Becoming Catholic in 34 Weeks…. When You Really Mean It

It’s actually encouraging and discouraging both at the same time. Ever since I wrote this, I have been getting a steady stream of inquiries about the contents of the RCIA program that we use with our Hollywood converts. It’s encouraging how many people want to find a smarter, more cohesive and rigorous program of introduction to Catholicism. It’s discouraging how many people find the offerings at their local parish pathetic, banal and disappointing. For posterity’s sake – and in hopes that it will cut down on the emails – I am posting the curriculum here.

It’s probably obvious that this program is both rigorous and demanding of the candidates/catechumens and the instructors. We tell the students to plan on an hour or two of reading every week and sometimes more. We count on the students feeling over-whelmed as that seems to make for a better preparation for prayer than the way a banal program would leave them feeling superior.

There are a whole bunch of sub-texts to this kind of program which the students hopefully absorb and generally start saying out loud by week three.

– “Wow, the Catholic faith is a lot smarter than I am.”
– “I could spend my whole life and not get to the bottom of the Church’s moral theology, or Her spirituality, or Her liturgy, or Her Biblical hermeneutics, or Her ecclesiology, or Her Christology or Her epistemology, etc. etc. etc.”
– “There isn’t anything I could wrestle with that the Church doesn’t have a lot to say about in Her ordinary or extraordinary Magisterium, or in the writings of Her saints and scholars.”
– “Who knew there were great storytellers who were Catholic?”
– “Everything Jesus gave us is saving. And none of it is superfluous.”
– “Catholic prayer is brilliant.”

One lovely gent from the UK wrote me to ask for the syllabus. After I sent it, he wrote me back and said, “Could you please send the instructor along with the syllabus?” It’s a good point. This program requires a teacher who has studied theology, philosophy and Scripture, and who knows and loves the great literature written by Catholics. The reading is more of a survey, but the lessons absolutely need to drill down into making dogma matter in the lives of the students.

It looks imposing, but it really is a blast, in the best possible sense of that. The students tend to love the classes and, by the end of the program, there is always a deep bond between everyone who has sat in the room all year. I can’t conceive of anyone going through this exercise without discovering a whole new life. A better one.

Hollywood RCIA Program

Created by Barbara R. Nicolosi, M.A.

Program Goals: A presentation of the basic theology and spirituality of the Catholic Church using classic texts and literature. To set the seeker on the journey of faith with humility through awareness of the richness of thought with which the Catholic Church protects the deposit of faith.

Course texts:

- The Catholic Study Bible, ed. John Senior,

- The Catechism of the Catholic Church – (CCC) – Get the big green version –

- Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Declarations, Decrees, ed. Flannery, (VCII)

- Triumph: The History and Glory of the Catholic Church, by Crocker

- The Christian Idea of Man, by Josef Pieper,
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
- Brideshead Revisited, by Eveyln Waugh
- The Lord, by Roman Guardini
- Introduction to the Devout Life, by Francis De Sales
- The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
- The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
- The Inferno, by Dante
- Silence, by Shusaku Endo
- The Reed of God, Caryll Houslander
- Handouts will include: “The Grand Inquisitor,” (by Dostoevsky, from The Bros Karamazov) “A Temple of the Holy Spirit” and “Revelation” (Two short stories by Flannery O’Connor), “The Four Ways to God” (by Benedict Groeschel from Spiritual Passages)


Reading: Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5:1-12

Reading: CCC 27-49, 142-175, 2558-2565, 2626-2643, 2697-2745
To learn: The Glory Be, The Morning Offering

Reading: Brideshead Revisited

Reading: CCC 355-379, 1700-1709, 1730-1742; Handout: Revelation by Flannery O’ Connor
For journal: “Why do I do the things I hate?”

Reading: The Christian Idea of Man
For journal: What is a human person? How is a human person distinct from animals?

Reading: Vatican II, “Dei Verbum, CCC 50-141
For journal: How has God spoken to me personally through His Word?

Reading: CCC 238-256 (for memorization: #266); Handouts: from Fr. Groeschel’s Psychology
and Spirituality; The Book of Job

Reading: Bible, Wisdom, Song of Solomon; CCC 2083-2188
For journal: What is the name that God gives me?

#9 – JESUS CHRIST – Part I
Reading: CCC 430-463; The Lord, Chapters 1-12
For journal: “And you, who do you say that I am?”

#10 – JESUS CHRIST – Part II
Reading: CCC 464-560, The Lord, Chapters 13-17

Reading: CCC 561-679, The Lord, Chapter 17 – end
For journal: Which metaphor of Christ (ie. Good Shepherd, Light of the World, Sheepgate, Bread of Life, The Vine, Divine Physician, Way, Truth, Life) speaks the most to me and why?

