Hannah Buffalo has waited a lifetime to become Catholic. The 72-year-old was raised Baptist and attended church together with her husband and her mother, who taught her to be open-minded.
“Honey, I’ve been interested in the Church ever since elementary school. I don’t know what always drew me to the Church, but I think it was the reverence of it. As I got older and matured, I always felt like there was something more,” she said. “... I admired (Catholics). I admired the charity. That’s just who I am. I believe in social issues.”
Not even a global pandemic can stop her from going through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program at St. Anne Church in North Little Rock this year.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do and I knew this is what the Lord wanted me to do and there was no reason, as far as I'm concerned, to deter me in any way. If they were willing, I was willing,” Buffalo said. “I’m just so thankful that they would do this for me under the circumstances.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parishes are moving forward with RCIA programs, but many are adopting a one-on-one mentoring approach rather than group meetings.
“We don’t want to put people’s journey of faith on hold,” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan faith formation director and pastor at Christ the King Church in Little Rock.
During continuing education for priests in fall 2019, it was emphasized with the Church’s 1988 “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” how the process can be different for candidates -- baptized Christians with a faith foundation -- versus catechumens/elect, who have not been baptized. The rite states baptized Christians should “receive both doctrinal and spiritual preparation, adapted to individual pastoral requirements.”
On Aug. 21-22, 55 people, including pastors and RCIA teams from 32 parishes, attended virtual training hosted by the diocese’s Faith Formation Office led by D. Todd Williamson, director of the office for divine worship for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Andrea Ziminsky, the new adult sacramental coordinator for St. Joseph Church in Conway, is continuing to broaden the RCIA mentorship style, which began last year at the parish. There are five candidates connected with a mentor to go over lessons weekly. Then all candidates and mentors meet monthly at the church.
“I think one of the other main differences is you go through the RCIA classes for nine months and then you’re brought into the faith and we say, ‘Welcome; good luck to you.’ Now it’s more, ‘Let’s get you involved in the community now, so you can see what it’s like to live as a Catholic,’” she said.
St. Joseph parishioners Kevin and Courtney Herrington are mentors to another young couple coming into the Church and meet once every other week for dinner.
“It’s been really fascinating. It’s been a very organic friendship that just talks about faith less than a classroom, lecturing style and more conversational conversion,” the 22-year-old said, adding he also enjoyed the traditional RCIA format, as he entered the Church in Easter 2018.
For about four years, St. Anne Church in North Little Rock had a two-year RCIA format. However, the RCIA team met in May with pastor Father Alejandro Puello to discuss how to make RCIA fruitful during a pandemic.
“He said, ‘Let’s look at the guidance of the early Church in the times of the Christians being persecuted, they were hiding in their homes, they had a fear of death’” and were being brought into the Church, drawing a comparison to COVID-19, said St. Anne faith formation director Belinda Ortner.
They matched an RCIA team member with a candidate based on compatible personalities. The candidates meet with their mentors weekly at the church. RCIA started in the summer and once a candidate is ready, they’ll enter the Church.
Ortner said the only concern is the missing communal aspect of RCIA.
“It’s just one of these things we have to put our faith in God because this is not the norm, but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.
Given the COVID-19 threat, some of the larger parishes have seen fewer people signing up for RCIA. As the largest parish in the state, St. Raphael Church in Springdale on average has about 40 people enter the Church each year. The five English speakers and four Spanish speakers in RCIA now are paired with mentors, doing an at-home study in preparation to enter at Easter.
Despite being a large parish, doing a mentorship program during a typical year would be tough.
“We don’t have access to a lot of mentors that we feel comfortable with. (Mentors are) someone who has been through the program, or has had further education or deacons, that have been handpicked,” said English-speaking RCIA coordinator Sandra Keene.
Father Pohlmeier said about 50 people annually enter at Christ the King, but this year there are 13. They are currently meeting in person as a group.
“Our approach was to see who shows up and adjust from there … We’re still trying to have small groups, that means five people. If we put together two tables, we can pretty much spread those people out,” with everyone wearing masks, he said.
They are also changing their teaching approach.
“I want to be very direct about it not just being information given, but a conversation of prayer, discussion and learning … no RCIA class can teach everything the Catholic Church believes so we’re not trying to,” he said. “We’re trying to take steps to help them grow in their basic relationship with God.”
Despite the expectation of fewer people entering the Church because of the pandemic, Father Pohlmeier said numbers are not the focus.
“It should never be about numbers to start with, but about accompanying people on their journey of faith. Smaller numbers are a good chance to really evaluate what would be the ideal for our program and begin to implement that,” he said.
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