By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 31, 2005
The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil Mass fills everyone with joy as the dark night lit by the Easter fire and the dark church where lectors read the history of God’s saving action from Old Testament Scriptures give way to a burst of light in the sanctuary and the singing of the “Gloria.”
But the joy is particularly strong for those who complete their faith journey by coming into full communion with the Catholic Church.
At St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville, where five people received all the sacraments of initiation, including baptism, and 18 others were confirmed and given the Eucharist for the first time, catechumens, candidates and sponsors spoke of how moved they were.
Joe Vaughan, 57, said it was the most moving experience he had ever had.
“You just feel the Presence. I know I did the right thing,” he said following the Mass where he was able to receive Communion for the first time with his Catholic wife of 33 years, Carmel.
Vice president of a construction company, Vaughan said recent events, including the death of his father, nudged him to try to bring dimensions of his life other than work to the forefront. Baptized a Methodist, he was confirmed and received his first Communion at the Easter Vigil.
“I’ve been married to a beautiful Australian Catholic for 33 years. I just see the devotion my wife had in her life, and I wanted that,” he said.
The initiation process at St. Lawrence, which lasts from August through Pentecost, “worked so beautifully for me,” he said. “I have a different feeling about life, what I want to do.”
Adults going through the process are dismissed from the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass to go and reflect on the Scriptures. They also have classes in the Catholic faith on Tuesday nights.
“I looked so forward to being here on Tuesday night,” Vaughan said. “I’m reading the Bible now and enjoying it. This whole process has made me look at Scriptures so much more. It is a process I’m very happy I took on.”
His wife Carmel said she noticed a significant change in her husband as he went through the process.
“He has such a demanding job. Every Tuesday night it was almost like he was born anew,” she said. “I just see him a happier person.”
As a cradle Catholic, she found herself learning as her husband studied the faith. “For someone exploring it, they look into it with so much more depth. He has definitely taught me to value my faith more. He’s researched it and it is something he has just been thrilled to do.”
“Joe has just come home and said they have been a fabulous group of people. It has been a life-changing experience,” Carmel said.
The Easter Vigil Mass “was just a beautiful evening,” she said. “I hung on every word.”
Being able to share their faith this way is a source of great joy to her.
“I think it will be a blessing for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Eron Sunshine, 25, boomed out his affirmative responses as Father Albert Jowdy, pastor, led the five catechumens through their baptismal promises.
Father Jowdy poured three full pitchers of water over their heads, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and they came up smiling and dripping, as the congregation applauded.
Sunshine said this night was the culmination of a search for a faith community that began when he was 19 years old. He grew up without a particular church and, he said, his parents told him to search for the one that was right for him.
“I started with Judaism, and I just kept going,” he said. “I decided on Catholicism because I decided it is the original and true form of Christianity.”
While in the Army he researched religions using the Internet and reading books, Sunshine said. When he decided on Catholicism, he made a pilgrimage to Rome by himself and using guidebooks visited St. Peter’s Basilica, churches around Rome and other Christian sites and continued to absorb all that he could about the faith.
“I read a lot of books, and I just continue to grow every day. My next step after this is to join the Knights of Columbus,” said the Gwinnett Tech student, who wants to become a firefighter. He and his fiancée, Jessica, will be married in October.
Another aspect of Catholicism he likes is that “it is not just on faith alone, it is also on your works.”
“I enjoy helping people, trying to make the world a better place,” Sunshine said. “I’m glad I could find a faith that enables me to do that.”
Looking toward baptism, confirmation and first Communion, the young man said, “It’s been a long time coming. I’m so happy.”
Rita Schieber, initiation coordinator, said the group who came through the program this year were remarkable, “very special people.”
“These people are absolutely wonderful. They take part in everything,” she said. “They are open at dismissal. They’re just really bonded to each other. It is really an amazing group.”
In addition to study, the group does a service project for the parish, which this year was to put on a Mardi Gras event. They also went to serve at a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta.
“We had some people go, some people contribute, some people cook,” Schieber said. “No matter what we ask them, they do it.”
“I love this ministry. It changes all the time. It is just amazing to me when you see them from August until now. There is such growth. Even the people that decided not to continue, you get something from them. I really, really love this ministry,” she said. “I just think it’s a wonderful place to be.”
“I am particularly enjoying these people,” she said, but admitted “people do say that I say that every year.”
In addition to the 23 adults who were received into the church at the Easter Vigil, 37 children, most from a Catholic background but who lacked catechesis and sacraments, will be coming into the church at St. Lawrence this coming weekend. They have been dismissed from the noon Mass on Sunday and have been going to classes on Monday nights, said Schieber, while their parents have a parallel class on the same topic.
Ken McGaughey, who went through as a candidate two years ago, has stayed active in the initiation program as a sponsor ever since.
“I think the friendliness of the people here goes a long way,” the land surveyor said. “We’re not so stiff we can’t hug or cry or pray.”
A Methodist who married a Catholic, he became attracted to the Catholic Church through the dedication he saw in the parish as their son was receiving catechesis.
When the program begins each year and he meets Methodists, Baptists and Episcopalians who are considering becoming Catholic, “I can identify with them.”
“I don’t consider myself a very good teacher or a very eloquent speaker, but I enjoy helping them trying to find some answers.”
“I think it is one of the most ‘up’ programs in the church,” he said, and “I continue to learn. You can’t begin to learn all about the Catholic Church in nine months. That is one of the reasons I continue to be a sponsor—I continue to learn.”
Following the baptisms at the Easter Vigil Mass, the newly baptized walked around the church and touched the flame from their baptismal candles to reignite the tapers held by everyone else in the church.
“Marked by the Word, alive in the company of one another . . . we are called to become fire ourselves,” Father Jowdy said. “May we all become for the world that fire ignited by Christ.”