By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 21, 2008
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory processed into a church full of warm Georgia sunlight Saturday, Feb. 9, ready to welcome hundreds of candidates and catechumens who are preparing to enter the Catholic Church.
Those gathered at Holy Cross Church created a microcosm of the global Catholic community, Hispanic, Asian, African-American and Caucasian, all there to welcome and support friends, family and parishioners on their spiritual journey.
The rite at Holy Cross Church was one of four celebrated Feb. 9 and 10 at different parishes by the archbishop to accommodate the large numbers. Twenty or more parishes were represented at each gathering, which were also held at St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, Transfiguration Church, Marietta, and St. Matthew Church, Tyrone. An estimated 1,500 are preparing to become Catholic in the archdiocese this Easter, according to the Office for Divine Worship.
The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion are an essential part of this season of the church, held on the first weekend in Lent. The Rite of Election focuses on catechumens—those who have not been previously baptized in the Christian tradition—while the Call to Continuing Conversion presents candidates—those who have been baptized and seek full communion with the Catholic Church through the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist. Candidates and catechumens typically experience months of faith study as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults held in the parishes.
Holy Cross Church, filled to capacity with over 1,000 in attendance, resonated with the sound of the prelude music, including “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” sung by cantor Sam Hagan, and “In This Very Room,” sung by Janis Griffin.
As the opening music ended, the assembly rose to welcome the archbishop and the assisting clergy. Leading the clergy in the procession were representatives from each parish present, holding aloft their parish Book of the Elect, containing the names of each candidate and catechumen.
Archbishop Gregory approached the altar, which he incensed, and led the congregation for the first time in prayer.
“Protect all who are about to become your children and continue to bless those who are already baptized,” said the archbishop in the opening prayer.
Three readings, spoken in Spanish and English, were read before the archbishop again addressed the community, this time in his homily.
Archbishop Gregory reminded the assembly that 2008 is an election year for the United States and spoke about many of the processes in which presidential candidates participate during this hectic time. The archbishop then turned to the election the Catholic Church has been preparing.
“In a much more modest and far less flamboyant gesture, during the midst of this presidential election year, the Church in North Georgia is about to elect a fine gathering of our brothers and sisters today,” he said. “These men and women whom the Church will elect today have heard the voice of the Father speaking to their hearts.”
The Rite of Election followed with each RCIA director calling the names of the catechumens from their parish. The catechumens walked to the front, along with their godparents or parents, to show their affirmation.
The archbishop first addressed the godparents and parents, asking them if the catechumens have shown themselves to be sincere in the pursuit of the church. Next, those in the assembly were addressed and affirmed their support of the elect. Finally, the catechumens themselves were asked if they wished to enter fully into the life of the church through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.
The church erupted in applause as the archbishop presented the catechumens and then the congregation burst into song with “Who Calls You by Name.”
During the Call to Continuing Conversion, all the candidates from a particular parish stood up when their parish name was called. Similar to the Rite of Election, the sponsors of each candidate were addressed first to affirm the sincerity of the candidates’ actions. The assembly was then asked for their support and approval before the archbishop addressed the candidates.
“The church recognizes your desire to be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and to have a place at Christ’s Eucharistic table,” he said. “Join with us this Lent in a spirit of repentance. Hear the Lord’s call to conversion and be faithful to your baptismal covenant.”
Alan Shope of Athens was one of the names called for the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia. Shope, his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Daniel and Moriah, are all candidates for initiation this year. Formerly a Southern Baptist minister, Shope said this was the end of a journey of faith that spanned many years.
“Our journey was always meant to end at the Catholic Church,” he said, reflecting on his own transformation from minister to layman.
Pastor of a church in Texas before moving to Gwinnett County and starting his own church, Shope recalled attending an interdenominational retreat with his wife, which was instrumental in their conversion.
For the first time, the Shopes learned about another kind of worship—a worship that was not centered on a sermon but on the Lord’s Supper.
“This form of worship struck us at a depth that we had never experienced,” said Shope.
Leading up to this moment, Shope said he felt like something was missing in his spiritual life. He believed that the form of preaching and worship he was involved with was losing its power and influence. He had some friends in the Episcopal Church, which is where his wife and children would eventually find themselves.
The Shope family worshipped in the Episcopal Church for about 10 years before moving to Athens. Their children were both attending UGA, and Alan and Nancy wanted to be able to be near them.
Shope remembers stumbling across the UGA Catholic Center one day. Eventually he began speaking with the priests there. He again encountered the form of worship focused on the Eucharist, but the Catholic faith stuck with him in a different way.
“It just felt like home,” Shope said simply.
High school senior Catherine Mazarov was one of five catechumens from St. Pius X Church in Conyers presented at the Rite of Election. A senior at Alcovy High School in Covington, Mazarov, who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in an interfaith family, her mother a Catholic and her father Jewish. She did not officially belong to either religion. However, she looks forward to fulfilling now a call she heard long ago.
“I was always drawn to the Catholic Church,” she said. “And I wanted to be official.”
The young woman moved to Georgia nearly two years ago, and that’s when she began to become more active in the Catholic community.
As with many entering the church, she has had a positive RCIA experience and she feels she has learned so much about the Catholic faith that she recommends everyone participate in the program.
“RCIA has been a positive journey,” Mazarov said. “It may be difficult at times, but you learn so much. I think everyone should take RCIA.”
Another catechumen from St. Pius X Church, Jerome Montgomery, described the rite as “very moving.” He said his decision to become a Catholic is the culmination of several years exploring different faiths and denominations.
Montgomery said he attended services at several churches, from Baptist to Methodist to non-denominational, but when he began attending Mass in Conyers, he found what he had been searching for.
“As soon as I walked into St. Pius, I felt the Holy Spirit,” he said.
After attending Mass for a year, he was approached by a parishioner who asked him if he was interested in pursuing the RCIA program. At that time, he did not feel he was ready. A short six months later, Montgomery was ready and began the RCIA program.
“I had a lot of questions,” he said. “RCIA has definitely opened up new passages for me. … It helped me understand the traditions.”