Reading: CCC 687-741, 1830-1832; “Temple of the Holy Spirit” by Flannery O’Connor
To learn: The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit

Reading: Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – Vatican II);
To Learn: The Precepts of the Church

Reading: CCC 748-870, 1996-2005, 2041-2043

Reading: CCC 1210-1216, 1229-1274, 1285-1314;
For journal: What can confirmation mean in your life? What will make the difference in what it
could mean, and what it will mean?

Reading: The Abolition of Man, by CS Lewis

Reading: CCC 1803-1829; Handout from Pieper “The Four Virtues”

Reading: CCC 309-314, 385-412, 1846-1869; Man’s Search for Meaning
To commit to memory: types of sin and conditions necessary for serious (mortal) sin
For journal: What kind of a person would I have become as a prisoner in Auschwitz?

Reading: “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamazov

Instructor: Barbara Nicolosi Harrington
Reading: CCC 2197-2246, 2258-2317, 2401-2449, 2464-2503

Reading: Vatican II “Sacrosanctum Concilium;”

Reading: CCC 1322-1405; Handout from Spirit of the Liturgy
Reading: CCC

Reading: CCC 1434-1439; CCC 1422-1424, 1440-1470, 1499, 1511-1525;
To learn: The Act of Contrition (see p. 191 in the Compendium)
For journal: What is it that tempts you? How do you respond to temptation? How do I
understand the sacrament of reconciliation?

Reading: CCC 1536, 1572-1584; The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
View: Becket
For journal: Is God calling me to priesthood or religious life? Why or why not? (If you are
married, how can you help others who might be discerning a religious or priestly vocation?)

Reading: Silence, by Endo

#27 – The Last Things: DEATH, JUDGMENT, HEAVEN, HELL / PURGATORY Reading: CCC 988-1014, 1020-1050; “The Inferno” from The Divine Comedy by Dante

#28 – CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING I (Bioethics / Life Issues)
Reading: CCC 1877-1948; Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church – Vatican II)- Preface, Introduction, Part I, Part II (chapters 1 and 2)

#29 – CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING II (Economic/Political Systems, Environmental
Stewardship, Nuclear Weapons, etc.)
Reading: Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church – Vatican II)
– Part II, chapters 3-5; Conclusion

Reading: Vatican II, “Apostolicam Actuositatem”

Reading: Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis De Sales

Reading: Handouts from Maritain and Pieper

#33 – CHURCH HISTORY: The “Dark Ages,” the Orthodox Split, Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo Incident, and Reformation
Reading: Triumph

Reading: The Reed of God; CCC 954-975

“Nothing Left to Say of Me” – Flannery O’Connor’s, “A Prayer Journal”
The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”
Noah – The Emperor’s New Movie
Coming Soon: Exposing the Ickiness of the Christian Movie Selling Business
  • retiredconservative

    I went through RCIA 19 years ago. I was a cafeteria Catholic for the next 14 years. For the past 5 years, I have devoted my spare time to learning as much about the faith, the Church, and scripture as I possibly could.

    Had this program been my RCIA program, I would have lived the past 19 years far differently.

    Thank you for the reading list. I can really throw myself into these books. I wish I had a discussion group to go along with them (it would be like grad school all over again, only better)

    • Clare Krishan

      Sponsor a Google group or Pinterest board, perhaps? Social networking is very fractal, encouraging those in the know to share the treasure with those who seek to know. Wikipedia even supports publishing e-books of whole tracts of online content, and the Wikiversity homepage looks promising, just imagine what a good catechist could do if copyright material could be licensed in the proper channels (to avoid the sort of kerfuffle Brandon Vogt got caught in recently) for self-directed continued mystagogy (RCIA is after all just the start pistol as we run the race, no?)

      • Christian LeBlanc

        In 2012 I published a book on Bible-based catechesis. I had to get permissions for four sources, including the text of the Mass. It was very straightforward.

  • KSJ

    Please, Lord, let this go viral through the parishes and RCIA Instructors!!!!

  • Jonathan

    That’s a fascinating set of selections. It’s fun to imagine how I would do it differently, though I’m sure this setup works well for the teachers involved.

    For instance, I’d probably prefer Dante’s “Purgatorio” to his “Inferno,” since the former is useful for teaching various aspects of the moral life, both virtue and vice, while the former is almost entirely about vice.

    Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma” would be a great companion piece to the Catechism and the Council documents.

