How someone comes to consider joining the Catholic Church is unique to each individual. Once the initial contact is made, a person joins with others who are inquiring. They begin to meet with RCIA Team members to tell their stories, connect these stories with the faith stories found in the scriptures, and begin to ask some of those questions that have been mulling around in their thoughts. This first step can go on for months or years!
Some of the inquirers become firm in their desire for initiation and decide that they would like to begin more formal study of the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. They are admitted into the next step through a special ceremony called the Rite of Acceptance.
This is the first time the inquirers publicly declare their faith before the parish community. Because no one likes to do something like that on their own, each inquirer is accompanied by a sponsor. Sponsors provide support and companionship for the rest of the RCIA process.
After the rite, the inquirers are called catechumens. This name indicates that they are learning the teachings of the Church and beginning to accept Catholic tradition and practices.
The time spent as a catechumen will vary from person to person. The bishops of the United States have suggested that this catechumenate period is to last for at least one year or longer.
During this period the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated weekly at Mass and a more formal study of scripture and the Catholic Church teaching is also continued weekly.
The period of the catechumenate ends when the catechumens discern, with the help of their sponsors and the parish RCIA team, that God is calling them to receive the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and the first Eucharist) at the next Easter Vigil. Before they can be initiated they must be officially called to the sacraments by the bishop or someone designated by him.
The Rite of Election marks the end of formal study of the teaching and practices of the Church. The catechumens are now called the elect. The weeks of Lent are a time of intense prayer and preparation for the Easter Vigil.
On Holy Saturday the Church celebrates the Easter Vigil and the elect celebrate their Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist.
For the newly initiated, now called neophytes, the time between Easter and Pentecost is a special opportunity to reflect on the commitment which they have made to the Lord, the Church, and to the local parish community. This time of unfolding the meaning of the initiation sacraments is called mystagogia.
This is not an end to the journey, but a beginning. The journey of faith lasts a lifetime. The weeks after Easter are a time for new Catholics to seek out their place in the parish community.