How Does Someone Become Catholic?

In the world of the internet, it seems like everything can be done online: Domino’s pizzas can be ordered, plane tickets and travel arrangements can be planned, and in some cases, doctor’s appointments can be scheduled. Just yesterday, I signed up for an online subscription, opted out of a service, and took part in countless social media endeavors, all without ever having to speak with or meet a real person. We have become so accustomed to the ease of access of such things, that three weeks ago, when I went to the gym for the first time, I was annoyed that I had to sit down with a representative and talk about the gym for 30 minutes before I could use it. Why can’t I just sign up online and walk right in?!

It’s with that as our backdrop that the initiation process of becoming a Catholic Christian appears so counter-cultural. With no “signup now” link on our website, it is only in the rarest of occasions that someone can decide to enter and be a full member in under a month. For most, the process can take six, nine, even 24 months from start to finish. And that is even an abbreviated process compared to what was practiced 1500 years ago!

Why so long? Contrary to popular belief (and even contrary to some popular practice) the purpose of the extended time is not simply because there is a lot to learn; intellectual formation is important, and the Church is rich in many things that are important to know, but being a Catholic Christian consists of more than just knowing. First and foremost, the process of entering the Church is about conversion. Unlike joining a gym or a political party, we as Church are concerned with the way people live—privately, in community, and in the world. Living the Gospel is not an easy task and it takes more than just knowledge to be a Christian, no matter how much knowledge one may have. At its core, formation in becoming a Catholic Christian requires a look at one’s prayer life, moral virtues, commitment to others, and readiness to answer God’s call.

This is hardly something that could be completed online.

What’s interesting about the process of initiation, then, is that it is not a one-size-fits-all experience. There is no aptitude test or bar exam that one has to pass. The question of entry is not about intelligence or ability to memorize facts, it is about one’s readiness to live the life. Depending on who one is, what they need, and what the Church can offer, depends on the process one follows. Flexible to the needs of aspiring members of the body of Christ, the Catholic Church groups people together into three main categories:

Non-Christian converts Never been baptized in any Church? Congratulations! You are a true convert to the faith of Christianity. As a result, we will start from the ground up, introducing you to the basics of the faith, helping you develop the skills needed for prayer, and encouraging you to become an engaged member of the community. Throughout the year-long (likely 9 months…) process, you will be gradually welcomed, strengthened, and initiated through a series of progressive steps so that you are ready to be a Christian when that day comes. Oh, and that day is already on the calendar: all baptisms of adults take place at the Easter Vigil.

Protestants seeking communion Were you baptized in another Christian tradition and want to become Catholic? Congratulations! You are already a Christian! As long as your Church baptized you in the Trinitarian formula (In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the Catholic Church recognizes the permanent and unfading character of your baptism and already considers you one with us in Christ. Unfortunately, because of the fracturing of the Christian Church over the years, there are still some areas in which we are not one in communion, however, and a period of preparation will be needed to teach about the specifics of the Catholic faith. There is no set time minimum or limit for these people; it all depends on how long it takes for someone to be ready.

Incomplete Catholics Were you baptized a Catholic but never confirmed or received Eucharist? Congratulations! You are already a Catholic! The most complicatedly simple category, there is no impediment for you to finish your initiation into the Church. While continued faith formation is important and usually required, the only thing that you will truly need is for your pastor to get permission from the bishop to complete your initiation and then pick a date to make it happen! Different Churches will have different processes, and some—especially if you know very little about the faith—may require that you attend some classes with the Protestants seeking full communion, but ultimately the focus is still the same: as soon as you are ready, you are ready.

Do you know someone who might be interested in becoming a Catholic Christian? Why not share this video with them so they can know what they have to do? For email subscribers, click here to watch the newest “Catholicism in Focus” video.

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5 Comments on “How Does Someone Become Catholic?

  1. My sister, very steeped in her Catholic faith, wondered aloud to me: Why as soon as someone wants to be Catholic don’t we immediately at least give them baptism? It would immediately (in our thinking perhaps wrong) give them the ‘protection’ from original sin, mark them as a child of God and give them Indelible Grace, we do this for babies in due course. Why not for adults ??? I agree with her, for those who are not already baptised, do it immediately, the sooner the better.

  2. The following is my limited knowledge about an excellent question from Shawn. In the early Church, converts often went through years of formation before being baptized. At that time baptism was a rite for adults, not children. It was not until the Scholastic Period (1000 – 1300) that our current understanding of original sin was formulated, even though Augustine of Hippo (354–430) developed the doctrine much earlier. As you can imagine, parents placed pressure on the Church to baptize their infant children for fear they would die without benefit of baptism. Over the years, the process for adults was speeded up and the wait period for adults was not as long. The process began to vary from parish to parish, diocese to diocese and country to country. The Vatican II Council re-established RCIA in an effort to assure appropriate and uniform formation for adults. Reverting to the “old” method of adult formation to some degree was deemed a step in the right direction. Remember, adults who are being baptized technically have not had any Christian training. Christian formation is needed. Just as you would not go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a drivers license without studying the manual and learning how to drive a car, the same analogy applies to becoming a Christian. For those of us who assist with the RCIA process in our local parish, the rites performed at Easter Vigil Mass are overwhelmingly emotional when the adults we have been working with for many months are baptized, receive the Rite of Confirmation and receive their first Eucharist. The bishops at the Vatican II Council got it right with RCIA, just as they did with allowing the Mass to be celebrated in the local language and the introduction of readings from the Lectionary during Mass.

    • Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful response, and your knowledge. I have attended a few friends ‘big night’ as they become full members of the Catholic church, for many it has been just as you said very emotional and moving as their journey both their initial journey ‘ended’, and a new one “begins” at the same time. I always like the title of a short book I read: “Always We Begin Again” (John McQuiston II), we are always doing that, no matter who we are.
      Thanks again. ~ Shawn

  3. This is a great article on becoming Catholic depending upon where one is spritually. And it explains why one can not just walk in to a Catholic church and join. Of course, this is why some incorrectly think Catholics Are not a welcoming church.

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