How Does a Person Become a Catholic?
There are several ways to become a Catholic. The Catholic Church warmly welcomes new members and tries to provide appropriate spiritual formation according to each person's needs. In general, though, people who are becoming Catholic fall into three categories: infants and young children; people who, whether baptized or unbaptized, have had little or no affiliation with or religious training int the Christian faith; and baptized people who have been active members in other Christian denominations.
Infants and Young Children
Children who are born or adopted into Catholic families usually are baptized as infants, a practice that began early in the Church's history. This makes sense because the children will be raised in a Christian environment, learning the ways of faith from their parents and other family members, and eventually receiving formal religious training through their parish school or religious education program. For the same reason, children whose parents enter the Catholic Church before the children have reached school age also are baptized.
People with Little or No Christian Background
Many adults who wish to join the Catholic Church have never been baptized. The Church offers unbaptized adults a process of formation in the Catholic Christian faith and way of life called "Christian initiation," or "Catechumenate." Christian initiation is a gradual process. It begins somewhat informally. After the interested person contacts the local Catholic Church, he or she may be invited to meet with other people who are exploring the possibility of becoming Catholic. These people have the opportunity to ask questions about the Church and to hear about the message of Jesus Christ and how it is lived out in the Catholic Church. A person may continue to participate in these sessions as long as he or she wishes. No commitments are made or expected during this time.
If the person decides to pursue the process of becoming Catholic, he or she enters the catechumenate; unbaptized persons in the catechumenate are called catechumens. The catechumenate provides a structure for the proclamation of the Gospel, catechesis (passing on of the teachings of the Church), public and private prayer, spiritual direction, the observance of the feasts, fasts, Sundays and seasons of the Church calendar, direct contact with members of the parish community, and participation in the work of the Church for justice and peace. During this time, each catechumen is paired with a sponsor who can serve as a spiritual companion and offer support and encouragement. The sponsor is already Catholic.
Through the various rites of the catechumenate, the Church marks a person's journey to full membership. These rites reflect his or her spiritual growth and the community's loving concern. The climax of the catechumenate process is the celebration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist, usually at the Easter Vigil, followed by a period for reflection on the sacraments and for integration into the life and mission of the Church (a sketch of the periods and rites of Christian initiation can be found below). From the time an unbaptized person becomes a catechumen until that person celebrates the sacraments of initiation usually takes at least one year. This allows the catechumen to experience one full cycle of the Church's rhythm of feasts and seasons.
Baptized adults who have never been formed in the Christian life also participate in the catechumenate process. As they prepare for acceptance into the Catholic Church, they are known as candidates rather than catechumens. Even though the process is the same, the Catholic Church takes care to respect the fact that these people truly are baptized. Only when there is good reason to doubt that the person's baptixm took place or was celebrated validly--a rare occurrence--will such a person be baptized before entering the Catholic Church. Baptized persons are received into the Catholic Church when they are ready, by making a profession of faith, receiving the sacrament of confirmation and sharing in the eucharist.
Children who have reached school age, whether they are baptized or not, will participate in the catechumenate process adapted according to their age.
For clarification, a valid baptism means that a person has been either submerged in water or had water poured on his/her head, while the Christian pastor/preacher says: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." All three persons in the Trinity must be invoked for the baptism to be recognized by the Catholic Church as a valid baptism. We believe that only a valid baptism performed in this way removes original sin.
Baptized People Who are Active Christians
People who have been active members of other Christian denominations seek membership in the Catholic Church for many reasons. Often, they are attracted by the Church's liturgies or by its stance on issues of justice and peace. Sometimes they are married or engaged to a Catholic. A person who has been an active Christian, who attempts to live in a way congruent with the teachings of Christ, who has actively participated in the worship and life of a Christian community and who prays does not need to undergo the full process of Christian initiation. Such a person does need an understanding of Catholic beliefs, the experience of participating in the Church's liturgical life over an appropriate period of time and an acquaintance with the Catholic community to be able to make a lasting commitment to the Catholic Church. Each person's situation should be evaluated and his or her needs met in an appropriate way. When the time is right, such a person may be received into the Catholic Church at any time of the year. This is accomplished by the person making a profession of faith and celebrating the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist, usually at a Sunday parish Mass. (Even if the person has been confirmed in another Christian denomination, the sacrament of confirmation is almost always celebrated).
What is the First Step?
Anyone who is thinking about becoming a Catholic Christian or who would like more information can contact the nearest Catholic parish. Meeting with the pastor or another member of the parish's pastoral staff ordinarily is the first step in the journey toward becoming a Catholic.
To find a Catholic parish near you, check the phone book, ask a friend who is Catholic, or if you live in a small rural town that has no Catholic parish, you can check out Masstimes.org for information about the closest parish to your home town.
