The Second Vatican Council prescribed the revision of the rite of baptism of adults and decreed that the catechumenate for adults, divided into several steps, should be restored. How can I as a priest get involved, if at all?

When I got to my first parish assignment after a number of years of working in the seminary, the days raced by, every minute filled with serving the needs of an active flock. Early morning Mass, a sick call, a short staff meeting followed by a couple of walk-in appointments, Bob's and Carol's marriage prep and, of course, a couple of quick meals in between made up a usual day in the life of the parish.

Evenings always brought the parish alive with meetings of one group or another. The last thing priests want is the commitment of a regular weekly meeting added to an already full schedule. As least, that is where I was coming from.

But all that changed the day some of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) catechists approached to ask if I would join them on Wednesday night. I'll get back to you was the first thought going through my mind that day. While still in the seminary, I had been forewarned of the craziness of parish life and got to see some of it in my weekend help-out assignments.

I decided to put the idea on hold, and I waited until I'd been in the parish a few weeks and settled into a routine before I joined the catechists' team and their group of inquirers who wanted to learn more about the Catholic Church.

That first night began a ''love affair'' that continues today, almost 20 years later. In parish after parish where I've been assigned, it is the exception that I am not there on Wednesday nights. I always thought that I was there, or supposed to be there, for them (candidates/catechumens/ inquirers). Not any more! They are now there for me.

The Rite no. 6 tells us that the rite of initiation is suited to a spiritual journey of adults that varies according to the many forms of God's grace. Meeting weekly with these faith journeyers has really allowed me to experience those many forms of God's grace.

Presence, Really?

When I first started to attend the evening RCIA sessions, I was there to be a presence of the Church and parish. That notion changed before long. Soon it turned from my presence in the group to their presence to me. They saw me as one of them on a journey of faith. It didn't take long for me to want to be there in the midst of these men and women who so much sought after what was handed to me as an infant -- faith.

My parents from my earliest recollections were the ones who taught me my prayers, brought me to church, and talked to me about God. They created an environment to nurture my faith. Now, as an adult, my presence each week at RCIA helped the inquirers to feel comfortable and relaxed in a world where so much is contrary to what Christ has taught.

The presence and warmth and openness of the catechists made for easy sharing and inspired thought-provoking questions from people who were entering into a new world, a world that cradle Catholics too often take for granted.

Before long, I realized my presence was not only wanted there in that room, but that I wanted to be in their presence as well. It was in the rectory meeting room that faith slowly began to blossom in each individual, one question answered at a time. Much like that old analogy of an onion, the skin was peeled back, layer by layer, and tears were often shed, but emerging was faith, faith in Jesus Christ.

Storytelling

Storytelling is always so pleasurable, especially when the stories reflect real life situations. As the Scriptures were unfolded each week, I was amazed at the ways that people's everyday lives came alive in those words of Jesus, Paul, and the other writers of the Scriptures. With each story read, someone seemed to be living something that mirrored what was told.

The evenings became a time of faith sharing, the most basic kind of opening up and telling personal stories that revealed the hurts, struggles, pain, joys and sorrows of life. It did not take me long to feel one with the men and women sitting in that room with me and add my stories to theirs.

Wow! They began to see me as a real person, as one of them. I no longer found myself wanting to lord over them who I was as a priest, but rather brought the stories of my life and my priesthood into their world. They understood. I understood. The stories continued.

With the sharing of our personal faith journeys, key elements and doctrines of the Catholic Church found their way into each gathering. The Catholic Church has a wonderful story to tell. The Church became more real and exciting for them and for me. We grew together as brothers and sisters in Christ. The Body of Christ became real. The story of Jesus Christ left the pages of the Bible and entered life.

Where People Are In Life -- ''Real World''

As priests we often find ourselves in the comfort zone of our rectories and offices. Opening the doors leads us into a world that seems so vast. Yet spending time each week with the RCIA people can make that world smaller and smaller. We do ''have the responsibility of attending to the pastoral and personal care of the catechumens, especially those who seem hesitant and discouraged'' (Rite no. 13).

I have been invited into real life situations in their discussions and learned that those smiling people in front of me on Sunday mornings are often hurting, struggling, or in pain, as well as bursting with joy, enthusiasm, and vigor for life.

