Tips for Inquiring Protestants on Choosing a Parish and RCIA Program

Several Protestant friends of mine, after months and even years of investigating the Catholic Church’s claims, are ready to take the next step and go to RCIA or talk to a priest.

But…how do they know what parish to go to? As we Catholics know, some parishes have significant influences that are not faithful to the Magisterium. So I put together this how-to video with tips on looking at a parish’s website and bulletin to get an idea of how solid they are.

This is not meant to condemn anyone or any parishes. No parish is perfect. But the last thing that we want is for inquiring Protestants to be taught inaccuracies or errors as Catholic truth. So it is best if they can find a parish that faithfully teaches Catholic doctrine.

Warning Flags:

  • Linking to National Catholic Reporter
  • Words like social justice, diversity, Catholic Faith Community
  • Focus on finding Christ in the community

Good Flags:

  • Calling themselves a Catholic Church
  • Eucharistic Adoration promoted
  • Pro-life groups promoted
  • Frequent Confession times (a very good sign)
  • Sacred art displayed

Do you have any tips for what to look for in a parish’s website, either good or bad indicators?


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41 thoughts on “Tips for Inquiring Protestants on Choosing a Parish and RCIA Program”

  1. nice article!

    Don’t forget to cross reference with a diocesan website, if the diocese lists that parish then you’re all set for knowing that it’s a parish in communion with Rome on paper at least. But yes you also want a theologically grounded parish and not liberal.

    When I’m on travel I want to be sure I go to a Catholic church, I take the opportunities in the cities I visit to go to cathedrals or basilicas.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Devin. In retrospect I totally lucked out (our campus Catholic center is VERY good), but having tips like yours would’ve helped me go in a little bit less blind.

    I have another indicator of a potentially good parish, although as with many of the things you mentioned it might be hard to discern from a website alone (and it’s not like it’s either a necessary or sufficient condition for being a good parish). Nevertheless, in my (very limited!) experience, parishes which have some kind of association with a Catholic religious order have tended to be good bets. Again, this is just one man’s anecdote, but our campus center has three Sisters from the Apostles of the Interior Life which live nearby and come to mass frequently. Over time I’ve noticed that MANY of the good things our center does they either had a hand in starting or have a hand in its continuation (Eucharistic adoration, regular prayer meetings, the “Ask a Catholic” campus ministry, etc). So perhaps when a Protestant is going through a bulletin or glancing through a website, if one sees pictures of Nuns/Monks or mention is made of how the parish is blessed through the efforts of a particular religious order, I’d count that as a good sign. Just my $0.02.


    1. Benjamin,

      Thanks for chiming in. I’m glad your area’s Newman center was solid. Many are not, which is why I avoided going to any Newman center sites! But some are, and you are right that if you see nuns or monks or other religious that is generally a good sign. I think St. Mary’s Student Center at Texas A&M where I went to school also has Apostles of the Interior Life there. Cool!


  3. Good list.

    I’d also add that you need to attend the mass to get a more complete picture. When you do, the following should help:

    Warning sign: Almost no youth or parents with children or almost no people above 50
    Reason: If there are few people in their twenties or thirties, it’s likely that so little of the faith is taught that there it appears little different than the secular world. People above 50 likely go out of habit. If there are no people above 50, the parish likely is likely more focused on being hip (thus driving the older people away) than keeping the faith.

    Good sign: Reverent worship.
    Reason: We are in God’s presense and we are at the foot of the cross at each worship. If a worship doesn’t make this clear, the priests and congregation likely doesn’t know the faith.

    Warning sign: Chit chat before and after worship
    Reason: The church is a place of worship and thus faithful should treat it as such.

    Warning sign: people walking the aisles during the sign of peace to shake everyone’s hands
    Reason: The sign of peace is not a secular “hi, how are you doing?” event. It’s an invitation to make peace with your brother ( Matthew 5:24 ) before receiving the eucharist. Any parish that doesn’t know this (at least in practise) doesn’t understand the faith.

    Good sign: Doors are open most of the day and there are actually people in Church during the day praying
    Reason: People come into worship, so they understand that the Church is a special place consecrated to God.

    Good sign: Daily mass
    Reason: People care about worship enough to take time from work to come.

    Very good sign: Multiple daily masses
    Reason: See above

    Good sign: Pre-Vatican II apostolates like the Legion of Mary and 3rd order religious (i.e. lay groups that take some monastic vows that allow them to live in the secular world and raise families.)

