By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2009
The journeys that led each candidate and catechumen to St. Benedict Church Saturday, Feb. 28, were as varied as the congregation that gathered for the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion on that chilly night.
People from every ethnic background and from a range of parishes crowded into the standing-room only assembly—many smiling, some tearful—to watch family members and friends reach this high point in their journey to become Catholic.
The rite was celebrated at three different parishes that day in order to accommodate the numbers of people preparing to join the church at Easter. Twenty or more parishes were represented at each rite, which were also held at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, and Holy Cross Church, Atlanta, earlier in the day.
A fourth Rite of Election was scheduled at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Newnan, for Sunday afternoon, March 1, but was canceled when unseasonable snow and ice blanketed much of the area.
Before the ceremony at St. Benedict’s began, liturgical dancers Marcita Regnier and M. Tobie St. Germain slowly walked up and down the aisles, waving brightly colored banners, signifying the celebration and joy expressed during the rite.
The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion are an essential part of this season of the church and are traditionally 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 (RCIA) held in each of the parishes.
Tim Bell, a candidate, said it had been a long process up to this point.
“It’s been a very long journey but very worthwhile,” Bell said.
He said his story began nearly three years ago when he and his wife, Lisa, enrolled their oldest daughter, Savannah, at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming.
“We weren’t Catholic by any stretch of the imagination,” said Bell, who was drawn to the school because he believes in the quality of Catholic education.
They were caught off-guard when they brought Savannah to the school for the first time on Ash Wednesday.
“It was a little scary,” Bell said bluntly about seeing all of the teachers, administrators and students with ashes on their foreheads.
But they quickly began to feel at home as they were shown compassion and caring by all those involved with the school.
“That’s what it is all about: love,” Bell said of Catholicism.
Bell, whose wife and children have already become Catholic, has participated in the RCIA program at St. Benedict. The rite was especially important to him since it was held at his soon-to-be home parish.
But for others, like Mark Bradley, who participated in the rite at Transfiguration Church, Catholicism was something to which he was exposed for several years before taking the official leap of faith.
Bradley realized he should become a Catholic when he was on the road for his job as a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I wouldn’t look for a Methodist church. I would go to a Catholic church,” said Bradley, who is 53.
Bradley has been a regular at Mass at Smyrna’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church with his family for many years. He and his wife, Penny, were married in the church in 1982.
They have two daughters baptized in the faith, Rachel, a lector, extraordinary minister of holy Communion and past parish teen of the year, and Elizabeth, an altar server. Penny works in the parish’s religious education program.
This fall he took the first formal step to join the church.
Learning the faith with his parish’s RCIA has been a treat, he said.
“This has been something I have not regretted through the whole RCIA process. It has been a good thing,” Bradley said.
He praised his sponsor, Dr. Roger Meyer, a retired surgeon. The two became friends when Bradley spotted the doctor serving tacos to the group. Seeing this kindness to serve strangers was very touching, said Bradley, adding it is a trait he needs to develop.
He has brought his family along on his faith journey. After weekly religious education classes, he peppers them with questions about faith and the church.
“Faith is in large part a mystery. You essentially believe in something you cannot quite touch, but feel,” he said.
During his study, Bradley said he has grown to appreciate the universal character of the church, where the rituals are the same from church to church.
“The mystery, the ritual, the trappings of being Catholic” are very moving, he said.
“I feel like this is what I need to do right now.”
At each rite, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory spoke to the assembly, asking those who are helping the candidates learn the faith if they have “listened to the apostles’ instruction proclaimed by the church.”
Then he addressed the candidates directly, looking many in the eye as he spoke the traditional words of the rite.
“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. Join us this Lent in a spirit of repentance. Hear the Lord’s call to conversion and be faithful to your baptismal covenant,” he said.
“Thanks be to God,” boomed the candidates in one voice.
For the catechumens, the rite was slightly different. Each catechumen’s name was called and they approached the altar with their parents or godparent. The adult formation directors of each parish then presented the archbishop with the Book of the Elect, which has each catechumen’s name inscribed inside.
Much like the Call to Continuing Conversion, Archbishop Gregory addressed the parents and godparents first, who affirmed that the catechumens have been sincere in their pursuit of the sacraments.
He then addressed the catechumens directly.
“Do you wish to enter fully into the life of the Church through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist,” he asked with confidence.
The large group of catechumens answered with a resounding, “We do.”
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory spoke about the rite as well as the varied journeys in which many of the candidates and catechumens have participated.
“Indeed all of life is a journey. For some people it has been a long and adventuresome excursion. For others, it has been a short trip thus far. Yet, each one of us is on life’s journey no matter where we might currently be on that adventure,” he said.
“With a spirit of joy this first weekend of Lent, we welcome those among us who are in the final stages of an important journey that is leading them to Christ in the Church,” he continued. “Like the trek to this parish, the faith journeys of those who are here to be named and inscribed in the Book of the Elect has been a personal experience.”
Archbishop Gregory also said that many of the candidates and catechumens have probably spent numerous years thinking about becoming a part of the Catholic Church, while others came to that moment through the good example and faith witness of a loved one whom they are planning to marry in the near future.
Still others may have begun their lives as Catholics, but somewhere along the way, they became disconnected from the church.
“Today they are restoring those bonds,” he said. “Welcome to all of you.”
Mitzi Rummel, a candidate from All Saints Church, Dunwoody, felt this comment spoke directly to her and her family.
Rummel said she came to the Catholic Church by way of marriage 15 years prior. Her husband was Catholic, but they ended up christening their two children in the Episcopal Church and became practicing Episcopalians for several years.
However, she “knew in her heart” that her husband, Mike, wanted to return to the Catholic faith, so they brought their children into the Catholic Church when they were 7 and 5 years old.
They chose All Saints Parish because they had many friends there and her husband knew the pastor, Msgr. Don Kiernan, from his childhood. This year she will become a Catholic.
There were 12 other candidates from All Saints presented with Rummel at the ceremony, as well as seven catechumens. For all of them, the ceremony was a special moment in their faith journey.
“The Rite of Election at St. Benedict’s was such a beautiful service,” Rummel said, adding how much she liked the music, which was provided by a choir made up of parishioners from several Atlanta parishes.
“It really touched me to my soul and set the atmosphere for what the next 40 days were to bring to me and my fellow candidates and catechumens from our parish,” she continued. “Although I do not know Archbishop Gregory personally, each time I am in his presence, I feel such an aura about him that it confirms that I am going in the direction I am supposed to be going in my spiritual life.”
Staff writer Andrew Nelson also contributed to this story.