Hearing others share some of their ''real world'' stories opened up for me new insights into the lives of everyday people. Too often I would look out at the congregation with rose-colored glasses and see what I wanted to see. It is so easy to turn our heads and look the other way when issues or people come near us. Many of us like our comfort zone. Weekly I encountered ''real world'' people, and my personal world began to fade as I became more sensitive to those to whom I ministered.

Homily Material

Reading each Sunday's Gospel in preparation for my Sunday homily has always been part of my prayer experience. I had great homiletics teachers in the seminary that encouraged us to bring real life experience into our homilies. More often than not, my experiences shared in my weekend homilies (and for that matter in my daily Mass homilies) are stories from my life. As I sat each week listening to the candidates and catechumens share their faith, the Gospel stories became more alive.

I've gained new insights into how those faithful live and experience the Gospel after leaving the doors of our church. Their stories have challenged me to speak to hearts that need to hear the message of Jesus. As a priest much of what I read is understandable; after all, I have those years of study in the seminary that have made it easier to piece Scripture and life together.

Knowing that those Sunday congregations haven't been privileged with the same opportunity has challenged me to make the Gospel speak to hearts seeking God after a week of lived experiences. Listening at the RCIA sessions has made me more sensitive to what needs to be addressed to a people hungering for Jesus.

The Sunday homily is important, as are the words of Scripture during the Mass. After the homily, the catechumens are dismissed to further discuss the liturgy and, in particular, God's Word.

''The Church, like a mother, helps the catechumens on their journey by means of suitable liturgical rites, which purify the catechumens little by little and strengthen them with God's blessings''(RCIA, no. 75.3). As priests then, we have an awesome responsibility when it comes to sharing God's Word. And the homily material is right there in front of us each week if we take the time to listen.

In the Gospel, Jesus clearly tells us to not only listen to His words, but to do something with them. Many organizations in our parishes have been established to do just that; namely, to live the Gospel. ''Since the Church's life is apostolic, catechumens should also learn how to work actively with others to spread the Gospel and build up the Church by the witness of their lives and by professing their faith'' (RCIA, no. 75.4).

As leaders of our parish communities, we need to remind our ''Catho- lics'' that by virtue of their baptism, they are called and challenged to be with and to encourage our men, women and children who are in the process of becoming fully one of them in the RCIA. Good sponsors will encourage those they are working with by inviting them to be doers of the Word, not just listeners.

''The entire community must help the candidates and the catechumens throughout the process of initiation'' (RCIA, no. 9). The parish community needs us, as shepherds, to lead them into reaching out and inviting others to participate in their ministries.

While it is important for our candidates and catechumens to be invited to get involved, that same invitation needs to be extended to all those who grace our church week after week. Too often people say that ''they were never invited'' to get involved. We must remember that each parishioner has a different personality.

Some join organizations and groups with vigor on their own; others need more coaxing. Our own personal involvement with various groups, even the simple gesture of popping in at meetings from time to time to say hello or offer a simple prayer, makes a group or organization feel essential in the parish. Our actions speak a lot louder than we realize.

Following the directives of the USCCB of 1986 (no. 6), the period of the catechumenate, beginning at acceptance into the catechumenate, the formation of these catechumens should extend for at least one year of formation. That said, the RCIA process becomes a year-round blessing for me.

Year-round Blessing

Each week I find myself interacting with those in inquiry, in the catechumenate, in purification and enlightenment, and, all year long, those neophytes in mystagogy. There is always a group of faithfilled people anxious to share stories or have a word shared by or to their priest. The experiences I encounter year after year in sharing this journey continue to amaze me.

Oh, I have times when I need to prepare a presentation on a particular topic, but for the most part, just coming, listening, sharing, and growing rejuvenates me. My personal faith continues to grow. The RCIA process has been and, I hope, will continue to be a blessing to me in my ministry of serving God's people.

I have been told often by parents that there is nothing more beautiful than watching the birth of a child. Oh, yes, there is pain, but when that precious gift of God comes into the world, the amazement of God's creating power touches the core of the parents. In a similar way, the beauty of a man, woman, or child giving birth to the gift of faith through the RCIA process continues to touch me.

I have witnessed the miracle of faith again and again and again, and each year wonder and awe come upon me. I have grown in my own faith journey these past 20-plus years, and I pray God that I continue to grow. As long as I make the time to be present to these faith journeyers, the presence of God will be alive in me.

Father Schratz, O.F.M. Cap., is parochial vicar of Most Holy Redeemer Church in Tampa, Fla.