  4. Daily mass schedule – the more masses the better.

    Family/Marriage ministry – Parishes typically have multiple programs for children, teens, and seniors but often lack one for married couples/parents.

    Young adult program – This is often another missing ministry in parishes. A “singles group” is NOT the same. There are married young adults (even with young children) who can benefit from such a program.

    How does a parish treat their sacred space? Unfortunately, many Catholic churches out there are not the most inspiring works of art – and often it’s not the fault of the current pastor – but are they doing the best with what they have?

  5. Unfortunately I did RCIA in a large wacky parish that was in my neighborhood. I’m not in a very Catholic area so I settled. We are now at a much more faithful-to-magesterium parish a town away. Warning signs: 1 no kneelers and noone kneels during mass. If that is our Lord on the altar, the well chatechised parish will have those who are physically able to kneel humbly falling down on their knees. 2. are the clothes the parents let teens wear something that would offend your grandmother/great grandmother? 3. Are families actively teaching their 3, 4 &5 year olds learn how to behave in mass or is there rampant running in the aisles and cheerios? 4. Do you hear wrong teaching from the pulpit or RCIA leaders? Sometimes a casual conversation about current events where marriage, male priesthood and pro Life marches are mentioned could give you an idea of whether someone stands with the church. Positive signs: 1 I dont usually wear a mantilla but parishes where you find several families who do and are active is a very good sign. 2. Do you see some folks kneeling or standing receiving on the tongue? 3. Does the church have a holy hour of adoration for the children? 4. Are the children of the parish receiving solid catechesis with a program such as the Faith & Life series or is it a very squishy curriculum that doesnt provide lots of content and facts about faith? 5. are children such an integral part of the church family that the parish doesn’t have those afternoon christmas eve masses where it is almost all small children …the parish instead has masses where everyone comes and is included? 6. Does Father use incense regularly? 7. Do most families with children have more than 2 or 3? 8. Does the parish have a high rate of priestly vocations from families of that parish? 9. Does the parish have a active role in supporting women who choose life? 10. Is the parish warm and welcoming? Sometimes you might need to go up to a family sitting near you and say you are new and ask them questions- you might not get picked out of a crowd b/c we don’t socialize in the pews so folks can stay and pray but you could get to know folks gathering walking out and gathering outside. Above all, don’t let poor local catechesis drive you from answering the call to the His Church, Jesus is in the Eucharist in every Catholic parish and being a part of the family and Saying Yes to Him doesn’t mean the family you join will not be full of sinners who need to get better at telling the Good News and living it out in parish life. Hold fast to what is true, do not become overly discouraged, the Christian life is often not easy, but the reward is great. May God bless your Journey.

  6. I think that these are excellent guidelines. Even if there might be some parishes flagged incorrectly as “sub-optimal”, I think that the chances of a parish being incorrectly flagged as “optimal” are low by using such guidelines.

  7. I didn’t realize the red flags until it was too late. I went through RCIA at a Catholic “Community” and left soon after baptism.

    After being told Adam and Eve weren’t actual people, finding out the parish had been in trouble for being involved with Call to Action, not having a pro-life ministry, liturgical abuses abound, the list goes on…

    Another big one is the architecture of the church. This one was a big circle, the tabernacle was behind the parishioners, and the altar in the middle of the room.

    You can also generally tell by the reverence of the music. No clappy, hand gesture, crazy rock out, or fight songs.

    1. Kara,

      Yes this is exactly what I hope to help people avoid. There’s an understandable naivete when someone is thinking of becoming Catholic that, since the Church has clear doctrine and the hierarchy, all parishes will be more or less alike. I’m glad you figured out that the parish you happened to start at was not very solid.

  8. Wow, very good lists from both Devin and the Com-boxers.

    Hard to add much. When I came in to the church, The Holy Spirit took great pity on me and nudged me in to a church that had all the good stuff (perpetual adoration, long confession lines {IMHO this might be THE BEST sign}, tabernacle at the altar, etc. etc. etc.)

    I guess you really notice when you see the opposite. My wife’s home town is a classic example. Two churches, different ends of the spectrum. Where my wife and I would go (above), and the other side of town (where, unfortunately, all my in-laws go), tabernacle near the broom closet (potted plant where you can see it “used” to be), social justice issues are the main feature, what I call a sign of peace on steroids before the mass begin (back slappin’ stuff that can last for a few minutes before the Mass starts), but my all time favorite was when I went to this church, and wanted to go to confession, and the Priest said “you want to what?”

