members of the parish community. Neighbourhood Support Groups were one way of achieving this.
If the prospective convert has hostile or indifferent family members, try to involve these members in the process as much as possible.
Build up a support network for the vulnerable. Such people sometimes require more support than a busy team or even a sponsor can give. Develop a pool of people in the parish who have the time and wisdom to offer ongoing support over several years (if necessary) even if people do not proceed to initiation.
Be aware particularly of those who are most likely to cease involvement and take preventative steps. For example, make sure those on their own are integrated into a strong support group within the parish community. For those with little previous church experience, develop their understanding of the institutional Church and get them involved early in practical Church life. For those who find it hard to make commitments, give them opportunities to take responsibility at each stage of the RCIA process.
Avoid making Catholicism seem too 'easy' or too 'idealistic'. Expect commitment and paint a realistic picture of parish life.
Use the discernment process frequently. Give prospective converts ample opportunity to test the seriousness of their motives. If some withdraw this may be a healthy sign that the discernment process is being used well.
Take the Mystagogia seriously. After the climactic experience of initiation at the Easter Vigil there needs to be ample time to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the Pascal Mystery. The Masses during the Easter season need to focus on the neophytes. In particular, it is important to encourage a sense of ongoing mission in the new converts.
The rite suggests that the catechesis be 'gradual and complete in its coverage' and 'present Catholic teaching in its entirety' (RCIA 1987:37-38). While the catechesis must emphasise many other things as well, do not deprive the catechumens of cognitive understandings of their new faith. In particular they should have some comprehension of what is distinctive about Catholicism.
If the first four recommendations have been well established during the RCIA process, these measures will provide ongoing support for new Catholics after RCIA, especially if in addition all initiates have been encouraged to get involved in Church life during the Mystagogia.
Who Needs Care?
Attempts to involve ordinary parish community members in the care of new Catholics often prove to be a test of the community's health and coherence. Sometimes it is found that the community is not ready to take responsibility for nurturing its new members. At other times community members may be willing but they feel in need of too much nurturing themselves. In this research project it became apparent from interviewing established Catholics who took part in Neighbourhood Support Groups that converts and other community members had almost the same needs.
Converts need to develop affective bends with other community members and a sense of belonging tot he community. So do the other community members. It was apparent from interviews of participants in Neighbourhood Support Groups that this was not happening for many community members before their participation in Neighbourhood Support Groups.
Converts need an opportunity to raise and express their doubts. So do community members.
As converts need opportunities to share faith in a supportive, non-threatening atmosphere, so do community members.
Similarly, both groups need ongoing adult Religious Education tailored to individual needs; an understanding of a shared community vision; a personally rewarding opportunity to play a role in bringing about such a vision; and an opportunity to develop commitment.
It may not be true in every parish but I suspect for many parishes the care of new Catholics begins not with the converts nor with the RCIA process but with the community itself.
If these is a nurturing, inclusive parish community with a sense of shared responsibility for its own vision and purpose; if RCIA is well integrated into the life of that community, the care of new Catholics will take care of itself. Or to put this the other way around, one of the most important ways of caring for new Catholics is by nurturing the old ones and empowering them to build an inclusive community of vision and shared responsibility.
Of approximately 100 people on my original list, a few were clerical errors, some had died, some had mover overseas and some were unable to be located. I was finally able to locate 75 people. 60 of these returned their surveys. Of the 60 who returned their surveys, approximately 70% were still involved in the Catholic Church. This rate of retention seems optimistic at first glance but if we speculate that whose who did not return their surveys and those who were unable to be located probably ceased their involvement at a greater rate than those who did return their surveys, the total rate of ceasing involvement is probably closer to half than a third. Return to article
2. In this article, I am sharing my conclusions from a small research project about one parish which is not necessarily representative. The sample of people was small and analysis was confined to simple descriptive statistics and cross tabulations. Therefore, generalisations to other parishes can be tentative at best. Nevertheless, it makes a starting point for comparison and discussion. Return to article
3. By 'family reasons' it is meant wanting to unify the marriage or concern about the religious upbringing of the children. Return to article
main exception to this was gender. Although the majority of those who converted (approximately 70%) were female, retention rates for males and females were similar. Return to article
It was significant that many of those who ceased involvement still saw themselves as religious, even Catholic in some cases, but they were disillusioned with the Church. Return to article
This article appeared in The Australasian Catholic Record in January 1998 (lxxv one).