WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Pastoral assistant Anne Driver says 'Conversion is an invitation not a conscription.
A common icon of conversion is the painting of Jesus standing at a person's front door. The image illustrates Revelation 3.20: "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."
Jesus gives the invitation and calls out to us, but it's up to each individual to decide whether to answer the door and let Jesus into his or her life, said Anne Driver, pastoral assistant at Holy Trinity Catholic Parish in Spruce Grove/Stony Plain.
Pope John Paul II emphasized this theme with his well-known statement, "Open wide the doors to Christ." The basis for conversion is answering the door when Jesus knocks. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) provides the forum for this conversion.
Driver has been leading a small RCIA group of three candidates and one catechumen every Thursday evening for about nine months. There are also six children who attend on a different night.
"Conversion is always an invitation, not conscription. It's an exchange between two persons. What we are hoping to introduce you to through RCIA is a person, the person of Christ," said Driver. "If you leave here saying, 'The Church believes this and the Church believes that,' but you haven't grown in a relationship with Christ, then we've failed you."
For those baptized in other traditions (candidates) or who have never been baptized (catechumens), RCIA is a chance for them to be welcomed into the Catholic Church
RCIA is a process, not a program. It is the process through which people are introduced to the Catholic faith and way of life.
Each week, Driver presents a different topic, a different teaching of the Church. The March 20 topic was conversion - our response to God's call, what that involves, examples of conversion and how to recognize conversion in our own lives.
She detailed two famous conversion stories from the New Testament, namely those of the Samaritan woman at the well, and St. Paul who persecuted the early Christians until later becoming a devout follower of Jesus.
There is no set timetable for those who join the RCIA process. They are encouraged to set their own pace and take as much time as they require. On average, the RCIA process takes eight months to a year, perhaps longer.
"We put invitations into school newsletters for parents who are maybe considering (joining the Church), and in the parish bulletin. But there's only so much we can do, other than maybe putting an ad in the local newspaper," said Driver.
Back in September 2013 they started the long journey of reflection, instruction, formation, prayer and discernment.
"They are really coming along well. We are seeing lots of encouraging signs that they are ready to make this important step," said Driver.
One clear sign of conversion is a turning of the heart towards God. As well, people will display a change in lifestyle, perhaps abandoning old patterns of behaviour. Another sign of conversion is a person who prays and attends Mass, not because those are dictums of the Church, but because he or she truly wants to take part in the liturgy.
They are expected to begin attending Mass, attend a weekly RCIA session, and to become increasingly involved in parish activities. Their journey will culminate in a celebration of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist at the April 19 Easter Vigil.
"Each year it's building more relationships with the people who are going through. I just love sharing something that I love and seeing people respond to it, seeing them fall in love with the same person that I'm in love with," said Driver.
If people join too late, Driver welcomes them into the RCIA group as part of the learning process, but she also advises them that they might not be received into the Church until the following Easter.
Lisa Chouinard is a candidate with the Holy Trinity RCIA group, and said she is in the process of understanding the Catholic faith a little more.
"I've always been a faithful person, and I've been a member of the Presbyterian Church for a long time. My husband is Catholic and we baptized our son Catholic and our daughter Presbyterian so she's going through the confession of faith as well," said Chouinard.
Moving from Ontario to Alberta, she did not find a community of Presbyterians, and she has missed that connection. "So I finally decided it's time to unite the family," she said.
Through the RCIA, she's gaining greater insight into the Catholic rite. While many beliefs are the same as those of the Presbyterians, the way they are shown is totally different, she said. While there have been no huge surprises in what she's learned through RCIA, she is gaining a clearer understanding of differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism.
"I never understood all of the Catholic ways, and it kind of left me befuddled and wondering, 'Why do they do this? Why do they do that?' Coming to the RCIA process and going through the conversion myself, I'm starting to understand why the crucifix is so prominent here and why Mary is prominent, and those sorts of things," she said.
Growing up, Ashley Flamia never attended church with her family and only remembers going a handful of times with her friends. She was baptized in the United Church, and recently married a Catholic man.
"I thought it was important that we raise our children in one faith. I always felt that I was searching for something. I was never raised in a church setting, and I always felt that I was missing something," said Flamia.
Taking the RCIA journey and immersing herself in the Catholic faith have brought her to realize what she was missing. Her conversion has also helped bring her husband back to the Church.
"We enjoy going to church now. It's nice because it's brought us closer together, and I like sharing what I learn with my friends and family," she said.
She has learned a lot of Catholic theology that was completely foreign to her a few months ago.
"The kinds of questions you might have and your doubts are answered. Everything is explained better and I can understand now," said Flamia.