    So it should come as no surprise to hear that my in-laws find what their itching ears want to hear there, and that my sister-in-law, and her husband, both divorced and remarried outside the church with no annulment, are Eucharistic ministers there.

    If I had stumbled in to that church first, I cannot guarantee that would have converted, as I would have seen no discernible difference between what was going on there, and the church I was leaving.

  9. PMG, I was really lucky that I had a friend in RCIA that read as much as I did. We realized that the parish we were at was wrong, and found proper liturgy elsewhere. It makes me sad that so many people LIKE that type of church. Because it is so, so wrong.

    I didn’t even learn about confession or choose a confirmation saint.

  10. Things I looked for from website only:
    -Catholic CHURCH not “community” (although with more parishes having multiple church buildings, this can be a ify predictor)

    Look on the any calendars for events. If you see the abomination of desolation known as “life-teen mass”, run baby run.

    Look for confession times. If confession is only offered for 1/2 hour a week, that is a bad sign. (unless the parish is extremely small.)

    Adoration. In a big parish, it should be perpetual adoration.

    Look at the childrens programs, especially for the 6-8 year olds/second grade (first communion/reconciliation time). Look at the curiculum. Read reviews of it. Do they sell it on the major Catholic home schooling websites? (Seton/Catholic Heritage…) If not, it is probably garbage. This is a bad sign because the kids should be the top priority.

    Here is one I just was exposed to as well. Do they have a Latin mass? Now I am not promoting that for the usual reasons, but a very practical one. The older liturgy is harder to tinker with than the Novus Ordo. Combine this with the fact that oftentimes priests can come and go quite often in a parish, and think about the consequenses. A great Novus Ordo priest today may give way to a guy whose “personality” really shines through in the liturgy. So a Latin mass parish may be worth checking out purely on practical, future-looking reasons.

    Look at the music. Do they have a “contemporary” singing group? Not to revive that debate, but on a practical level, this CAN be a sign that the parish buys into some of the modernist/relativistic theorys about liturgy (that it is all about us and what we like).

    Check for recorded homilies or a “pastors page” to check for silliness.

    If you have a pet-peeve, take that into account. Things will not get better over time. Mine was music. I had to choose a parish without Marty Haugan show tunes like the Creation Mass. In the bargain though, I have gradually learned that many other things about my parish that are now important to me that they do right. Things like having only altar boys and screened confessionals. The people at my parish are far more conservative because of these things as well. So there is an exponential aspect to things. Generally, if a parish is trying to do things right, that attitude will spill over into many areas of parish life. I cant recommend enough that new converts go to one of these “destination” parishes.

  11. Oh, RCIA. 🙂

    I am curious as to why the Catholic Church does not have a standardized RCIA curriculum to be used at every parish.

    Love our parish. RCIA however is a bit of a disaster.

    So Devin I guess what I’m saying is, you need to write an RCIA curriculum. 🙂

    1. Hi Brianna!

      Yeah one would expect that the Church would standardize on RCIA, especially since the Catholic Church is hierarchical etc. etc., but instead it’s quite varied. Unfortunately it can end up that just whoever steps up to lead it, does so, and that person often hasn’t received good formation. I remember getting into an argument with my (old) parish’s RCIA director over whether communal confession/penance services could be done instead of normal sacramental confession. She thought so but I didn’t think so.

      It’s really kind of you to want me to write one!

  12. Here’s the point where the ridiculousness of some of the Protestant tropes is clearly unveiled. The Church just doesn’t even try (much less do a good job) of telling the faithful how to think. Also, the Church doesn’t stifle the Holy Spirit inspiring people. Nor does the Church make an arbitrary burden out of knowing rules and dogmas.

    The Church is generous with the Sacraments. As She should be.

    I totally agree that many RCIA programs are watered down, uninspiring, and a few are heretical. Probably none of them is perfect. I do wish the major Catholic publishing houses (Oregon Catholic Press, or Pauline Press) would produce really good RCIA materials. I think perhaps Ignatius Press might have a good program. Someone probably does.

    However, I would not want the USCCB or the Vatican to dictate precisely what each RCIA program has to do. Properly it is the job of the Bishop and with the Bishop the priests. It is great when Bishops take catechism seriously and transmit that to their priests. That is the way it should be.

