|Varied paths bring thousands into Catholic Church at Easter Vigil|
Catholic News Service photo
Father Gregory Yacyshyn baptizes catechumen Susan Zabiela at the Easter Vigil at St. Jude Church in Mastic Beach, N.Y., April 7. During the vigil four catechumens received the sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and first Communion — and e ight candidates were confirmed and received their first Communion. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (April 9, 2012) See RCIA-ROUNDUP April 9.
Catholic News Service photo
Pope Benedict holds a candle as celebrates the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 7.
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — Each of the thousands of new Catholics who joined the U.S. church at Easter has a special reason to celebrate. But for some, the journey has been especially poignant.
As children in Albania while the country was under communist rule, Lule Prebibaj and her husband, Ndoke, recall being baptized under cloak of darkness and taught to hide their families' religious practices from the authorities.
"We both remember every day after a holy day the teachers asking us what we had for dinner or if our parents lit a candle or said a prayer," said Lule. "We were told by our parents that we should always say 'no.' It wasn't until later on that we understood why they were asking us those questions."
Now the parents of four children raised in the Catholic faith and living in the United States since 1999, the Prebibajs are two of the 1,470 candidates and catechumens from the Archdiocese of New York received into the church at the Easter Vigil April 7.
"It's a wonderful feeling to openly say who we are, and it's absolutely wonderful to be able to receive these sacraments," Lule added. "Better late than never, right?"
The Easter Vigil marked the culmination of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a process of conversion and study in the Catholic faith for catechumens, who have never been baptized, and candidates, who were baptized in another Christian denomination and want to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The catechumens received baptism, confirmation and first Communion at the Holy Saturday services, while the candidates made a profession of faith and received confirmation and the Eucharist.
At St. Agnes Parish in St. Paul, Minn., nine Hmong children in the Vang family were baptized on Holy Saturday. The children, who attend the parish school after coming to live with their uncle following the death of their mother, had approached the pastor with a request to join the church.
The children spoke of the kindness of the St. Agnes community, their engaging religion classes and powerful experiences at Mass as reasons for wanting baptism.
A school connection — and the tears of a child — brought sisters Carmen Deichman and Monica Akes of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., into the church, along with their mother, Susan Hughey.
Both Deichman and Akes had attended the Catholic school at St. Mary Parish in Mount Vernon, Ill., and their children are now at the school.
Deichman's son, Lane, became the catalyst that eventually brought his mother to the RCIA program.
"He came to me in tears," she told The Messenger, Belleville's diocesan newspaper. "He wanted to make his first Communion with his class," but he was not Catholic. After discussions with the pastor, Father John Iffert, Lane was welcomed into the church and made his first Communion with his class.
Father Iffert said the Catholic school has been a great evangelizer for the church in Mount Vernon.
It's not a place where religion is "pushed," but families see how their children are nurtured in their faith as well as their education, he said.
Sometimes the journey to the Catholic Church begins in a dark place. Liz Tufte, who entered the Catholic Church March 11 at Ave Maria Parish in Parker, Colo., began the RCIA program last August — a little over a year after she and her two young daughters lost husband and father Mike to suicide in April 2010.
"After witnessing one of the more horrific things in my life, I needed to figure out what was important," she told Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs during an interview for his radio show.
One of the people who helped guide Tufte to the Catholic Church was her older brother, a physician living in Indiana who had become Catholic several years earlier. He also was the one who suggested she have her house blessed after her husband's death. That led to Tufte's first meeting with Father Gus Stewart, Ave Maria pastor.
"I could sense the spiritual warfare that took place" as Father Stewart sprinkled holy water throughout the home, she said. "It really did make that heaviness go away."
But it was being in the presence of the Eucharist that really drew Tufte into full communion with the church and she makes a point to spend time in eucharistic adoration regularly.
"I hate leaving. It's extremely powerful," she said.
For Richard Sherlock in Logan, Utah, the journey to the Catholic Church took 40 years. Raised a Mormon, he was drawn to Catholic theology in the 1970s when he was a graduate student at Harvard University.
In an interview with the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Salt Lake City Diocese, he said he agreed with much of the church's moral theology, as an opponent of artificial birth control, abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. Sherlock noted, too, that during the Vietnam War he was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War.
He first began his RCIA journey in September 2010, and before that "I had been to Mass several times," he said. "But nothing could have prepared me for my first Easter Vigil experience (April 7) of coming into a dark chapel with candles in our hands. I realized in a way I never had before -- Christ is the light of the world and we are his people."
Felichia Laws, a 30-year-old accountant married to a Catholic, is one of 2,393 new Catholics in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston this year.
Laws said she grew up knowing about God but it wasn't until the baptism of her daughter, Brianna, shortly after she began the RCIA process that she discovered her own personal thirst for Christ.
"During my daughter's baptism, my body was overcome by so much joy and fulfillment that it is very hard to put into words," she said. "I realized then that though I had started the process for her, I also wanted the same baptism for me."
Meteorologist Randall Willson, born and raised a Baptist, admitted that he felt a little "shell-shocked" when he first attended Mass at St. Michael Church in Houston while on a date. But something drew him back and he eventually signed up for RCIA classes.
"I can honestly say that joining this class was one of best decisions I have ever made! The information was deep, the questions were challenging, but it made me a more complete Christian," Willson said. "I'm not even 100 percent Catholic yet, but I can't imagine my life without the holy sacraments, without praying the holy rosary, without confessions, and without the holy Eucharist."
Galveston-Houston isn't the only Texas diocese to welcome a large number of new Catholics this year. The Archdiocese of San Antonio had 1,165 new members, while the Diocese of Fort Worth welcomed 1,121 new Catholics.
Other dioceses with large RCIA classes this year were the Archdiocese of Washington, with 1,166 new members, the second-largest class in a decade; St. Petersburg, Fla. (963); St. Louis (846); Portland, Ore. (783); Baltimore (702, representing a 10 percent increase over last year); and Rockville Centre, N.Y. (689).
The figures do not include infant baptisms, which numbered 830,673, according to the 2011 Official Catholic Directory. The 2011 directory also reported that there were 43,335 adult baptisms and 72,859 baptized Christians received into full communion with the Catholic Church.