Pressingon, you are an “inquirer” in the “Evangelization and Precatechumenate” period. No one is required to commit to Catholicism when they join the catechumenal process, or at any point during the process. The Church requires that you be adequately prepared before receiving the sacraments of initiation (which are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, but if you have been validly baptized, you cannot be re-baptized.
As other posters have stated, the RCIA is a “process” – not a series of classes from which people “graduate” – none of us graduate, until we reach the pearly gates. When you receive the sacraments of initiation, you will be beginning your journey as a Catholic Christian, not “graduating.” You will not learn everything there is to know during RCIA – hopefully the “adventure” will continue with zeal.
RCIA involves liturgical involvement, catechesis (instruction in the faith, ways of worship, and Christian lifestyle), and pastoral help (from your sponsor, RCIA team, and parish.
When unbaptized inquirers are ready to commit to a period of intense catechesis, there is a liturgical rite (during a mass) called the Rite of Acceptance. This Rite serves as the gateway to the “Period of the Catechumenate” during which they will be called catechumens. This is a period of conversion of heart and action, as well as intense study.
When baptized inquirers are ready to commit to intense catechesis, the liturgical rite is called the Rite of Welcoming. Sometimes the two rites are combined during one mass. As they enter the Period of the Catechumenate, the baptized will be called candidates for full communion or completion of initiation (c. for full communion for baptized non-Catholics, and c. for full initiation for baptized Catholics).
The next period of the process, the Period of Purification and Enlightenment, begins on the First Sunday of Lent. Catechesis continues, but the participants commit to a more spiritually intense period as they prepare for the sacraments. The catechumens who are ready will participate in the “Rite of Sending” during a mass in their parish. Usually, they are “sent” by the parish (which attests to the formation and readiness of the catechumens thus far in the process) to the cathedral later that day, to a liturgy (not a mass) presided by the bishop, called the “Rite of Election.” The catechumens are presented to the bishop. I won’t go into detail, but the catechumens are declared to be members of the elect, to be “initiated into the sacred mysteries at the next Eager Vigil” and they are now called the “elect.”
(Usually) on the First Sunday of Lent the candidates participate in the “Rite of the Call to Continuing Conversion” (usually) during mass – sometimes in the parish, and sometimes in the cathedral, depending on the number of people. They are still candidates. Sometimes there is a combined Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.
There are other minor liturgical rites during this period – on the Second Sunday of Lent, the candidates celebrate the Penitential Rite. The elect celebrate the Scrutinies on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. There are other “minor” rites which are optional.
After the Baptismal, Confirmation and Eucharistic rites are celebrated, the new Catholics are called “neophytes” as they enter into the formal period of Mystagogy for a year. Actually, all Catholics are journeying in mystagogy – applying the mysteries of our faith to our everyday lives – until we’re no longer here physically.
As for the length of the RCIA process – it can be a different amount of time for each individual, because we all have different journeys. Ideally, parishes are to encourage year-round participation. Practically, however, most parishes lack the resources to do this, but will hopefully at least welcome inquirers year-round, leading them in “breaking open the Word,” while scheduling faith-topic sessions during a 6-8 month period.
It’s a pastoral decision as to whether the candidates are fully initiated with the elect during the Easter Vigil mass. It depends on the number of people involved and the capacity of the parish.