    I am apprehensive of attempts to arbitrarily place obstacles in the way of receiving the sacraments. I understand the desire and the concern, but I find the common one-size-fits-all approach of requiring 2 days of baptism class for new parents and the mandatory 10 session prep for Confirmation to be unhelpful.

    I don’t think further efforts in that direction are likely to lead to real improvement. Partly out of not being in the Catholic Spirit and partly due to the ineptness of human managers.

    Just my thoughts.


  13. when you ask the priest if he’s got time for a confession and he says it was canceled today and walks away.

    or when the same priest stops the sermon and gives the mother walking her crying baby out the stink eye for 15 seconds.

    ouch. bad bad.

    1. Shawna, did that happen to you? I’ve been Catholic for a long time and that has not happened to me. Though certainly some mothers keep their screaming children in Mass when they should take them out. I speak as one who has had his own screaming children in Mass.

  14. the first thing happened to my husband. any priest that works on a university campus, that doesnt have time to allow a student to confess. makes me boil.

    and the later thankfully not to me but i witnessed it… the same priest stopped the service, stared her down , and watched as she walked out of the pews with, what i considered a mildly fussy baby.

    yah we don’t go there anymore.

    I’ve noticed, youre in a good Catholic parish, when the “sign of peace” lasts 10 minutes. 🙂

    1. “I’ve noticed, youre in a good Catholic parish, when the “sign of peace” lasts 10 minutes.”

      My parish just got rid of the sign of peace entirely, which is a great improvement. It is an optional part of the liturgy, and its function of being a meet-n-greet in the US has become a real distraction. Before we got rid of it durring the new missal roll out, we had it at the begining of mass as we “greeted the celebrant”, which was an improvement. I was happy to see it go.

      Another word of caution: handholding during the Our Father. Often this is innocently and unknowingly done, but being unknowing about liturgical abuse is a bad sign.

      Also watch with what reverence the people recieve communion. I have seen a wide variance, and have found it to be a direct indicator of some of the more unseen things in a parish. Communion in the hand is allowed, sure, but when you see people rubbing their hands together after having the host in their hands, as if they are wiping crumbs off, and you see nearly every person in a parish recieving in the hand, sometimes walking out of view of the priest or EMHC before eating it, these are bad signs.

      1. in what ways is “getting rid” of the sign of a peace more appropriate?
        and whats your beef w holding hands during the Our Father?
        its this type of attitude “worship is strictly between me and the Lord and I’ll keep my blinders on to anyone else in the pews” that keeps other Christian faiths out.

        I would like you to elaborate what you mean exactly.

        1. Shawna I posted a response to your concerns, but accidentally it showed up as a separate comment rather than a response to yours…it is just below (I think 2 down to be exact) and addresses the issues regarding both the “Sign of Peace” and the hand-holding issue. Hopefully it helps. I too was baffled about these when I first returned to the Church but I think there are good reasons for looking carefully at both practices. God bless!

  15. well, RCIA — now you’ve opened up a real can of worms

    I try to offer up my sufferings for the poor souls in Purgatory — but most of the time I’m too busy trying not to hyperventilate!

  16. Not sure if this has already been mentioned, but our parish (Cathedral of St Paul here in MN) has a polite but firm guideline regarding reception of Holy Communion. In it, the suggestion is made to all visiting from other Faith Traditions to come forward and cross their arms to indicate asking for a blessing instead. Such as statement would only be in a parish that understands the Eucharist and takes our Lord seriously on it, and unfortunately not all do so. To me that kind of “disclaimer” in a bulletin nearly says it all.

  17. As to the points above about the “Sign of Peace” and holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer, in both cases they are hard items to explain due to the fact that we as Catholics do tend to take less time to meet others within the parish and just hightail it out of Mass afterwards, which obviously is a sad thing for all concerned.

    BUT–there is a greatly important reason that the Liturgy is set up as it is, as Devin I believe mentioned earlier that it is not a human made but God-given gift. And one problem with both of these innovations is the amount of distraction they cause at a time when we have literally, and in this order, confessed our sins to God, read and listened to the Word and homily, confessed our common Faith, and then observed and participated in prayer with the priest as he consecrates the Eucharist into the very body and blood of Christ. Then suddenly, before receiving our Lord personally, we stop and chit-chat with our neighbors and friends, and then go back to prayer and adoration? The amount of reverence and awe that “10 minutes” of meet-and-greet can kill is staggering.

