For more than two decades, I was involved with RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.) There are many reasons why people decide to deepen their relationship with God or become fully initiated into the Catholic Church. Each person has a unique story and journey. It is one of the aspects of working with RCIA that is so interesting and rewarding. I have shared in many lives over the years and have become part of their faith stories. Out of all the instruments that God uses to bring about conversion in someone, there is one instrument that stands near the top of the list in terms of effectiveness: the parish Catholic school.
The reality is that a Catholic school is one of the most potent means of evangelization at the Church’s disposal. Parents see demonstrated before their eyes the witness of Jesus Christ. One does not need to be non-Catholic or non-Christian to be evangelized. Those who have been Catholic their entire lives are evangelized and formed in the faith by their connection to Catholic education through their children. A good Catholic school is second to none in being able to preach the Good News of the Gospel, both by word and deed.
In RCIA, so often Catholic school parents are there because the have witnessed something in their own child that they now desire for themselves. They also want to be able to speak intelligently about faith with their children and not contradict what is taught in the classroom. And of course, the desire to belong to something greater than themselves and then worship on a Sunday with their family, fully participating in the sacramental life of the Church, provides a great source of motivation to join RCIA.
Over the years have we had parents come to RCIA simply to get a reduced tuition rate? Of course we have! But I have also seen people come to RCIA because their spouse is Catholic, and because we are the closest church to their home, and because their friends belong to our parish, and because they hurt in another church. But the reason why someone comes through the door the first time does not have to be the reason why they come through the doors of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist at a later date. Also, can anyone be bold enough to say that God had no hand in bringing that person to investigate and learn more about the Catholic Church, and it was simply a desire to spend less money that provided 100% of the cause to this action? To be honest, what got them in the door was not nearly as important as why they stayed. I think of my pastor’s constant slogan to those who fill the pews for any given Mass: “You get 9 out of 10 points just for showing up!”
Now once you show up there is a journey that needs to take place from attendance to intentional disciple and mature steward. RCIA working in partnership with the Catholic school can go a long way in helping one through those thresholds of conversion. Acknowledgement and support of those from your parish school community in RCIA can go a long way in building bridges between the experiences both parents and children have in these circumstances, and can work to break down common barriers between school and parish for the entire community. There is much we can do to reinforce the catechesis provided in RCIA, yet we must also never forget that God is always working in ways we do not see and understand. When we mistakenly believe that another’s conversion is all up to our actions and influence, then we place ourselves in the place of God.
This coming Easter there will be many children and adults all over the world that receive initiation Sacraments because they first came into contact with the Church through a Catholic school. In some parts of this country, Catholic schools are closing their doors due to lack of students or funding. We need to take more seriously the mission of Catholic education in the US and its effect on the American Catholic Church. If we come to see our schools as simply educational institutions, then we will be destined to live in a world where only cheaper or more prestigious options are chosen. If that day comes to pass, we will have lost a primary means of preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to our world, and it will be a sad and unfortunate day for us all.