WASHINGTON—A young adult raised in communist Cuba, an African woman who grew up as a Muslim, a marine being deployed in June, and a former abortion clinic administrator, along with tens of thousands others around the country, are joining the Catholic Church in the United States at Easter.
These catechumens, now known as “the elect,” and candidates for full communion have all participated in a process of conversion and study of the Catholic faith through Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The RCIA has several stages, the most important of which is the moment when they will receive or complete the sacraments of initiation, usually at the Easter Vigil. A catechumen is a person who has never been baptized; a candidate is someone who was baptized in a Christian tradition and now desires to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. In some dioceses, the candidates also include baptized Catholics who never completed their sacraments of initiation and weren’t raised in the faith.
José Pujols, is one of the 148 “elect” in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, who will receive the sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist— at the Easter Vigil. His wedding to his fiancé Eli sparked his desire to become a Catholic. Growing up in Cuba (Pujols came to the United States in 1993), he never felt a part of a Church. After going through the RCIA process, he says he especially appreciates the sense of community the Church has brought him. “It’s the best. I feel welcomed and a part of something important. Becoming
Catholic has given me this freedom and it feels good.” The ceremony will be all the more special as his baby son, Felix, will also be baptized then. “It’s symbolic in a way to share this with him,” said Pujols.
Ahdija Cheumbike Baker is the daughter of a Detroit man and a Tanzanian woman. She was raised as a Muslim. Ahdija means “to be loved,” and Cheumbike means “one who is blessed.” She is one of the 282 catechumens and candidates that the Catholic Church in New Orleans will be welcoming at Easter. Converting to Christianity from Islam was not an easy decision. Through her young adult life she struggled with some of her Muslim beliefs. “The love of the Lord” and a love interest drove her to start attending a Catholic church. After Hurricane Katrina, “I felt compelled to look for a church to call home so that I could give my thanks to God,” Baker said. “If I had gone to a church that gets you in and out in 45 minutes, I probably wouldn’t have changed my religion; but at St. Peter Claver I feel a deep connection. The way that the priest speaks in his homilies moved me. I felt at home and accepted, and they have become my family.” Her friend’s parents will become her godparents when she is baptized during the Easter Vigil.
Kalene Laforest is an 18-year-old catechumen at St. Peter’s Church in LaGrange, Georgia. She is a Marine and feels a strong urge to join the Catholic Church before going on assignment in June. She said she wanted a faith with depth, history, deep spirituality, tradition, and “no all-over-the-place craziness.” She is among 1,912 new Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
In the Austin, Texas, area, Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director and author of the bestselling book “Unplanned,” is getting ready for yet another “unplanned” conversion that will bring her into the Catholic Church. In September 2009, Johnson was asked to hold the ultrasound probe during an abortion. In the monitor, she saw the baby struggle to get away. This experience, and her unease with Planned Parenthood’s emphasis on increasing abortions, gave her the courage to leave her job and undertake a journey of conversion. She went to the Coalition for Life’s office down the street, a Christian pro-life organization whose
members were a constant, prayerful and peaceful presence outside the clinic. There she received
practical help as she navigated joblessness, legal problems with Planned Parenthood and broken friendships. Her pro-life advocacy also met the disapproval of her pro-choice church. Many of
her new friends are Catholic, and through them she has learned about the faith. She and her family will join the Church at Easter, along with 911 others in the Austin Diocese.
Dana Laviano is a baptized Catholic who was raised unchurched. After four years as a secretary at the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, Laviano decided she wanted to go through the RCIA process. She has been chronicling her conversion journey and experiences on a blog (http://reversionstory.blogspot.com/) and is one of 319 catechumens and candidates in the diocese.
For many, taking the step of joining the Church is a family affair. At the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Burlingame, California, seven members of the House family will join the Catholic Church this Easter season. Parents James and Michelle House will come into full communion at the Easter Vigil, and in the following week, infant David, 2 months old, will be baptized and children Kristina, 7, James, 6, Alexandra, 4, and Joseph 2 will be received into the Catholic Church. Michelle House said the family, formerly Episcopalians, found a welcoming community at St. Catherine Parish when they moved to Northern California.
Young people whose parents are in the RCIA program or who are past the usual age for receiving the sacraments of initiation can join a special version of the RCIA for children. The Archdiocese of New Orleans reports that of the132 catechumens entering the church at Easter, 48 are under age 18; and of the 150 candidates, 10 are children. Likewise, the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, shows that 56 of the 206 catechumens and 28 of 366 candidates are children.
Though larger archdioceses usually boast the largest overall number of converts—New York (1,600), Philadelphia (811) Washington (1,100), Seattle (1,000+), Portland-in-Oregon (875), Cincinnati (1,100), Galveston-Houston (2,490), Atlanta (1,912), Louisville (504), Milwaukee (613), Saint Paul and Minneapolis (643) — the Diocese of San Diego, with 1,253 people (425 catechumens, 828 candidates) entering the Church at Easter, is proof that you don’t need to be large to show some very impressive numbers.
Comparatively smaller (in population) dioceses also report numbers that illustrate the vitality of the Catholic Church in the Midwest, South and Southeast of the United States. The Diocese Birmingham, Alabama, has 487 people joining the Church at Easter; the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, 421 people; the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, 355 people. The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, will add 800 new Catholics; the Diocese of Cleveland, 513; the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, 450; the Diocese of Toledo, 572 people; and Grand Rapids, 568.
The Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, will welcome 434 people (98 elect and 336 candidates). Over half (224) are Hispanic, the fastest growing ethnic group in the diocese.
Some rural dioceses, which encompass an entire state—such as the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, with 195 catechumens, and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, with 128 catechumens and 247 candidates, for a total of 375 soon-to-be new Catholics— also are signs of active and effective evangelizing faith communities.
Even dioceses in remote areas like Juneau, Alaska, where the Catholic communities are few and far apart, small parishes sometimes comprised of a handful of families, will welcome new Catholics into the Church. Juneau Diocese will proudly add seven new members at Easter.
These numbers are based on participation in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, a part of the RCIA process usually conducted at the beginning of Lent. They do not include infant baptisms, which in 2010 totaled 857,410 according to the Official Catholic Directory (OCD). For 2010, OCD reported that there were 43,279 adult baptisms in the United States and 75,724 people received into full communion.
Cheryl Sickle, a staff member in the Office of Worship and Sacraments in Wheeling-Charleston, summarized the feelings of catechumens and candidates, and of the communities welcoming them, as the life-changing moment approaches.
“Each year, some of the most touching moments at the Rite of Election include the emotions expressed. We see faces full of joy as catechumens and candidates alike realize the bigger picture of their decision to join the Church. We see the smiles of proud grandparents as their young grandchildren painstakingly sign the Book of the Elect, and the overwhelming emotions of wives or husbands, brought to tears, whose spouses are converting to the Roman
Catholic faith after years of marriage. We see physically challenged people with a look of determination as they slowly and resolutely process forward, and the bond of belonging on the faces of a family who welcome into their midst and into their faith a newly-adopted son or daughter of a different ethnicity. It is a one-time Rite, but the RCIA formation behind it lasts — and changes — a lifetime.”
Starting Monday, April 18, and throughout the Holy Week, the USCCB Media Blog (http://usccbmedia.blogspot.com/) will feature conversion stories from around the country.
A chart with a sample of dioceses that responded to our RCIA survey is attached.
Keywords: Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, RICA, catechumen, elect, candidate for full communion, Easter, Easter Vigil, conversion, diocese, Catholic Church
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