By STEPHEN O'KANE and ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writers | Published March 1, 2012
Just like the rainbow signifying God’s promise to Noah that water would never destroy the earth again, the nearly 2,000 people preparing to enter the Church this Easter are a beautiful reflection of the fidelity of God, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said.
Referring to the day’s reading from Genesis, Archbishop Gregory welcomed the “rainbow assembly” of 1,997 candidates and catechumens on the first Sunday of Lent, Feb. 26.
“In many respects you yourselves are the rainbow that arcs over these North Georgia counties and reflects God’s eternal promise first made to Noah and to his family and renewed annually for all of us in this Rite of Election and Call to Ongoing Conversion,” he said. “You, my beloved brothers and sisters, are the beauty of God’s fidelity from ancient times until this moment in history—a fidelity that will continue to endure forever because God Himself is eternal.”
This year the Archdiocese of Atlanta will welcome 663 catechumens and 1,334 candidates into the Catholic Church at Easter. Catechumens will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, while candidates have already been baptized but will receive the other sacraments of initiation.
Due to the size of the gathering, the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion was held at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center. Those preparing to become Catholic expressed their desire to “enter fully into the life of the Church through the sacraments,” surrounded by family and members of their faith communities, what Archbishop Gregory called the “double rainbow.”
They were greeted warmly by the faithful of the Atlanta Archdiocese, Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama and Archbishop Gregory.
“Today’s ceremony brings together a great representation of the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta—a rainbow assembly of all of the many cultures, races, ages, and groups of folks who call this local Church their faith community,” the archbishop said to the crowd of over 3,500.
“Some of you speak Korean, some speak Spanish, and some speak Portuguese while most of us speak English. Many were born in this nation while others hail from many other places and countries—yet all of you are the sons and daughters that God will claim as His very own through the waters of baptism.”
Nearly every parish in the archdiocese is welcoming new members. Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn presented the largest group of 229 people: 106 catechumens and 123 candidates.
Yankey Hernandez, 20, a member of Our Lady of the Americas, was presented as a catechumen with her husband, Genaro. They hope to have their marriage blessed in the church following their baptism, confirmation and first Communion.
Born in New Jersey and raised in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez said she grew up in a Christian home, though going to church was never a priority.
“I’m learning a lot,” said Hernandez, who said that the Rite of Christian Initiation program at Our Lady of the Americas has been an eye-opening experience. “My teacher makes it interesting and fun to learn.”
She was surprised by the various languages and cultures represented at the Rite of Election, where people from individual parishes often see the breadth of the archdiocese for the first time.
“It was very interesting,” she said. “And we are all the same religion.”
The different countries were well represented during the event. From the prelude music provided by the Gambian Christian Organization from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, to the Scripture readings and intercessions read in different languages, every culture felt at home.
“I’ve never been to a ceremony like that,” said Esmeralda Simgelmann, 25, a catechumen from Our Lady of the Americas. She wanted to adopt the faith of her husband, Claudio, so they could celebrate their marriage sacramentally in the Church.
In addition to learning about the Catholic faith, Simgelmann has also been surprised by the diversity found in the Church.
“I really like to see the ways different cultures express the faith,” she said, adding that experiencing this at the Rite of Election was especially powerful.
‘It’s An Absolute Miracle’
The faith community at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, will welcome 34 catechumens and 45 candidates into the faith at Easter. Among them is Janet Burnham.
Janet and John Burnham were married in a Catholic church in Pittsburgh in 1960. They raised their three boys as Catholics. But Janet never joined the church. That is until now.
Early in 2011, the Burnhams were praying at Eucharistic adoration. Father John Walsh, the pastor, called her outside to speak to her.
“We talked about me joining the Catholic Church. I’m doing it and loving it. It’s just been awesome,” said the 75-year-old Janet.
“I’ve never been able to receive Communion. I made a big decision because I felt empty,” she said.
