By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 17, 2011
Tonya Roque and her four children are looking forward to Easter, a holy day that will hold special significance for them as they and nearly 2,000 others enter the Catholic Church in North Georgia at the close of this Lenten season.
On Sunday, March 13, the Roques joined the thousands who filled the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center for the Rite of Election and the Call to Continuing Conversion, a celebration led by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama.
This Easter in its parishes and missions, the archdiocese anticipates baptizing 647 catechumens, those who have never been initiated before into a Christian community. Another 1,265 candidates, those previously baptized in the Christian faith, will be initiated into the Catholic sacraments of Eucharist and confirmation.
It was an exciting time for the Roque family, who, as new Catholics, will be entering the faith of their husband and father, Fernando. They were seated with the other candidates and catechumens from St. Philip Benizi Church, the Catholic community in Jonesboro where the family will become parishioners.
Tonya Roque did not grow up in a Christian family, but said she has attended all types of Christian services during her life. But when she first started seeking more information about the Catholic Church, she felt confirmed that she was heading in the right direction.
“There is a difference when you walk into a Catholic church,” she said. “Everyone is so welcoming. It felt like a family.”
Her husband’s family in Texas is Catholic and first exposed her to the faith. She remembers attending celebrations with the family during a visit at Christmas 2009. She attended Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration reflecting the nine months Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Each night was spent at a different home where reenactments of Mary and Joseph’s journey and search for shelter took place. The sense of community among the faithful was inspiring to her and she felt called to try and foster the same closeness within her own family.
‘It Was Time To Make A Change’
Her journey to the Catholic Church officially began last year when Roque and her children began attending RCIA classes at St. Philip Benizi. It has been several months of prayer, learning and discernment, which eventually led her to the Rite of Election this past Sunday. They are catechumens.
“There was a time when I knew myself that it was a time to make a change,” she said about her family life. “I wanted to show them the right way to live.”
She began calling around to different churches and eventually spoke to Mary Mauldin, director of faith formation at St. Philip Benizi.
“The first person I talked to was Mary and just talking to her over the phone about the Catholic religion, I knew that was the place I wanted to go,” she said.
Roque and her four children, Justino, 17, Leticia, 16, Lisa, 14, and Joshua, 11, all began to participate in RCIA shortly afterward. They have been learning about the richness and depth of Catholicism, which has led to family discussions about God, something for which Roque is grateful.
The same feeling of welcome that Roque experienced when she first sought information from St. Philip Benizi was echoed in the archbishop’s words at the Rite of Election.
“On the first Sunday of Lent, the church in North Georgia gathers to welcome catechumens and candidates for the Easter sacraments. We all want you to realize how joyfully we receive you,” Archbishop Gregory said. “We choose you and promise to journey with you during these few weeks before the great celebration of Easter. Christ himself has sanctified these days through his own glorious example of fidelity to the truth. We are called to do nothing less.”
‘Does God Hear Me If I’m Praying?’
Through the classes at St. Philip Benizi, Roque has learned things about the Catholic faith that she never knew and now understands other aspects of the religion that she wasn’t sure about. The divine and human natures of Jesus and the place of Mary have been topics of special interest to Roque.
As her knowledge of the Catholic faith continues to grow, her prayer life has strengthened as well. Roque said she used to be unsure of how to pray or if she should even pray at all because she was not practicing any particular religion. Now when she prays, she can feel God’s presence with her.
“When I would try to sit and pray, I felt like there was a guilt. ‘Why am I praying? Does God hear me if I’m praying and I’m not going to church or trying to learn more about him?’” she would ask herself. “And now when I pray, I feel a peace like I know he is there, that he is listening to what I’m saying.”
At the Rite of Election, more than 60 parishes with candidates and catechumens preparing to join the Catholic Church were represented. The total of 1,912 new Catholics in North Georgia is slightly fewer than 2010’s historic number of 2,062, which was the largest the archdiocese has received at one time.
“The Rite of Election is the celebration of the impending growth of the Church and of the unity of all those who belong to Christ and are thus safe from the tricks of the one who works best alone, whether in garden or desert,” the archbishop said, referring to the day’s readings, which included the tempting of Eve in the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Jesus in the desert.
“Let us take great comfort in being sisters and brothers in Christ, who has victoriously banished the tempter from all those he calls his own,” Archbishop Gregory said.