After going to church regularly for more than 20 years, Jerry Garner of Lenox Township, Pa., is now consciously making a decision to join the Catholic faith.
“I think it’s time right now for me to join the church,” he explained. “There has always been an open invitation. I just think it was the right time, the right calling.”
Like thousands of other catechumens, Garner will receive the sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and holy Communion — during the Easter Vigil April 8 at St. Patrick Parish in Nicholson, Pa. He has been participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, and feels fully prepared for the faith journey ahead.
“I have been able to get more in touch with Jesus and God and really focus,” Garner said. “The (RCIA) process has been terrific. I’m learning a lot more about the church than what I previously knew and it’s been a spiritual journey for me to go through this.”
One of the milestones on that journey took place during Masses on the first weekend of Lent, Feb. 25 and 26, with the Rite of Election and the Call to Continuing Conversion.
During the Rite of Election, catechumens — supported by their sponsors, godparents, family members and parish ministers — freely proclaim their desire to receive the sacraments of initiation to the diocesan bishop. Their names are recorded in the Book of the Elect. After the rite, the bishop signs the book as a witness to their faith.
The Call to Continuing Conversion is similar for candidates — those who have been baptized in another Christian tradition and seek to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church this Easter. They also publicly profess their intention to receive Communion and confirmation.
Garner was one of 162 people from parishes around the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who participated in these ceremonies at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Scranton Feb. 26, the first Sunday in Lent.
Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, who was the president and homilist, reminded each person that by answering Jesus’ call they are not only affirming his presence in their life but are also committing themselves to embracing his example of service and selfless love.
“You too are being called by God to be here today, to enter into a relationship that has the power to save you from the brokenness of this world and to give you meaning and peace — to do more for God’s people — and to be more than you imagined that you could be,” the bishop said.
In the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., Shawn Woodward said the motivator for him to join the Catholic Church was his family.
“It’s important for me and for them,” Woodward said of his wife and godparent, Vanessa, who attends St. Mary Parish in Colts Neck, and their children who are in the parish religious education program.
“I want to be a role model for my children in the faith,” Woodward told The Monitor, Trenton’s diocesan magazine. He noted that his journey of faith to the church began two years ago when he joined RCIA. “I’ve learned a lot and I see things more clearly,” he said.
Woodward was among the 164 women, men and children from around the diocese who gathered Feb. 26 with Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell at St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral in Freehold for the Rite of Election.
This year, the diocese reports that 62 non-Catholic candidates and 330 Catholic candidates took part in the Call to Continuing Conversion in their parishes.
In his homily, Bishop O’Connell said that the name “Catholic” is “a deep and profound identification of what you believe in, what you are called to be and, therefore, how you plan right now to live in this world,” he said.
There’s a challenge to being a Catholic, he said. “Living it all out in your daily lives, your everyday lives. Living out the truths of our faith with conviction. Adhering to the church’s moral and social teachings when the world, society and culture urge you to do otherwise. Striving to follow the Lord Jesus’ command to love unconditionally.”
“Being a Catholic is not always easy or comfortable or convenient, but it is what you have chosen, and it is package deal,” he said.
Across the Atlanta Archdiocese, 1,831 catechumens and candidates will receive the sacraments for the first time at Easter Vigil liturgies. More than 600 catechumens will be baptized.
Among those at the Rite of Election at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, Georgia, was James Thompson, who credits Our Lady of Guadalupe for his entry into the church. Thompson attends Christ Our Hope and Savior Church in Greensboro, where he is one of two catechumens.
The 22-year-old works in a plastic molding factory. On his right hand he wears a silver rosary ring he bought to encourage himself to pray.
Faith was not a part of Thompson’s life growing up. A former girlfriend introduced him to the 16th-century apparition of Mary to St. Juan Diego. This sparked his attraction to the Catholic Church, he said, and as he learned more about Our Lady, he grew fascinated with the church.
The first time he attended Mass fueled his interest more.
“I was like, I want to go back. I want to be there a little bit more,” he told The Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta’s archdiocesan newspaper. “I just kept going every Sunday and eventually added in a couple of daily Masses and adoration, as well.”
For Thompson, as Easter comes closer, his enthusiasm builds.
At St. Philip Benizi Church, a crowd from more than a dozen parishes participated in the Rite of Election. The names of the catechumens were read aloud from each parish Book of Elect and then Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III touched the book and blessed it.
During his homily, the bishop reminded the congregation they are embarking on a difficult journey to follow Jesus and pick up his cross. Their decision leading to Easter means they will have to rely on a strength greater than their own, he said.
“We remember all that Jesus has done for us,” said the bishop. “We can’t do it alone. We need God’s grace.”
Belief in Jesus can come with a cost, but the church is ready to accompany them as they embrace their new faith, he said.
“All of us are on a journey together. But the devil is walking on the journey too. So is God, pursuing us,” he assured the soon-to-be Catholics.
It is God who leads the faithful to new life, with a plan for each person, and that means each person is called to be a saint, he shared.
Across the three vicariates of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., the celebratory Rite of Election took place in English and Spanish. In all, 495 catechumens from 73 parishes were recognized and blessed over the Feb. 25-26 weekend.
“The Holy Spirit calls and speaks to us in our hearts; our hearts were made for God,” Bishop Barry C. Knestout said in his homily at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem, Va.. “So we may respond to God with generosity and joy.
The pews were crowded with families, godparents, friends, RCIA instructors and pastors of the adults and children who represented 16 parishes across the Western Vicariate.
Teresa Lee, diocesan director of the Office of Christian Formation, attended all three diocesan events.
“With nearly 500 new Catholics, and after observing these three Rites of Election and hearing all the wonderful stories about how they have found the church in their life journeys, my feeling is that the Catholic Church is alive and well,” she told The Catholic Virginian, Richmond’s diocesan newspaper. “All of these people come to the Catholic Church willingly; this is their choice and they want to be part of it.”
Receiving the Easter sacraments will be like a homecoming for Crystal Jacobs of Anabel, Missouri, in the Diocese of Jefferson City.
Jacobs started attending Mass as a girl in Arizona with her grandmother and aunt.
“I really enjoyed going with them, and I liked the atmosphere and learning about what the church teaches,” she told The Catholic Missourian, Jefferson City’s diocesan newspaper.
Jacobs, a member of St. Mary Parish in Shelbina, Missouri, and her son Matthew were among the 72 catechumens and 82 candidates from parishes throughout the diocese who gathered with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and their godparents and sponsors Feb. 26 for the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Columbia.
After the readings and his homily, Bishop McKnight greeted each of the catechumens and candidates individually as their names were called.
He accepted the catechumens’ names into the Book of the Elect and urged the catechumens and candidates to spend the rest of Lent pursuing repentance and deeper conversion with the support of the church.
“God is always faithful to those he calls,” the bishop told the catechumens. “Now it is your duty, as it is ours, both to be faithful to him in return and to strive courageously to reach the fullness of truth, which your election opens up before you.”