Part of what held her back was a misunderstanding that she’d be taking classes with youngsters.
John said he never brought up his wife becoming Catholic through the years. He knew she held onto her Protestant faith out of a loving respect for her father, a man he, too, held in high regard.
John said he only asked her one thing in regard to his faith: having their marriage celebrated in a Catholic church. The rest was left to her, he said.
“I think it’s an absolute miracle. I never asked her,” he said.
Through the years, the family passed on the Catholic faith to their children, even as Janet would not receive Communion. Now the two attend classes together.
“It is something. You find out as an adult you really need to learn about the church,” he said.
Rochelle Miller is joining the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, where 43 catechumens and 115 candidates are studying the faith.
“I really feel at home here at St. Lawrence. They welcomed me and assured me I am God’s work in progress and he is not done with me yet,” she wrote in an email.
Raised in a tumultuous family situation, Miller found comfort at her grandmother’s home. It was her grandmother who introduced her to the Catholic Church, where she learned the Our Father. It was as an adult, with her own three children, that Miller met a friend who was preparing to join the church.
They attended Mass together.
“When I went up to get a blessing during the Eucharist, I shook and trembled with the blessing that was placed on my head by the priest. I was trembling all the way back to my seat, and I knew I had to learn more,” she said.
Miller said the classes are teaching her about the church and showing her how to see God’s actions in her life.
“I learned God was always with me, even when I cried out. He heard me and carried me when I did not see. Now it is my job to show him my thanks and appreciation for making me a strong woman and strong in the Catholic faith,” she said.
‘An Inspirational Experience’
Doug Stanley is 51 and owns his own construction and remodeling company. Come Easter, he’ll be joining his four daughters and wife as a member of the Catholic Church also through the RCIA program at St. Lawrence.
“I would describe my faith journey as an inspirational experience. I have learned so much about the Catholic Church through the RCIA program at St. Lawrence. Diane Maguire (religious education director) and Rita Schieber (leader of the initiation program) are both wonderful teachers as well as mentors. I am eager to learn more as my journey continues and look forward to the Easter vigil when I can join my family as a member of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Stanley said his wife introduced him to the church. The couple were married at Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta and then moved to Gwinnett County to raise their family. He enjoys spending time watching his daughters play basketball and out on the softball field.
“As Lent begins and Easter approaches, I will look deep within to improve my Christian character and joyfully await the renewal of baptism,” he said.
Raised in Georgia in a Christian home, Stanley said he “always had a desire to join the Catholic Church in order to share the Catholic faith with my family.”
Now, his family is on the faith journey with him.
“They are all very excited for me and have been very supportive throughout my journey,” he said.
At the Rite of Election, the RCIA directors from each parish read the names of their catechumens from the Book of the Elect to the assembly, as the catechumens stood with their parents or godparents in response. The Book of the Elect from each parish was presented to the archbishop.
“I now declare you to be members of the elect, to be initiated into the sacred mysteries at the next Easter vigil,” the archbishop said to the catechumens after they pledged themselves.
The candidates stood as a group when their parish name was announced.
Upon affirmation by their sponsors, the assembly and the elect, Archbishop Gregory recognized the candidates’ intent and welcomed them to join in the celebration of Lent in preparation for their upcoming sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.
“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,” the archbishop said. “Join us this Lent in a spirit of repentance. Hear the Lord’s call to conversion and be faithful to your baptismal covenant.”
The catechumens and candidates were welcomed with a hearty round of applause as they publicly declared their intent to join the Church. In just a few short weeks, during Easter vigil Masses, they will fully realize that desire.
“The great flood brought devastation, but the water that we anticipate at the Easter Vigil will bring life,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“We celebrate this afternoon the spectacle of a double rainbow—the faith of those who already belong to the Lord as His chosen sons and daughters and the wonder of those who will soon join us around the altar of the Lord,” he said. “God indeed is faithful to His promise.”