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Study follows up on Catholic initiation


Mark Andersen is one of several hundred-thousand Americans who have become Catholics through the process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults -- recently some 150,000 a year in the United States, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

David Yamane, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, is another. He was so engaged by the experience that he is making the RCIA the topic of his academic research. Among the things Yamane wants to find out are what draws people to Catholicism and, once they’ve completed the initiation process, what keeps them coming back.

Yamane, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, had attended only two religious services by the time he reached his early 20s. He was unfamiliar even with that most basic of Christian utterances, the Lord’s Prayer. He was interested, though, in social issues -- in racial and economic inequalities, for example. He was attracted to sociology through such concerns.

Then, in spring of 1989, he had a sense of the “meaninglessness” of his own life. He was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. He and a group of friends were drinking while watching on television the massacre of Chinese students as they demonstrated for freedom in Tiananmen Square. “I realized these students were dying for the freedoms I took for granted,” he said.

That fall he took a course with Robert Bellah, the prominent sociologist of religion, and met for the first time an intellectual who talked explicitly about his faith. Bellah’s best-known book is Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California, 1985). Yamane respected Bellah too much, Yamane said, to dismiss the sociologist’s religious convictions.

The following summer, Yamane met his future wife: Megan Polzer, a deeply committed Catholic and fellow sociologist-in-training, at the University of Wisconsin. Yamane began to attend Mass with her and gradually began to respond emotionally to the prayers and singing, he said.

He joined the church through the RCIA process, sometimes called the catechumenate. He married, finished graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and was hired by the University of Notre Dame through an affirmative action program that provides for hiring qualified Catholic scholars even when a given department does not have the budget to hire. (The affirmative action program also applies to minorities and to academic “superstars.”)

Notre Dame provided an academically safe place for a study of the catechumenate, Yamane said.

Among the questions his study is asking, using questionnaires and interviews:

What predisposes a person to turn to the Catholic church, assuming that some interior need leads them to want a deeper experience of religion? What is the role of friends or networks in leading people to the church? After a person becomes involved in catechumenate, what difference does that make in their lives? How do different approaches to the program affect the experiences that people have? What difference, if any, does good liturgy make? What happens to people after the program ends?

“I have a shelf full of works of theology that address what the RCIA should be, but we can all benefit from knowing what it actually is.”

“Often there isn’t good follow up,” he said. “RCIA directors say they wonder what happens to people after they join the church.”

As for goals for his research, beyond a contribution to his own field, Yamane hopes to produce findings that will be useful to parishes.

“Lots of people consider the RCIA one of the greatest things to come out of the Second Vatican Council. If we can build on the successes, that would be completing the work that was started there,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000