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“Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
RCIA stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This process of formation, also called the "catechumenate," was how most people became Christian in the early Church. The practice gradually disappeared as the faith spread and became integrated into the culture. It was restored by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to meet the needs of the secularized societies of Europe and North America, and in places like Africa and Asia where Christianity was still relatively unknown.
RCIA is not a program, but a gradual process in which one who after hearing the mystery of Christ explained freely chooses to follow him in the faith of the Holy Catholic Church.
RCIA consists of four periods: Inquiry, the Catechumenate, Purification and Enlightenment, and Mystagogy.
The period of Inquiry usually starts in early September, although it can begin anytime. During this period individuals are introduced to Christ and his Church. The period of inquiry focuses on Scripture and the story of salvation. This period can last any length of time depending on the individual, although it usually lasts about three months. There are no expectations during this period; it is simply a time to listen and ask questions.
After this introductory period you may decide to take the first important step in becoming Catholic. During this next period, called the Catechumenate, you will learn about Catholic beliefs and practices with a view toward making a firm commitment to Christ and his Church. Like the period of Inquiry, the Catechumenate can last any length of time, but normally lasts three to four months.
The next phase is called the period of Purification and Enlightenment. This period coincides with the season of Lent, which last six weeks. It is a time of prayer and self-examination in preparation for Baptism, which takes place at the Easter Vigil*.
Once a person has been baptized he or she becomes a "neophyte," which means "beginner" or "novice." The fourth and final period is called Mystagogia, which lasts for seven weeks, concluding at Pentecost around June 1. During this period the meaning of God's word, the sacraments, the moral life and prayer are experienced and reflected on. It is a time in which one's faith takes root and starts to mature.
* In 2013 Easter Sunday is March 31.