By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2016
ATLANTA—On the first Sunday of Lent, 2,044 women, men and teenagers declared their intention to join the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta at Easter, one of the largest groups the archdiocese has received.
The annual Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion welcomed the catechumens and candidates on their journey leading to the holiest days of the church year. Cars and busloads of people from across the 69-county archdiocese traveled on Sunday, Feb. 14, to the Cobb Galleria Centre. They showcased the universal faith, coming from many races and nations.
“All of these people are coming from different backgrounds with a different story, but they all have one thing in common, which is a yearning for God’s grace through the sacraments. That is pretty awesome,” said Alex Hanson, 25, one of the 20 people participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center, Atlanta.
“This has been something that I have been praying about and discerning earnestly for almost a year,” he wrote in an email.
A 2013 Georgia Tech graduate, he now works at The Home Depot headquarters. “There have certainly been many questions along the way, but I feel like I am following my heart to where God is leading it now,” he wrote.
The diversity of people at the event surprised Laura Winalski, 20, a leader at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center. “Everyone was really amazed. Even I wasn’t expecting there would be that many people.”
One woman gave Winalski, who is studying biochemistry, a “huge hug and said this is the coolest thing ever.”
“They were glad to have come. They would have to be there to believe it,” said Brenda Chee Wah, the RCIA coordinator at Christ Our Hope Church, Lithonia.
“This was like a welcome ceremony,” one member of the group told her.
Three people at Christ Our Hope will join the church. Experiencing the compassion of believers delivering meals for an ailing husband and seeing a lived faith knits them to the church, said the 57-year-old middle school teacher.
This Easter, archdiocesan parishes and missions anticipate baptizing 696 catechumens, those who have never been initiated into a Christian community before. Another 1,348 candidates, those baptized in the Christian faith, will receive the sacraments of first Eucharist and confirmation. Parish RCIA directors are still reporting the number of people preparing to join the church so the final number could change.
The number of new Catholics is near the historic high. In 2010, 2,062 newcomers joined the church.
“Gladly do we choose, elect and welcome you”
Doors opened at the convention center an hour before the 2 p.m. rite. Parish groups sat together, with organizers holding up large signs to direct the crowd toward familiar faces.
To start the ceremony, the directors of parish Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults marched in, each holding the Book of the Elect containing the names of those to be baptized.
After readings of Scripture in Vietnamese, Spanish and English, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, wearing purple vestments and holding a shepherd’s staff, welcomed them. In his homily, Archbishop Gregory said these future Catholics are not acting on a whim but responding to God’s call.
“The voice of the Father has whispered to their hearts,” he said.
“Our catechumens and candidates for full membership are gathered here in this venue to be elected. They are people who clearly do represent a promise—not merely a promise that they themselves make, but a promise that God has made to us all,” he said. “The church is a community that lives because of God’s promise.”
“Gladly do we choose, elect and welcome you, my dear friends, to join us in the family of faith. We recognize how fortunate we are to have you as the living signs of God’s fidelity to his church,” said the archbishop. “We all give thanks to God the Father through Christ because of his goodness made visible in each of you this day.”
The rite is important to the individuals making their declaration but to the Catholic faithful also, he said.
“They remind us that God’s fidelity and truth still guide the Church. They confirm the presence of God’s Spirit in the life of the Church. They enrich the very life of the Church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
During the Rite of Election, a parish representative read the names of the catechumens aloud from the Book of the Elect. The book was then given to Archbishop Gregory, who kissed each book. The catechumens stood with their godparents or sponsor when their names were called. The catechumens affirmed their desire to enter the church.
Candidates were invited to stand when their parish name was said aloud later.
The candidates and catechumens now enter the final weeks of preparation, as they approach what some consider one of the most important days of their lives.
“Sometimes on my college campus I feel like I am late to receiving confirmation,” said Taylor Spuhler, a freshman at Georgia Tech. “At the ceremony, it was a completely different story, with all walks of life holding themselves up passionately and assertively as they were called by name to enter the Catholic Church.”