The Easter Vigil
In Part 1 of this series, I gave you an overview of what Catholics do and don't believe. In Part 2, I explained how prayer forms and shapes our faith. If you haven't read those yet, I suggest you do, or this essay won't make much sense. In Part 3, I'll give you a brief overview of how to actually join the Catholic Church and what to expect.
The first thing you'll need to understand is that joining the Catholic Church is not as simple as just signing your name on a dotted line. This is a bit offputting to many Anglo-Americans (Canadians and US Citizens) because they tend to often think of a church as a mere organisation or club. Most Protestant denominations make membership relatively easy. A simple profession of faith, followed by a signature on the dotted line, and POOF! You're a member! Some newer Evangelical denominations don't even require that. If you just show up regularly they consider you a member. The most they'll ever ask you for is contact information so they can keep in touch and email you their newsletter. So when Anglo-Americans hear that joining the Catholic Church is actually a process, they tend to get a little shy about it. This can be unfortunate for them, but the process is absolutely necessary because you see, joining the Catholic Church isn't just about attaching yourself to a particular organisation. It's about a radical change in life, attitude, outlook and habits. Joining the Catholic Church is a very big deal and should never be taken lightly. It's kind of like a marriage. Joining the Catholic Church is a process that takes a little time because we want to make sure that new members know exactly what they're doing and they're sure this is really what they want.
Step One involves actually talking to a priest. This is a necessary step, because not only might he be able to answer some serious questions you may have, but he also will be able to determine what level of catechesis (instruction) you require, and determine what sacraments you may needs, as well as discern if there are any impediments to full-communion that may need to be reconciled.
- Level of catechesis (instruction) means how much you need to be taught. Everybody is different. Some people already know quite a bit, and may only need a minimal amount of instruction. One example might be high-church Anglicans, Lutherans or Eastern Orthodox. These people usually require just a short time of instruction. Another example might be Baptists or Pentecostals, who require some more extensive (intermediate level) instruction. Lastly, non-Christians (such as former Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or Atheists) might require full and complete instruction from scratch. Most Catholic parishes offer an adult Catechism class. The priest will be able to determine at what point you should jump in.
- Sacraments needed means the number of sacraments of initiation required to become a full-fledged Catholic in good standing. For example, if you've never been baptised in the name of the Trinity, you'll need to start from scratch with a Trinitarian baptism. However, if you've already received baptism in a Trinitarian church (Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Evangelical and most Pentecostal) then you've already effectively received a baptism the Catholic Church recognises. Beyond that, you'll at least need the sacraments of confirmation and first communion. Only a priest can determine this with certainty.
- Impediments to full-communion mean things in your life that might prohibit you from becoming Catholic. In Anglo-America (The United States and Canada) the most common impediments we see are remarriage after divorce and membership in secret societies.
- In the case of remarriage after divorce, this is how it works. Being divorced doesn't stop you from entering the Catholic Church. If you're divorced, and single, you can come on in. There's no problem here. However, if your divorced and remarried, that's a different matter. Unlike some Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church takes the sacrament of matrimony very seriously. There is no remarriage after divorce in the Catholic Church, and the Church takes the pledge "till death do you part" literally. So if you're in a situation where you happen to be remarried after a divorce, then the Church needs to look into this to make sure the previous marriage was null and void (never existed) according to Church Law. This is called an annulment. When you receive a declaration of nullity from the Catholic Church it means your previous marriage(s) never existed under Church Law. It may have been a legal marriage under civil law, but under Church Law, something was missing on your wedding day to make the marriage legal from a religious standpoint. Declarations of nullity (annulments) do not delegitimatize children born in previous marriages because it is presumed that both parties believed their marriage was religiously lawful at the time. The process of annulment should be guided by an advocate, and an advocate should be assigned by the priest. Many times it's the priest himself who acts as an advocate. The annulment process was recently simplified and made extremely affordable under the pontificate of Pope Francis. In many cases it's free. Only a priest can determine what is needed in these cases, which is another reason why you must talk to one. If, however, you have no previous marriages, or your previous spouse died prior to your second marriage, and both parties were non-catholic at the time the marriage was contracted, the Catholic Church will just assume it is valid and sacramental according to Church Law. Therefore no action is needed.
