By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 9, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—The Georgia World Congress Center was the scene of great celebration March 5 as 1,886 people declared their intent to join the Catholic Church this Easter.
The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, held on the first Sunday of Lent, welcomed candidates and catechumens, joined by their sponsors and supporters, from parishes across the archdiocese.
To the hymn, “Church of God, Elect and Glorious,” the parish directors of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults processed into the ballroom, each carrying the parish Book of the Elect listing the names of those to be baptized.
This Easter, parishes and missions in the archdiocese plan to baptize 719 catechumens, who have never been initiated into a Christian community. Along with 1,167 candidates, who were already baptized in the Christian faith, the catechumens will also receive the sacrament of confirmation and the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Following Scripture readings in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomed all during his homily. His message focused on laughter and joy.
Recently a friend sent the archbishop a link to a YouTube video “Happiness Starts With a Smile,” a marketing tool created in Belgium for the Coca-Cola Co. The clip shows a man watching his iPad on a metro. He begins to laugh heartily. His persistent laughing causes fellow passengers to join in, simply because they enjoy hearing him laugh.
“The brief film proves once again that human laughter really is contagious and that we are all quite susceptible to another person’s laugh as soon as it begins,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Laughter is a human blessing that lifts the soul. The church throughout the world is laughing today, as we all should be doing here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The Rite of Election is a source of joy that ought to fill the heart of the entire church with mirth and happiness.”
The reason for joy is the witness of the catechumens and candidates who reveal the attractiveness of the faith and the allure of Christ, he noted.
“Our celebration today brings hope to the heart of the church because of these fine men and women who affirm the truth of our faith and its appeal to contemporary people,” said Archbishop Gregory.
He also emphasized the rite is a moment to praise God for friends, family and clergy who influenced the decision of those entering the church.
“Even as we begin the season of Lent with its increased prayer, self-denial and works of charity, we smile at a very happy occurrence for this local church and for the church throughout the world,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Fraternity brother sponsors candidate
Among those at the Rite of Election were young adults from the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech. The campus RCIA program is preparing 22 candidates and catechumens who will become Catholic this Easter.
Third-year mechanical engineering student Zach Matthews of Cumming found Jesus in an unexpected place, his Kappa Sigma fraternity.
Matthews grew up in the Episcopal Church but had not been attending consistently.
“I had some things happen in my life,” said Matthews.
His fraternity brother, Jonathan Edwards, saw Matthews struggling and asked if his friend was in a good place with Christ.
“I came to the conclusion I really wasn’t,” said Matthews.
Edwards, a Norcross native who grew up attending Mary Our Queen Church, is an active member of the Tech Catholic Center.
Matthews began attending Mass and entered the RCIA program there. He said two major reasons led to his decision to become a Catholic.
“The biggest one is that it’s the original Church of Christ,” he said. “And the other thing is the Eucharist.”
Matthews had never read the “Bread of Life discourse” in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John and couldn’t forget it once he did.
Edwards is serving as a sponsor for the second time. He feels his fraternity is a place where he can encourage others and meet people in the world.
“People want what’s true,” said Edwards. “They don’t usually find it in college.”
Christopher Walker, a master’s degree student in global hospitality management at Georgia State University, is a catechumen. His girlfriend invited him to Mass at Georgia Tech, and after “a lot of soul searching,” he decided to become a Catholic.
Walker’s family never talked about faith much, and he discovered along the way that his mother was a Catholic. He is still researching confirmation saints, but has a front-runner.
“I just had to teach a class about St. Augustine,” he shared.
Walker said he has kept his emotions in check but anticipates a lot of joy at Easter.
“I know inside I’ll be screaming,” he said.
Student falls in love with the Gospels
Srishti Gupta, a native of India, was able to be a sponsor for the first time this year. Gupta’s own conversion is fresh, having joined the church two years ago through the Tech Catholic Center. Raised a Hindu, Gupta became a non-believer.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “It was too inconsistent for me. I saw religious people being horrible.”
Gupta didn’t feel like God existed. She would try to win people over to not believing in God.
“I was what they called a militant atheist,” said Gupta.
The turning point came during her difficult first semester at Georgia Tech. Gupta had family and academic struggles.
“I was at the lowest point,” she said.
An acquaintance told Gupta she would pray for her. She had never really encountered a Christian or the idea of a powerful God who also loved, and began to explore the idea.
“For some reason, God surrounded me with strong Christians,” she recalled.
Someone suggested she read the Bible, starting with the Gospels.
“I fell in love with the Gospels,” said Gupta.
She began church hopping and eventually attended Mass at the Catholic Center with a friend. Father Josh Allen was the homilist.
“His homily was about turning over your life because God loves you,” she said.
At the consecration of the Eucharist, Gupta was overcome with emotion.
“I started bawling. I felt home,” she said.
Gupta began attending RCIA, not realizing it was a program of conversion until the second class. The class had just three people.
“I asked all the questions,” she said. “Our program is so brilliant.”
The Eucharist began to make sense to her.
“If you asked me in 12th grade what I’d be doing, I wouldn’t have mentioned God at all,” she said. “I absolutely love it when people come into the church. There’s this joy.”
During the Rite of Election, each parish representative read aloud the names of catechumens from that church community. Each Book of the Elect was given to Archbishop Gregory, who kissed the book. Catechumens stood with sponsors when their names were called and affirmed their desire to enter the church. Candidates were invited to stand later as their respective parishes were named.
Downtown Atlanta was abuzz with activity the day of the rite as neighboring venues hosted the Atlanta Hawks and Monster Truck Jam fans.
Parish groups came from throughout the archdiocese by car, bus and MARTA to the World Congress Center.
Faith stories from Toccoa, Jefferson
Father Vincent Sullivan, pastor of St. Mary Church in Toccoa and St. Catherine Labouré Church in Jefferson, accompanied a group from the rural northeast Georgia parishes. St. Mary has one catechumen and four candidates, and St. Catherine Labouré has two candidates.
Ashley Wood of St. Catherine Labouré and Derrick Li of St. Mary Church attended the rite and shared their conversion stories through email.
Wood, a mother of four sons, found her way to the church after a near-death experience. She felt a divine presence when suffering a cerebrospinal leak and also a feeling that her time on earth was not done. Attending Mass and asking questions helped her understand the revelation she experienced.
“My conversion has been a metamorphosis. I always knew I was a Christian. I never had any doubt about that, but now I understand what it means to be a Christian,” wrote Wood.
She now understands Jesus’ teachings better, and the fullness of faith.
“The sacraments and traditions of the church have helped me and my family to reflect on our faith daily,” said Wood. “Jesus is not an afterthought, he is the first thought.”
Li is a native of Hong Kong. English is his second language. He has attended St. Mary for 12 years with his wife, a Catholic. Father Sullivan has been instructing Li due to language difficulties.
“He is a patient, warm and sensitive priest,” wrote Li. “I would like to thank God, Father Sullivan, my wife and my family” for encouragement and prayer, he added.
Li chose St. Apollo the Abbot to be his saint, a fourth-century hermit who spent 40 years in the desert of Egypt and later established a monastery.
“He lived humility, righteousness and obedience to the Lord. His character was joyful and loving,” said Li. “I know he can guide me to have spiritual joy and cheerfulness of heart to find God’s word and love.”