David YAMENE.  Becoming Catholic:  Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape. New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  pp. 230. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-996498-7.  Reviewed by Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN 46808.

Many people are born into the religion that they will practice the rest of their lives. Catholics have a phrase for this, Cradle to Grave Catholics, but not all Catholics have this ascribed status.  Many achieve the status of Catholic in adulthood through a process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA. In this book Yamene provides background information for the development of this rather recent initiation process into the Church and then brings us closer to understanding what choosing Catholicism looks like by examining the RCIA process in several ways.

One way he does this is by describing the process, which was only nailed down procedurally in America and translated into English in 1988 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Understanding the process is important since 150 thousand Americans convert to Catholicism every year. Put differently, today one in every 50 Americans is a convert to Catholicism. Thus, Yamene reasons, a group this large clearly warrants some empirical attention, but this book, he claims, is less about the numbers and more about the process.

Yamene tells us that that the process “…takes individuals on a journey through four distinct, formative periods, punctuated by elaborate ritual transitions, before they are finally initiated at Easter” (cover). Along the way, converts transition from the status of inquirer to catechumen to elect to neophyte, and then finally, after receiving the sacraments of baptism (but not in all cases), confirmation, and first communion, are deemed to be full-fledged members of the Catholic Church.  His description is informative for the Cradle-to-Gravers as well as the reader who knows very little about the Church. 

Another way he brings us closer to understanding the adult choice to convert to Catholicism is through stories from several people who actually experienced RCIA. These stories were collected from his extensive ethnographic fieldwork and are expertly used to set up the sociological analysis of Chapters 2-6. Using these stories pins the RCIA experience on real people whose self-told biographies clarify why and how someone might make the choice to join the Catholic Church. Using these stories also helps us understand how real parishes (given pseudonyms) interpret and implement Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorium at the local level. For me, the stories provide insights and clarifications that could not otherwise be gained if the book had left them out.   

After providing historical background and explaining the process of RCIA in Chapter 1, the book unfolds on the framework of several well-defined concepts that generate rich questions that propel the reader forward. The first question links to the concept of motivation. In Chapter 2 Yamene asks, “…of the innumerable options available in the American religious landscape today, why do some people choose Roman Catholicism?” The second question links to the concepts of catechesis and formation. In Chapters 3 and 4 he asks, “…once individuals enter the RCIA process, what do they learn about Catholicism and how do they learn to be Catholic?”  In Chapter 5 he hangs the question “…does the initiation process actually do what it claims it does, namely, make those becoming Catholic a part of the body of the Church?” on the concept of incorporation.  Finally, his major concern in Chapter 6 is regarding the notion of outcomes in the RCIA process.  He asks, “…how do the individuals who become Catholic change over the course of the RCIA process, and does the initiation process itself explain that change.”  To answer this question his focus is on two clearly defined outcomes:  1) how individuals’ understandings of Catholicism changed over the RCIA process; and 2) how their religious practices change from the start of RCIA to after its conclusion. To accomplish the later, he measures such behaviors as prayer, reading the Bible, and church involvement. 

Yamene and his small band of ethnographers answer all of these questions using data collected for over a decade. Although the case study method used provides just one story of RCIA in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, it is not meant to be the definitive work of how RCIA is realized at the local level of diocesan life. Studies of more dioceses across the United States need to be conducted to fill in more of the picture of what RCIA looks like at the local level.  Nevertheless, he and his team’s observational fieldwork at six churches, the use of both open ended interviews and close ended surveys, and data collected at both the individual and organizational levels provide a much-needed empirical contribution to the sociological literature broadly on rites of initiation, and narrowly on the process of RCIA.