Who takes part in it?
THE CATECHUMENS: Those who have never been baptized, and want to become part of the Christian community ("the Church") are called catechumens, those who are going through "catechesis" (learning about our faith)
THE "CANDIDATES": This name can create some confusion. Everyone, in a sense, is a "candidate", but here we call "candidates" those who have already been baptized, but in a different Christian church. They are already Christians (one is baptized only once), but are on their way to "enter into union with the fullness of the Catholic faith."
Their process is similar in many ways to that of the Catechumens, but normally they already know "what it is to be a Christian," and their questions are more focused in learning the particular ways in which Catholics practice their faith. "Candidates" do not get baptized at the end of the process, but normally they celebrate their First Communion and Confirmation (together with the Catechumens)
THE PARISH COMMUNITY: The RCIA process is supposed to involve the whole community, just like the early Christian converts who became so when they saw how other Christians lived their faith. The RCIA process is supposed not only to teach catechumens and candidates about our faith, but also to help them become part of our parish community. (For this reason it is very important that they try to meet at their "home parish", and that they go weekly to Mass, where they are presented to the community).
THE SPONSORS and GODPARENTS: Adult catechumens and candidates are helped in their journey by their chosen sponsors, who attend with them some of the events, are there for their questions, and accompany them during various important celebrations. These persons must be Catholic, confirmed already, and be an example of Christian life for the catechumens and candidates. So it is important that they are chosen well. "Candidates" need only 1 (one) sponsor, though they can have two. "Catechumens" must have as sponsors a man and a woman, who are called "godfather" and "godmother" (because they take the place of our parents during the "new birth" that is Baptism.
THE RCIA TEAM: Ideally, the preparation of catechumens and candidates is undertaken by a group of parish members, who take various roles. Some of them take care of classes, of teaching the specifics of our faith. Others will take care of the "breaking of the Word": during the weekend Mass, they invite the catechumens and candidates to leave after the Readings, and they discuss together what has been read. Others do not take such active roles, but are available for questions, helping out, etc. (a bit like sponsors). THE PASTOR or SPIRITUAL GUIDE: The Pastor or some other priest must be available for the more personal questions that arise during this process: questions about one's moral life, pre-marriage guidance, etc. It is recommended that you make an appointment with a parish priest various times during this process, and discuss with them your spiritual development, and whatever questions that you may have that you'd rather not ask in front of the whole RCIA group.
What does the process involve?
It is important to realize from the beginning that this is not "a class" that you take, pass an exam, and get a degree for it. It is a "process" that takes a different amount of time for everyone involved – like children who are learning to walk. It is recommended that the process last at least a year, hopefully two. In my experience, catechumens and candidates have been quite ready after one year, but have never felt really ready before seven months.
Unfortunately, this turns down many candidates who were expecting something faster; but there is a reason for not rushing the process: one needs a certain maturity in one's faith in order to continue practicing after one has celebrated one's initiation. (People who rush it, very commonly disappear just a few months after finishing the process!)
It is also a process of discernment. This means that during this time (especially at the beginning) you are also figuring out if you really want to become Catholic. The door is open (though, as a courtesy, if you plan to stop coming you should let the RCIA team know! They'll appreciate it). You are also figuring out "how ready" you are – whether you are still figuring things out, or whether you are ready to commit to the life of a Catholic!
To help this discernment take place, there are a few "pit stops" along the way: special rituals that we celebrate together, and that mark various levels of "readiness." These mark different stages of preparation
I: The "Period of Inquiry and Evangelization" or PRECATECHUMATE
- This is where catechumens and candidates are when they first begin to ask about the Catholic faith, and first begin to meet in an RCIA process.
- This period takes as long as it is needed for a person to, knowing now a little better what the life of Faith is about, decide to join the Catholic faith. Once this stage is reached, a special celebration takes place: this is the RITE OF ACCEPTANCE (for the Catechumens; and for the Candidates, a "Rite of Welcoming"), which is done during Mass. In this rite, the catechumens and candidates are presented to the community, and they proclaim their readiness to accept the Gospel (the Catechumens) and to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church (the Candidates). The community now knows them by name.
II: The "CATECHUMENATE", a period of serious and dedicated formation.
- Once the Rite of Acceptance is performed, the catechumens and candidates switch to a higher gear, so to speak, and begin to prepare more intensely through - formal teaching - reading and studying on their own - developing a life of prayer - attending Mass every weekend and meeting in the Breaking of the Word - beginning to live their lives as a witness of their faith
- When it is clear that they are nearing the end of this stage, Catechumens and Candidates are invited to celebrate the RITE OF ELECTION. Normally, this is done once during the year, at the Cathedral (together with Catechumens and Candidates of many other parishes). Their names are "inscribed into the book of life," and we carry symbolically a book in which their names are inscribed, year after year. After this celebration, Catechumens and Candidates enter the next stage.
III: The period of Purification and Enlightenment
- This coincides normally with a special period of reflection and prayer for all Catholics, called LENT. During this period (which lasts about five weeks), catechumens and candidates are invited to profess their faith, repent for past sins, and accept in their hearts the prayer that Jesus taught us. This is done in successive masses, in a series of rites called "Scrutinies".
IV: Celebration of the SACRAMENTS of INITIATION
- At the Easter Vigil (in most cases), Catechumens receive their Baptism and Confirmation, Candidates are Confirmed, and they all complete their initiation by receiving Jesus in Communion. These three are called the "Sacraments of Initiation."
V: MYSTAGOGY (the "Interpretation of the Mystery" of our faith)
- Catechumens and Candidates are now fully Christian, and fully Catholics. They are invited, however, to continue their growth during a period called MYSTAGOGY (the "Interpretation of the Mystery" of our faith). It is recommended that this period last another year; it is less intense, in terms of meetings and rituals, than the previous, but it is very importance for one's "perseverance" (continuing practicing and growing in one's faith and love of God until the end of one's days).
What does it cost?
There is normally no fee for this: it is sharing that which is most precious for us; it would be very odd to be charging for it. As candidates and catechumens become a living part of our community, we hope that they will help support it, financially and (even better) become active parishioners in our celebrations and various endeavors.
What can I do to advance my own preparation?
Pray every day. Start slowly, but try to begin a true dialogue with God, in which you both talk and listen to what God is trying to tell you. You can read and study on your own. Read the Bible, but read it little by little, beginning with the Gospels, and meditating on its words. It is very recommended that you find an introduction to Catholicism that you like, and also read a little every week. Bring questions to the meetings. Possible introductions: + The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults + "The Faith Explained" by Leo Trese + "Believing in Jesus", by Foley + "What Makes us Catholic", by Groome + The excellent "Catholicism" TV series by Robert Barron The most important thing is that it is a book that you like reading, so you don't have to drag yourself through it.