By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 5, 2015
ATLANTA—Nearly 2,000 men, women and teens at the annual Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion took a step closer in their faith journey to the Catholic Church, which they will enter later this spring during the church’s holiest days.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, wearing purple vestments and holding a shepherd’s staff, in a darkened, crowded ballroom at the Cobb Galleria Centre welcomed the multilingual and multiethnic crowd.
“Your presence brings more joy to us than I can adequately express,” he told the crowd.
The local ceremony mirrored church events worldwide at the beginning of Lent. Through them, each diocese formally accepted the women and men desiring to become Catholic.
Paloma del Rivero works in the marketing industry. She grew up in the church, attended Mass off and on during college, and never considered herself anything but Catholic. But for reasons that remain a mystery to her, she never was confirmed.
With a fall wedding planned, Steven Jimenez, 29, and del Rivero, 28, take their faith seriously. They wanted to complete the sacraments of their youth before their marriage. Both will receive confirmation on Holy Saturday at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
The two are among 55 people participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the Alpharetta parish.
The couple decided they would be married in the church and raise any future children in the faith. Initially, she said, the goal for undergoing the months of instruction in the faith was to get it done. But del Rivero said the weekly classes and small group discussions grew in importance.
“It really is important for us, not just checking the box. It has been surprising,” she said. “I really enjoy it. I like being more connected to my faith.”
Diverse peoples and languages along faith journey
Leaders from the nearly 100 parishes and missions in the 69 counties of the Atlanta Archdiocese held up their Books of the Elect as they entered the exhibition hall turned religious chapel. Later in the rite, it would take the leaders nearly 30 minutes to read the 726 names of the unbaptized people on this faith journey to become Catholic. The RCIA directors each presented their parish book to Archbishop Gregory, who received it with a kiss.
During the ceremony, the 1,230 baptized Christians desiring to join the church stood together as they affirmed their intentions.
Reflecting the diversity of the crowd, Scripture was read in Vietnamese, Spanish and English in addition to other prayers.
These individuals now return to their parishes to continue in study, prayer and service leading to Easter. On Holy Saturday, the non-Christians will be baptized and receive First Eucharist and confirmation. Christians from other traditions will be received into the church and also receive the rites of initiation, except baptism.
Nearly 60 adults traveled from Athens’ St. Joseph Church to be at the rite.
“It was huge and overwhelming to them,” said Tonia Landt James, who with her husband, James, leads the English-speaking RCIA program.
Their students saw the diversity of people in native dress and heard prayers in different languages, she said.
It revealed how they are joining a worldwide faith, not a small number of believers in Athens, she said.
About half of those joining in her class are involved because they are engaged or married to a Catholic. The rest are joining the church because of “honest research,” said Landt James, a teacher at the parish school.
Among them is Joel Dean, who started attending the Athens church two years ago. Raised in the Presbyterian tradition, he said the “logic of the faith” has been eye-opening.
Initially, RCIA was a chance for him to ask questions, but the instruction showed him the “reasoning and train of thought behind a lot of practices.”
The 24-year-old sells financial services. He grew up in Marietta. He moved to Athens after college. His family plans to show their support by sitting in the pews of the church at the Easter Vigil.
The Rite of Election was the “largest religious gathering I had been part of,” he said.
At St. Brendan the Navigator, Cumming, Todd Mahaffey is one of 20 joining the church. He has been married for 24 years.
His family would rotate holidays between his Presbyterian church and his wife’s parish.
“At the end of the day, there are differences, but not that huge,” said Mahaffey, who joked he could now join his “big extended Catholic family” at Mass.
There are an estimated 1 million Catholics in the archdiocese, with about half Hispanic. Paloma del Rivero is native born, but many in her family are not. It was touching, she said, to hear Archbishop Gregory weave stories about the immigrant experience in this country, with the many new believers joining the church.
Joining an “ancient family of believers”
As the United States is strengthened by the influx of immigrants from a “rich expanse of humanity,” so are the newcomers strengthening to the church, Archbishop Gregory said. He called the church “an ancient family of believers.”
As people embrace the heritage of this country knowing its “flaws and shortcomings,” so too the church, he said.
“To become a Catholic today is to be identified with people who are often sinful and frequently in need of mercy and forgiveness,” he said.
It also means accepting whatever criticism is aimed at the Catholic Church.
Members of the church “are often misunderstood and even harshly criticized because of our belief in the dignity of all human life at each and every stage of its development, in justice and compassion for the poor, the imprisoned and the undocumented immigrant, in the pursuit of diplomacy and dialogue before the assignment of weapons,” he said.
The next few weeks will be a time of intense prayer and service to the community, he said. “You enrich us simply by reminding us of the splendor of the name that we bear through God’s grace. Welcome to each and every one of you from the hearts of those of us who are renewed by your presence and your hope.”