Teaching RCIA: ecumenism in practice

Tonight was my first night teaching the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (or RCIA) for Catholic inquirers at Princeton University. As a Protestant, I have the unique opportunity to teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church to a group of young students who seek to be either baptized or confirmed in the Catholic faith. For the past eleven years, Princeton Seminary students have taught this program as part of their ministry internship. I landed this position because my neighbor taught the program last year. This internship gives me the opportunity to teach through the entire catechism. This will include teaching through all the doctrines of the faith, presenting a brief history of the church, and instructing the inquirers about the particulars of Catholic teaching.

People raise their eyebrows at me when they hear that I am a Protestant instructing people in the Catholic faith, but I view this as a wonderful example of true ecumenism—that is, engaging another tradition carefully and sympathetically. I am also thrilled about the opportunity to teach through the catechism, a document that I think every Protestant should read. Karl Barth once said that a person doesn’t have the right to be Protestant unless she has been tempted by Catholicism. I would say the same. Protestants need to know what they are “protesting” against; it cannot simply be a knee-jerk reaction to papal authority (or whatever scares them away). In the end, I expect this to be a challenging experience for me, as I both learn about the Catholic faith in depth and seek to communicate it effectively to people who are relatively ignorant about the teachings of the church.

For those of you who are interested, here is the outline for what I will be covering in the RCIA program this year. This outline goes through the entire catechism. I expect I may have to adapt the schedule in order to spend more time on the sacraments and the Ten Commandments, but here is the current schedule:
Week 1: Revelation, Jesus Christ, and the Word of God (¶1-100)
Week 2: Scripture and Tradition (¶101-84)
Week 3: The Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (¶185-267)
Week 4: Creator and Creation (¶268-354)
Week 5: Humanity and the “Image of God” (¶355-84)
Week 6: Sin and Evil (¶385-421)
Week 7: Jesus Christ: True God and True Man (¶422-570)
Week 8: Jesus Christ: Savior of the World (¶571-667)
Week 9: Holy Spirit: The Power of New Life (¶683-747, 1987-2029)
Week 10: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church with an Excursus on Mary (¶748-975, 2030-51)
Week 11: Forgiveness of Sins, Resurrection of the Body, and Life Everlasting (¶668-82, 976-1065)
Week 12: Liturgy & Sacraments (¶1066-1209, 1667-90)
Week 13: The Seven Sacraments (¶1210-1666)
Week 14: Christian Ethics (¶1691-1876)
Week 15: The Christian in the World (¶1877-1986)
Week 16: The Ten Commandments (¶2052-557)
Week 17: Prayer (¶2558-758)
Week 18: The Lord’s Prayer (¶2759-865)


Anonymous said…
This is really interesting. I'm looking forward to reading your reflections on this as you go along. I can relate to the eyebrow raising. Being the only Protestant student at a Roman Catholic seminary, I get asked a lot of questions!

Your schedule looks great, but you could probably spend a whole week on the Eucharist alone.

Have fun! I wish I could attend!
Fred said…
Wow! That's cool, but are there one or more Catholic catechists involved also?
Yes, there is the priest who presides over the Catholic ministry on the campus, and there is also a deacon who handles administrative matters and assists wherever needed. I am really just the instructor in the catechism. The priest and deacon are the actual leaders of the RCIA.
Anonymous said…
WOW!I would also be very excited and honored to have this opportunity of ministry.
I think what Barth said about being tempted is very true, I have flirted with the idea, and have certainly come to respect RC theology, the non-popular type. I hope to be able to study Hans Urs von Balthasar someday.

God bless your ministry! James G
Joshua said…
sounds like a great oppurtunity. i understand why you want to spend more time on the sacraments, but why extend the ten commandments section

The sections on the sacraments and the Decalogue are just too long to handle in one night. The Decalogue is feasible, but it's still a lot of material. The sacraments, for sure, need more time, but I may not have enough weeks to really give the catechism the time it deserves.
Anonymous said…
With great respect, and with no reflection on your theological expertise or integrity intended, my initial response is that this situation is extremely bizarre. I'm all for ecumenism. But it also seems to me that teaching catechism, unlike a less tradition-specific academic course in theology or scripture, requires a lived appreciation of the tradition's nuances and inflections and accents, and I just don't know that an outsider has that kind of appreciation. Would I want a Southern Baptist catechizing prospective Anglicans? Or a Presbyterian? Or even a UCCer? In all honesty, I have to say "no," even if the Southern Baptist or Presbyterian or UCCer had made formal studies of Anglicanism. Why? Because for them, the Anglican tradition would be an object which they examine, not an experience they live.

Having said this, though, I realize that I could be quite mistaken. And I do wish you well.

It is a little bizarre, but it's also an 11-year tradition. Seminary students have been teaching RCIA for quite a while here. Teaching catechism probably does require a lived appreciation of Catholicism, and I think I such an appreciation, without being a Catholic myself. I think you make the distinction between the traditions far too strict, as if Presbyterians and Anglicans and Catholics are more like three different religions than the same faith in three different modes. The way you describe it, it sounds as if my teaching catechism is as bizarre as my teaching Islam. But that's just not the case. I am teaching people who are almost entirely unfamiliar with the Catholic faith, and most of my time is spent teaching the basics of Christianity. I certainly have a lived appreciation of that.
Anonymous said…
I bow to your argument. I suspect I'm making too much of it. Best wishes!
bgeorge77 said…
I don't want to seem the jerk here, but the fact that you are teaching RCIA is proof that you don't understand RCIA.

I don't know who the director of the RCIA program is there, but this is seriously wrong. If it's an 11 year tradition, it has gone on long enough.

I'm sure you're a nice guy, and I'm sure you mean well, but this is backwards. RCIA is not just a "What is Catholicism?" class, or even a "What does the Catechism say?" class, but a reaching out of the Eucharististic body to the lost, to bring them to the light of Christ, walking with them through the sacraments, rejoicing with the angels at their birth into a new being. It is a rite, not a simply a class, appearances to the contrary.

Again, not being a meany, but you are not part of the Eucharistic body. Maybe according to yourself you are, but according to the Church whose doctrines you will be teaching, you are not, you are among the "separated bretheren."

Further, don't you personally have a problem with teaching something you don't believe? You say that Kerry was making the definition between "modes" far too strict, but honestly, only a Protestant could say such a thing in this circumstance, for saying it requires being contrary to the Church. I'm very concerned for what you will be teaching these catechumens, by your words and by your example.

I invite you to go through RCIA, to enter the Church of Christ, and please, teach teach teach! But I ask you to reconsider what you are doing here.

Again, sorry to be the mean ol' jerky Catholic bigot, but it's the truth.

You're entitled to your opinion, though I think it's an unfortunate one. All I can say is that I am not leading the rite itself. I am only conducting the instruction part of the second "catechumenate" stage in the RCIA process. That probably won't assuage your fears that I am corrupting the church, but that's your fear, not mine.

And for the record, I don't have a problem teaching something I don't believe, because I'm serving the Catholic Church, not myself.