Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catholics and Catholic Converts

The 2010 Annuario Pontificio reports that in 2008, the year for which there appear to be the latest figures, there was a 1.7% increase in the number of Catholics worldwide, causing our number to grow to 1.66 billion baptized Catholics or 17.40% of the world's entire popluation (which stands at 6.7 billion).

While the number of bishops is up by a little over 1%, the number of priests grew by a percentage slightly less than that, and the number of women religious actually fell by almost 8%. However, as Pope Benedict has said, we don't need a lot of priests, we need good priests, and the same would most certainly apply to women religious. With orders like the Sisters of Life and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, there's no need to fret over a lack of faithful--and good--women being called to various orders.

It's no surprise that most of this increase in the Catholic faithful comes not from our own shores, but from Africa, Asia and Oceania. However, there will be at least some new Catholics from the U.S. entering the flock of Peter. Many soon-to-be Catholics are now entering the final stages of their preparation for acceptance into the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The RCIA process is a year of study and discernment for those wishing to be baptized and/or confirmed as Catholics and culminates in the Easter Vigil when those who were previously catechumens (never baptized) or candidates (already having had a Christian baptism) become full-fledged members of the Catholic Church. Or, almost full-fledged. The newly-baptized are called neophytes and all the just-initated next go through a period of Mystagogy. Earlier this week, I read that the bishops here in the U.S. called on all Catholics to welcome newcomers into the Church by giving consideration to ten different points.

Having gone through the RCIA process myself, I heartily endorse the bishops' entreaty that current Catholics should welcome the new ones. The whole RCIA process, apparently a well-intentioned attempt to mimic the induction of pagans and idol-worshipers into the 1st Century Christian church, was one I found a bit off-putting. We catechumens and candidates were often paraded about the sanctuary like so much inventory as we were put through our paces. Given the catechesis of many Catholics in the wake of Vatican II, I often felt that the entire congregation should be joining me in instruction in the faith. Instead, here we stood, making public declarations about our intentions and, most troublesome to me, being led out of Mass after the homily. This was presumably to make us yearn for the day when we would be sufficiently prepared to stay and participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I must admit that being denied the opportunity of sitting through the Mass never called forth a yearning in me. First of all, I had already sat through many Catholic Masses. Besides, I wasn't a pagan. I was already a Christian! Yet, each week, we stood in front of the entire congregation before filing out behind our 'teacher' who took us upstairs and out of sight.

I hope the bishops will continue to educate Catholics about the RCIA process. There is certainly a need for it. On my way home one Sunday, after again standing to face the priest and then being herded out of the Mass along with my fellow students, I ran into a neighbor and fellow congregant, a Catholic by birth, who said to me, "By the way, what are you all doing standing up there anyway?"

As the bishops explain, the journey of inquiry that the catechumens and candidates undertake is an example for all Catholics to re-discover and re-commit to the teachings of their Catholic faith. I was often gently reminded that I was providing this wonderful example whenever I ventured to whine to my RCIA leaders about traipsing around in front of the congregation. I always felt that being praised as an example to other Catholics was a bit of a mixed message. We uninitiated were not sufficiently Catholic to witness the liturgy of the Eucharist, but we were simultaneously inspiring enough to be an example of faith to others? Never made sense to me. Rather, it seems that the responsibility for instructing the many poorly-catechized Catholics in their faith is something that the hierarchy of the Church should address, which, I suppose, is what the bishops are doing with their aforementioned list.

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