    Maybe add “A Canticle for Leibowitz” to the novel list. It’s a great way to discuss Catholic history, and it touches on big moral problems like nuclear weapons and assisted suicide.

    Edwin O’Connor’s “The Edge of Sadness” would need to be worked in, somehow. It could be fodder for discussion about the priesthood and Last Rites, and even the history of Catholicism in America.

    Perhaps some Chesterton piece in place of Lewis, though “Abolition” is certainly a timely essay.

    Good stuff!

    • brnicolosi

      Thanks, Jonathan. I used to have Orthodoxy in the program, but I had to give it up as the students just couldn’t read Chesterton. They didn’t get his tone. It made me sad.

      • retiredconservative

        I’m not being flip when I suggest that they might need a bit of grammar instruction. Chesterton demands that his reader know how to track the development of an idea through syntax.

        I just finished downloading all the kindle books on the list. My next step is to get hard copies of those not yet available to ebooks.

        • brnicolosi

          I hear you and, again, I stuck with “Orthodoxy” long after it was clear the students were getting almost nothing out of it. The problem was he is so erudite that he is constantly referencing lots of stuff that would have been common knowledge to folks who had the status quo classical education. But people today have no idea what he is talking about in these references. Secondly, they just didn’t get that so much of Chesterton is chiding and mischevious. The students read him as if he was being serious and so they tend to think he is being unkind. Political correctness has dashed all the fun of a good intellectual spar.

      • Beth Collman

        Orthodoxy is awesome….I just couldn’t read it quickly. Most of the time I felt like that Larson cartoon character who raises his hand in class and asks: “May I please be excused, my brain is full.”

        Love the story of the school on the cliff side with the wall around the playground, standing on your head in a specific corner of the room on specific days of the month and sailing away only to end up back where you started….awesome.

    • Clare Krishan

      Some years ago I encountered a Dante-reading cathechumen-chrismandi, an Hispanic teen, who shared he enjoyed Dante’s Inferno. I too told him that the best was yet to come in the 2 follow-on installments, of which I had a unused copy at home of a classic translation (prefering t keep my more recent copy of Anthony Esolen’s copiously footnoted version to myself) that he, one of our blighted inner-city’s so-called under-privileged youth, seemed eager to delve into. The harvest is great, but we do need more knowledge economy (of grace) workers in the field!

    • Clare Krishan

      Further to my reply of yesterday, here’s food for thought seasoned with some imaginative subsidiary … check out how much content got attached to media I pinned in a recent volunteer talk I gave at our local diocesan senior living community using their rec room wall-mounted widescreen flat panel display:

      with access to a good internet connection I’m enhancing the leisure time of casually curious aging parishioners interactively we can encounter the collections of a whole world of casually curious pinners (with some USPS stamps and my home-made ink-jet printed postcards, they share their online discoveries with loved ones across the miles… ie legacy-format heirloom-variety social networking!!)

      … now turn that on its head and the activity director could have me organize her resident’s recreation around not enriching themselves, but our youth with pins of their own… sharing their “deposit of faith” heritage for casually curious mystagogy! Its totally do-able crowd-sourcing …

    • brnicolosi

      Thanks, Jonathan, we spend so much time on the virtues using Pieper that my main reason for using “Inferno” is to add a healthy dose of awareness of the reality and pains of hell. Nothing beats Dante’s images. They’re so visceral they get stuck in the student’s brains. And, I need to be sure the class is prepared for daily Catholic life by the scene of the bishops in the seventh circle of hell. (wink)

      • Jonathan

        If I had my druthers, I’d force catechumens through all three books of the “Divine Comedy.” I’ve read “Paradiso” more times than the other two; it’s a great introduction to the mystical life and a bright glimpse of what Heaven might be like. But of course it’s also important for incoming Catholics to see the punishments waiting for bad clerics if these don’t change their ways. At the very least, it’s good for them to know that they’re not crazy or “disobedient” when they get angry at destructive bishops.

        Nothing against Pieper—good Thomist that he was—but Dante makes his readers thirst for virtue in ways that the German philosopher rarely does. And, while Pieper’s book on the cardinal virtues is very solid, his collection of essays on the theological virtues is somewhat thinner, and the essay on love is almost entirely on natural love and not on supernatural charity. (A fact which, as I recall, he apologizes for, but which still makes that essay only moderately useful.)