- In regards to secret societies, the most common one in Anglo-America is the Freemasons (or "Masons"). Catholics are not permitted to be members of the Freemasons or other secret societies. If you happen to be a member, a priest will guide you through the process of cutting ties with these organisations and spiritually release you from all oaths and penalties related to membership in these organisations.
Step Two usually involves getting rid of any impediments to full-communion with the Catholic Church. For many, this may involve initiating the annulment process within the Church. The average length of an annulment process is six months to one year and should be guided by a priest. If a secret society is an obstacle, the process of cutting ties and being released from oaths and penalties is fairly quick and should be guided by a priest.
Step Three involves catechesis. The priest will have determined what level of catechesis is required. This usually involves attendance in a classroom with others seeking to enter the Catholic Church. The class is usually led by a catechist, who is a layman (non-ordained) well studied and certified to teach the Catholic faith. Sometimes the catechist is a priest or deacon, but most of the time it's a well-studied and certified layman. This catechesis class is designed to educate potential new members and get them intellectually ready for Catholic life. A potential new member who has already been baptised is called a candidate, while one who has never been baptised is called a catechumen. This process can be as short as a few months, to as long as nine months, depending on the level of catechesis needed. Usually, people with no Christian experience need the full nine months, while people with experience in Christianity need less time.
One should keep in mind that that Step Two and Step Three can happen concurrently. Sometimes people go through an adult catechesis class simultaneously while they are seeking an annulment from a Catholic marriage tribunal. It happens all the time actually. In just about all cases, even the most extremely problematic, membership in the Catholic Church can usually be obtained in under a year.
There is a ceremonial process that accompanies those seeking membership. It's called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). These are the religious ceremonies that often accompany those seeking membership in the Catholic Church. Some parishes have fully integrated these ceremonies with their adult catechesis programs. Others keep them separate. The culmination of such ceremonies occurs with the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and first communion. Those who have already been baptised in another (Trinitarian) Christian tradition will not need to be baptised again. In many parishes, their programs require that these sacraments be received at the Easter Vigil -- the night before Easter -- but this is not true for all parishes and dioceses. Some run a rolling program throughout the year. Again, one must talk to a priest to determine how it works at a particular parish.
For native English-speaking (Anglophone) people, I highly recommend that one seek membership in an Ordinariate parish or community. These are traditional in nature and specifically tailored to the heritage and customs of Anglophone people. One can easily find such parishes and communities using this map. Keep in mind, however, that if one isn't readily available in your area, starting an Ordinariate community/parish is always possible for Catholics of Anglican or Methodist background, and Catholics without this background can still join if one ever becomes available. If one is not available in your immediate area, then any Catholic parish will do. If you can find one that regularly celebrates the Vetus Ordo (Traditional Latin Mass) that parish should be preferred because even if you don't want to attend a Vetus Ordo mass, such parishes do typically uphold a higher standard of worship and catechesis. This is usually reflected in their celebration of the Novus Ordo mass too. The best way to find out is to look at the mass schedule on the parish website. If they offer a Vetus Ordo, it will be listed simply as "Latin" on the parish website. If you find one, it's a winner! Go there. It's preferred. If not, then just look for the one in your area that seems the most traditional in your estimation. As a general rule, traditional Catholic parishes seem to be most agreeable to converts. The newer, more hip and modernistic type of parishes, usually aren't very appealing to converts and are often characterised by ageing parishioners and dwindling membership.
Joining the Catholic Church is the final step toward coming into full communion with an expression of Christianity that has been around for 2,000 years. Once completed, one becomes a Catholic for life. An indelible mark is imprinted on a person's soul, and cannot be removed. Once a Catholic always a Catholic. It's like marriage in a lot of ways, except it's more permanent because it's forever. This is why the Church wants potential new members to take their time and consider this carefully. This is why the process takes longer than just signing one's name to a membership roster. Those who go through the process, and eventually become members, usually stay members for life. While some fall away, they usually end up coming back. Such is the nature of being Catholic. It's more than just Church membership. It's a way of life.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.
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