By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 20, 2014
ATLANTA—Zachary Michuki and Robert Ballentine are two of the 1,913 people across the Archdiocese of Atlanta looking forward to becoming Catholics this Easter.
On March 9, the first Sunday of Lent, those set to enter the Catholic Church gathered for the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama welcomed the candidates and catechumens, their family members and the directors of the parish Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults.
The RCIA directors processed into the crowded center to the joyful hymn, “Church of God, Elect and Glorious.” The coordinators each carried their parish’s Book of the Elect, which contains the names of catechumens to be baptized.
Audience members held up their glowing smartphones in hopes of capturing images of the procession as regal brass music filled the auditorium.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory talked about life’s journey, being lost and asking for directions.
“We men are laughably ridiculed for not being willing or perhaps even capable of asking for directions when we are lost,” said the archbishop. He added that everyone needs help to find his or her way from time to time, and it can be daunting when you don’t know where to go.
“Welcome to all of you. I’m glad no one got lost,” Archbishop Gregory told the attendees.
The archbishop said that while those entering the church are coming from different places, all are in the final steps “leading them to Christ in the Church.”
Some have spent several years contemplating Catholicism, said the archbishop. Other are becoming Catholic due to the faith examples of loved ones, including spouses, and some are those who were once disconnected from the church.
“Today, they are reestablishing those bonds,” said Archbishop Gregory.
It is with delight and confidence, that we approach Jesus together, said the archbishop.
“When people know where they are going, they begin to enjoy the scenery,” he said. “Today, the entire church in north and central Georgia knows where it’s going.’
Zachary Michuki will celebrate his 14th birthday on April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday.
A native of Kenya, Zachary recently reunited with his mother, Catherine. She had been living in the United States for 10 years and trying all that time to bring her son here.
Now, Zachary will also be reunited with the church.
“I was baptized a Catholic. Mom used to take me to Catholic Church,” explained Zachary.
A seventh-grade student, Zachary attended a Protestant church with his aunt in Kenya because it was the nearest church.
He has been in Georgia for almost a year now, and said “so far… so good.”
Zachary has been receiving faith instruction at St. Andrew Church in Roswell. Deacon Tom Gotschall is the RCIA program director, and the young man’s sponsor.
Zachary is coming into the church because of the Mass, the Eucharist, the people of the parish, and to be with his mother. “It’s all of those,” he said.
“For me, I just feel blessed that he’s embracing Christianity and his Catholic faith,” said Catherine Michuki.
She said Zachary is always dressed and ready for both RCIA and Mass. “He’s the one with the drive to go. He’s been reading the Bible.”
Zachary enjoys playing soccer, riding his bike, and drawing. Since arriving, he has visited Georgia’s Cloudland Canyon. “I went camping. It was the best,” he said.
“You see the happiness,” said Deacon Gotschall. The deacon said that Zachary is the “sweetest boy,” has been an inspiration to the other RCIA students and always has something compelling to add.
Catherine said she first lived in Denver and continued to draw strength from her faith while apart from Zachary.
“All that time I just went to church. It gave me hope,” she said tearfully, while grasping her son’s hand. “All in God’s timing.”
Deacon Gotschall is pleased to be the young man’s sponsor. “No way I could turn that down,” he said.
As mother and son turned to go into the auditorium, they joined hands again.
This is also an exciting time for Robert Ballentine, a candidate with the RCIA program at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell.
Raised in the Methodist Church, Ballentine stopped attending church at age 11. He started exploring the Catholic Church because he was invited.
Ballentine said last year was a very difficult year for him, including the death of a sibling, loss of work, his home and custody of his children. “Loss of just about everything … especially hope,” he said.
Friends who knew Ballentine’s circumstances were providing meals, a place to stay or even hot showers when he couldn’t get those things.
“The people that did this for me did not know each other, but the thing they all had in common is that they are Roman Catholic,” said Ballentine.
On Christmas night, Ballentine said he was alone listening to music by the group Anonymous 4 and it suddenly occurred to him that everyone actively showing love to him was Catholic, and he decided to attend Mass the following Sunday.
An usher at St. Peter Chanel Church introduced Ballentine to Deacon Dave Thomasberger who then guided him to Margaret O’Grady, the RCIA coordinator.
Ballentine said that he’s grateful for Deacon Joe Crowley, leader Joe Paul and sponsor Danny Navarro for taking an active interest in his spiritual growth.
“The RCIA program has prepared me by explaining what the Church really believes and how and why the traditions the Church holds exist,” said Ballentine. He has just participated in his first Stations of the Cross and loves adoration.
“My circumstance has not changed that much over the past few months, but I’ve changed,” said Ballentine. “I know this change is from my encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ and his church.”
During the Rite of Election, the catechumens are presented. Catechumens, numbering more than 685 this year, are those who will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist.
A representative of each parish came forward to read the names of catechumens and then presented the Book of the Elect to Archbishop Gregory. As their name was called, each catechumen stood with their sponsor or godparents.
Upon affirmation by the godparents and the assembly, Archbishop Gregory then declared the catechumens to be “members of the elect, to be initiated into the sacred mysteries at the next Easter vigil.”
Candidates are those who have already been baptized in a Christian denomination and will receive the additional sacraments of confirmation and the Eucharist.
During the Call to Continuing Conversion, each parish name was called and the candidates from the respective parish stood and were recognized.
“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 to the candidates. “Join with us this Lent in a spirit of repentance. Hear the Lord’s call to conversion and be faithful to your baptismal covenant.”
The intercessions for the elect and the candidates were read in the various languages spoken in the archdiocese including Portuguese, French, Korean, Chinese and Kiswahili.
The recessional hymn “Lift High the Cross” reaffirmed the call to continuing conversion.
Ballentine said the rite was beautiful and that it was nice to see all of those coming into the church.
“I love the fact that the church is growing,” he said.