        By the way, Pieper’s “The Four Cardinal Virtues” is available for free on the Internet Archive:

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Way substantial for the motivated crowd; looks like a great time for converts and their sponsors as well. In 1999 my wife and I also made our own 26-class curriculum for Bible-Belt converts, divided into 10 parts:

    1. Faith and Reason/ Revelation: Scripture and Tradition

    2. The Bible

    3. Jesus and the Pope

    4. History of the Church

    5. The Sacraments

    6. The Commandments/ Morality and Conscience

    7.The Mass/ Church Calendar/ Vestments and Vocabulary

    8. Mary, Prayer, and the Communion of Saints

    9. Modernism

    10. Catholic Evangelization/ Catechism and Apologetics

    It too was specifically tailored for the students. Anyone who simply must know more can go here:

    I suppose most folks think doing a custom curriculum is next to impossible. But for those teachers who have a big vision of what their RCIAers need to know, it’s doable, and fun as well.

  • Nicholas Monco

    I’ve have been working on a series of videos that have tried to teach people about the Church by looking at the world of Harry Potter through the eyes of faith. the theology is rooted in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and videos were designed with RCIA groups and high school classrooms in mind. The videos I’ve released so far can be found here and there are more coming:

  • Smitty

    Do you make the candidates purchase all the materials, or does the parish underwrite them?

    • brnicolosi

      We used to get a grant to cover the cost of the books. But the parish is hard up this year so we might have to ask the students to pay for their own books.

  • Faithr

    This is a really wonderful list! I’d like to make it my own reading plan just to further my own already pretty solid faith (though there is so much to learn. . . . lifetime and all that!). But the one book that didn’t jive for me was Crocker’s Triumph. I tried to read it years ago, so maybe my memory is fuzzy, but I just didn’t like the snide potshots he took at anything other than Catholic. I remember I talked to some other faithful Catholics who had the same problem. I just didn’t like him as an author nor did I trust him to present the facts straight because the bias seemed so very obvious. To me he was writing to the choir, so to speak. Do people ever object when reading his book? I have studied Church history other ways, namely through things like Teaching Company lectures. I am currently listening to a lecture series on the Medieval Church by Professor Thomas Madden (not Teaching Co but Modern Scholar). The Teaching Co. lectures by Prof. Daileader of William and Mary on the Middle Ages struck me as surprisingly free of anti-Catholicism, though there are spots where because he obviously doesn’t get the theology he can’t quite present things fully, but really, he does a pretty good job overall. Anyway, it would just never have occurred to me to use something like Triumph as an evangelical tool.

    • Jonathan

      If you don’t like books that take potshots at groups the author disagrees with, you’ll definitely hate the “Divine Comedy”!

    • brnicolosi

      It’s a good note about “Triumph” being rather, uh, triumphalistic. We needed something that covers the facts of the sticky historical issues, and, frankly, I figured that what the students have heard about these maters have already been so warped against the Church, that Crocker’s attitude might help correct the imbalance. But that’s probably flawed thinking. The answer to propaganda against the Church is not propaganda in support of the Church. It’s beauty and truth.

      • Laura Lowder

        How about Father Laux? Or Bokenkotter? Could these be substituted for Crocker?

        • Shannon Marie Federoff

          We use Fr. Laux’s “Church History” for homeschooling high school. Pros: its thorough. Cons: its dry as all get out and only goes to the ’30s. I like Crocker because he DOES speak back to the imbalance of secular history texts.

  • Kat Carney

    Forget RCIA-this would be great for Adult Faith Formation!

    • brnicolosi

      I think so too, Kat. In fact, generally we pick up a whole bunch of Catholics as the program goes ahead. The students go home and start talking to their Catholic roommates, spouses and friends and lo, the Catholics end up slinking in saying, “I don’t know any of this stuff my friend is learning.”

    • M Colins

      Truly. The rank and file Catholic is so poorly formed these days, its no surprise we are so wobbly in our own ranks when it comes to the great issues of the day. I am a product of a largely Catholic education beginning soon after Vatican II. The Catholic formation I received (barely any) was sorely lacking I think due to the upheaval resulting in the complete confusion in the American Church as to what Vatican II actually said. I have many times in my adult life taken to reading and in that rather than my religious training become more admiring of the great intellects in my faith. The Catholic boys high school I attended also did a negligible job of inspiring me in the richness of our faith.

      We must all be Jesuits now (without the gargantuan egos) We must be like every 5 cent evangelical we run across who knows their Bible much better than we do. Our priests need to tackle these issues in the pulpit not just with Bible stories but with Augustine, Aquinas, and Neumann.

      Barb, you are inspiring me to to take your course syllubus and see how much of it I can accomplish.