    Think of playing or listening intently to Beethoven’s 5th, start to finish, or Mozart, or even good classic jazz for that matter, and then suddenly JUST before the crescendo, suddenly turning it off and putting on Vanilla Ice (okay I am dating myself hehe) or better yet, Jefferson Bethke? Then, go right back to that same spot in Beethoven and see if the climactic moment does not lose its flavor. I guarantee that it will. I think most music lovers would say it that inevitably it has to. That is what we do when we spend our time with the “meet and greet” version of the Sign of Peace, as well as hand-holding during the Our Father. And that is why they are not healthy. A great article on this is by Colin Donovan from EWTN, and I have linked it here. He is a Catholic theologian and knows his stuff well. The link is short but well spoken in my opinion. It might be warm and fuzzy, but unfortunately the fuzzy part tends to take over when we play with the Liturgy. A good Catholic parish will keep those things in order, and short/sweet at best.

  18. i very much appreciate and respect your comment.
    and i could agree w that.

    but i can’t imagine when Jesus sat around the table w his disciples, as friends, they didn’t converse. im sure there was tears and laughter and chatter.. but to say that it was absolutely silent?

    maybe the sign of peace is just integrated at in inappropriate time.

    also I’ve never really seen mindless c hatter at this point in the mass- i mostly witness people just saying “peace”

    1. Shawna,
      Richard responded well to your concern. One thing I would add is that the crucial thing to remember when looking at something like the hand holding during the Our Father is this: Is it part of the liturgy? If so, how did it get there?
      Here are my thoughts so you know where I am coming from and dont thing I am just a grump. 😉 The secong mass I ever went to in my life (I converted recently)was in the spring of 2010. I saw people either holding hands or having their hands tuned upward (at waist level) during the Our Father (this is the “orans” position, which the priest is told to do during the Our Father). After mass, I commented to my wife that I liked that there was included in the liturgy of the mass a part where people could raise their hands to heaven in prayer. I liked what I saw. Then I learned that that was something people were just doing on their own, and it was not officially part of the mass. It has been going on since the early 90’s from what I have gathered. Technically, people can vuluntarilly hold hands during the Our Father, or any other time at mass. Technically they can do all sorts of things if they want. But when nearly everyone in the mass is doing the same action as the priest, and it is only prescribed for him to do it, that raises a red flag. To me that is a sign that perhaps they are not taking things seriously enough when it comes to following the liturgy? Perhaps there are other areas where there are unauthorized changes to the mass at that parish? Lets put it this way for the purposes of this post by Devin: Personally, Every parish I have been to where nobody is holding hands during the Our Father is a very faithful parish in other respects. (sound theology, good catechesis, reverent liturgy, lots of confession available)
      Other parishes where everyone is holding hands invariably (in my experience) have other issues also.
      In the end it is really not the end of the world of course and there are much more important things to think about. But generally when we are faithful with little things, we will be faithful with big things as well.

  19. Hey, I recognize that web page! I was so surprised to click on this blog post, and see my parish’s web page front and center on your video. Thanks for the information, I know it will be useful to those searching for a church.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Well hopefully the info didn’t come across negatively. I’ve been to all manner of parishes and there are good things and not-so-good things going on in each of them, just as it is wherever we human beings are. But the goal was to help non-Catholic Christians, who don’t yet know how to distinguish between what is orthodox Catholic teaching and heterodox, from choosing a parish where they will have the best chance of getting orthodox information.

      1. No, I felt the information you presented was very fair and helpful–and true! I do wish my parish (Risen Savior Catholic Community in Albuquerque) was a bit more orthodox and traditional. (You hit the nail right on the head with the “Catholic Community” thing!) But as you say, it has its good points and bad points, and is filled with people trying to live as Catholics in the best way they know how.

    1. By all means embrace social justice, but embrace all that the Church teaches about it, which includes standing for babies yet-to-be born. Many parishes who say they embrace “social justice” never utter a peep about these most vulnerable among us. That is what you should watch out for.

      1. We also ought to make sure the church has a cross on it! So many have a plus sign on the wall, without a cross up high. Mine looks like a public library…

  20. Exactly, Devin. The parish I went to had social justice stuff everywhere and when I called about getting involved in the pro life ministry, they kept trying to redirect me there. When I told them it wasn’t the same thing they just shrugged it off and said it was all they had. Ridiculous.

    1. From what I have experienced, no. In the parishes that focus on “social justice” they tend to not have pro-life ministries at all. Should it be? Yes. But they don’t include it the majority of the time.

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