Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, pastor of Mater Misericordiae, baptizes a new member into the Catholic Church. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)
Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, pastor of Mater Misericordiae, baptizes a new member into the Catholic Church. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

The Catholic Church experiences an annual surge in its worldwide membership during the Easter Vigil when it celebrates the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

This rite has been around since the first century when disciples of Jesus shared His message and brought people into the faith. From the second to the fifth centuries, local churches used a process for the initiation of a new Catholic Christian.

However, the practice waned for several centuries due to the growing practice of baptizing infants. The impetus for infant baptism was Augustine of Hippo’s “clear” definition of original sin, said Larry Fraher, director of catechetical ministries at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Scottsdale.

“Within the next 200 to 300 years, members of the Church perceived the need to have children baptized,” Fraher said. “The baptism of adults was never abandoned — it was that the demand for infant baptisms increased significantly.”

The Second Vatican Council promoted the liturgical change to reinstitute the RCIA.

“People take one year, two years, or possibly the rest of their lives to be prepared for baptism,” Fraher said.

The process for adults, and for children that have reached the age of reason, includes instruction and liturgical rites celebrated at successive intervals of time throughout the year.

However, the process has several distinct stages:

  •  Inquiry: The initial period to ask questions before deciding to enter the Catholic Church.
  • Catechumenate: Those who decide to enter the Church are learning how to live a life in Christ and are called catechumens, an ancient name from the early Church. In this stage, individuals learn the basics about the Catholic faith and life.
  • Purification and preparation: The Church helps catechumens focus and intensify preparation as they commit their life to Christ and ready themselves to be welcomed into the Church at Easter. During Lent, catechumenates experience the scrutinies.
  • Initiation: The culmination of the whole process where the elect are received into the Church during the Easter Vigil Mass. (If you’ve already been baptized, you are called a candidate, and you won’t be baptized again.)
  • Mystagogy: After reception into the Church at Easter, this period lets you reflect and learn more about the mysteries of the Mass and the sacraments that you now participate in fully.

The sacraments of Christian initiation are baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist, which are received during the Easter Vigil.

“My favorite topic to teach is the sacraments,” said Deacon Mike Carr, RCIA coordinator at All Saints Parish in Mesa. “It’s important to expose them to the life of the Church, and discuss how the sacraments bring life to each one of us.”

According to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, “Baptism, the door to life and to the kingdom of God, is the first sacrament of the New Law, which Christ offered to all, that they might have eternal life.”

The Easter Vigil is the preferred time in the liturgical year when new members of the body of Christ are baptized. The Liturgy of Baptism is an exciting part of the Vigil when the Church baptizes the elect -— individuals who have never been baptized before in another faith.

The faithful are then signed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation, with the Vigil leading up to the celebration of the Eucharist. Those newly confirmed are then invited to receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time at the Lord’s table.

“The Easter Vigil is really so beautiful,” said Michael Garibaldi, director of evangelization and catechesis at St. Joan of Arc Parish.

“It is humbling for me to interact with [candidates and catechumens] on a weekly basis, and watch them grow and deepen their love of the Lord,” he said. “The Vigil is really where they start their journey as a Catholic.”