  • John Kovacs

    Can you give more detail in the curriculum, please? I am in charge of RCIA at a parish, and currently I use as a resource for my catechists the material from the Association for Catechumenal Ministry (, which is excellent. But I would love to incorporate a lot of what you spell out here. And so I was wondering, for example, when you have the name of a book as the reading for a topic, do you expect the students to have read the entire book by that date? I certainly could not read a book in a week, given my schedule, and so I was wondering if that is what you actually require. Also, many times you mention “handouts” from Maritain or Pieper or the Spirit of the Liturgy, etc. Could you give more detail about these handouts, if not actually post copies (or send them by private email, or whatever)?

    For what it’s worth, you can see my schedule of topics here:

    Thank you.

    • brnicolosi

      Because we give them the list at the start of the program, they have months or many months generally to read the books before we get to them. Brideshead is an exception, but we give them two weeks on that one. My sense is some of the students read all of the books and some of the students read most of the books and some read barely any of the books. They get as much out of it as they put into it. Eventually I could post the handouts. Not today!

      • John Kovacs

        That’s a great strategy! Thanks for filling in some more details. I would be grateful for the handouts, too, when you get to them. No hurry! Our RCIA program is already set for this year, so probably this could be something I could work on implementing next year. In any case, I love the idea of incorporating outside reading, especially literature. I probably do not demand enough of my students. If I knew more about it, it would be interesting to also incorporate art and music, to show the whole gamut of beauty that comes through the faith.

  • Jim Duckie Laurent

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! I heard you speak in Denver and fell in love with the idea of using literature in my RCIA process.

  • tteague

    Thanks for posting this Barbara. I am in the midst of an RCIA program, and have been studying Catholicism on my own for about 7 years, plus I am involved in the Christian Classical Education movement, so this curriculum fascinates me. My RCIA program is nothing like this, not even close – but I wish it was. I truly believe that quite a lot of people are craving this kind of curriculum and the rigor that goes with it. My observations have shown me that there is a kind of “make it easy and they will come” spirit in vast regions of the Catholic Church, which, in my opinion, is wrongheaded. (I hope people are getting tired of that approach.) Since I’m the only one in my RCIA class, it makes me think that a more rigorous program would have a kind of organic advertising, and more people would come than just me. One can get so much info online that an anemic program probably seems pointless to most. But a rich and somewhat hard program (meaning there’s homework) is attractive. I’m in the RCIA because that’s what I was told I had to do to enter the Church. We are not all theologians, and most of us have rather busy lives, still we want some meat on the bones. I say this as a Protestant who realized he was longing for the the depth and richness of the Catholic Church, and then finds that some (perhaps many) Catholics have a tendency to present a fairly anemic version of Catholicism to the world and to themselves. (Of course I have very limited experience.) The music at Mass is just one example. I think I see signs of change, though. Perhaps your RCIA curriculum and the interest in it is an example of that change.

    • brnicolosi

      So well said. If Jesus was here He would say, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (wink)

  • Maria O. Reagan

    Maybe incorporate more from Early Church Fathers? They aren’t necessarily hard to understand, and it gives the reader a tangible connection to the historicity of catholic orthodoxy. I think this curriculum could also benefit from more papal encyclicals. It seems that it is geared specifically toward a literature-intellectual and not a reader who perhaps has a wider interest in philosophy, theology, history, etc.
    On another note, I love O’Connor’s “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” I really don’t think that story makes any sense without a Catholic perspective. It’s an interesting (and great) choice for catechesis.

    • brnicolosi

      Thanks, Maria. We generally use Justin Martyr in the class on liturgy and a handout on a book called “Four Witnesses” for teachings on the nature of God. They are helpful and particularly powerful with converts from Evangelicalism because they predate the split and yet most Evangelicals have never had any contact with them.

  • Laura Lowder

    Video the classes?
    BTW – I shared this with a couple other friends on FB and we’re going to try to come up with an online discussion group, just a few of us (to keep it manageable) to go over these (and probably additional) sources to beef up our understanding of the Faith. Thanks so much!

    • Kristina Musick

      if you do this please let me know. id be very interested!

  • Eric

    Hmmm… Waugh and Vatican II make for an interesting contrast even if it is just Brideshead and not his correspondences decrying the changes in the mass.

  • MacFleckno

    For the most part, the folks in our parish’s RCIA program are not literate enough for a program that requires readings of this nature.

  • Alisha Ruiss

    Is there any way to create a formation program for instructors? :)

  • Kristina Musick

    thank you thank you thank you! no kidding! ive been looking for this for a long time!!!!! thank you again!

  • Timothy

    Good list.