Christian Initiation Synopsis:
Period of Inquiry: This is a time of introduction to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a time of reflection on one's own life in light of the values of the reign of God. It is an unstructured time of no fixed duration for questions and an opportunity for the beginnings of Christian faith to form.
Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens: In this liturgical rite, those who wish to become catechumens publicly express their desire to follow the way of Jesus. The Church accepts their intention and welcomes them into the household of faith as catechumens.
Period of the Catechumenate: Along with the whole community, catechumens celebrate the liturgy of the Word at Mass each Sunday. After the homily, the catechumens and their catechists (teachers) continue to study and ponder the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. During this time, catechumens receive anointings, participate in prayers of exorcism and blessing, and take part in the mission of the Church to the world. Through prayer, learning and coming to know other Catholic Christians, catechumens discover the love and power of God in their lives and in the Church.
Election or Enrollment of Names: At this liturgical rite, usually celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent in the cathedral of the diocese, the bishop formally acknowledges the readiness of the catechumens and calls them to the sacraments of initiation. The catechumens respond by expressing their desire for these sacraments. From this time, until they are baptized, they are called the elect.
Period of Purification and Enlightenment: This time of intense preparation for initiation usually coincides with Lent. During this period, the elect and the parish community together focus on conversion, scrutinize their lives in light of the Gospel and celebrate the presentations of the Creed and Lord's Prayer.
Sacraments of Initiation: The elect become full members of the Body of Christ, the Church, through the celebration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist, usually at the Easter Vigil. From this time until the end of the period of mystagogy, they are known as neophytes, which means "new sprouts."
Period of Mystagogy: During the 50 day season of Easter, neophytes ponder the experience and meaning of the sacraments and participate with the faithful in the eucharistic life of the Church and its mission for justice and peace. Formation and teaching continue for one year to help the neophytes become incorporated into the full life of the Catholic Christian community.
Webmaster's Note: My son-in-law joined the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil of 2001, and I was his sponsor/godmother. He was unbaptized, but raised in a fundamentalist Christian Church, which his family did not attend regularly. I attended the RCIA classes with him, because I was curious about the process of becoming Catholic myself. I was baptized into the Catholic Church when I was 5 days old, and had no experience with this. My husband is a convert from the Methodist Church, and he attended instruction before I met him.
I have several suggestions for people who want to be Catholic, or who are interested in exactly what we believe. My personal experience ( I live in the "Bible belt") with Christians of other denominations is that they are told by the other "authorities" in their Churches what we believe, rather than asking a practicing Catholic directly. It's my opinion that if you want to know about any subject, you go to a person who actually knows the facts. For example, don't ask your attorney a medical question. See what I mean?
If at all possible, find a Catholic to talk to who actually practices his/her faith. Please don't be put off or discouraged if you ask a question about "why?" and the Catholic doesn't have a ready answer for you. Many of us know the "rules" but aren't always taught all the "why's" of our faith. Most of us aren't forced in religion classes to memorize different Bible quotations so they can be quoted back later. Hopefully, your Catholic friend you speak to can direct you to some source for your answer or go find out for you.
Go straight to a Catholic Church and talk to the priests or deacons there. Phone the parish office to make an appointment first if possible. The number of priests are declining, and they usually have pretty tight schedules with handling parish and diocesan matters.
Purchase books on Catholicism that are actually printed by Catholic publishers. Catholic publishing companies rarely print a book that goes against Catholic teaching, if it is EVER done! Some examples of these publishers are: Liguori, Ave Maria Press, Ignatius, Tan, etc. The books I suggest on my Apologetics and Dogma webpages are safe resources to get the real facts on the Catholic Church and its teachings. Use the same discretion when surfing the internet for "facts" about the faith. For those of you who do not know what "apologetics" is, it is the Biblical defense of the Catholic faith and has nothing to do with any "apology."
One other important note: You can take instruction in the Catholic faith and choose not to become a Catholic. Many people who are marrying a Catholic want to know what their future spouse believes. Some join the Church, others do not. When I was going through the process with my son-in-law, there were a couple of people going through the instruction classes for the 2nd or 3rd time. Until you actually receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist (Holy Communion) at the Easter Vigil, you are not yet a Catholic. You can still choose not to join up to that point. And if you want more instruction before you actually make your decision, come back for the next round of classes! We won't throw you out, or tell you that you missed your chance.... All are welcome.
If you have been divorced and remarried, you will have special issues to address before becoming Catholic. Talk to your priest about this. Don't let the fact that you've been married and divorced before this marriage keep you away from the faith. This also applies if you have married a divorced person, but you have only had the one marriage. Please make sure your priest knows your special circumstances.
Links for Those Interested in Catholicism:
(Biblical Defense of the Catholic Faith)
Praying to Saints
The 7 Sacraments
Sacramentals of the Church
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