By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 21, 2019 | En Español
ATLANTA—More than 1,800 people are expected to join the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta at the approaching Easter Vigil.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomed them on their journey of faith at the annual Rite of Election on Sunday, March 10, at the Georgia World Congress Center.
“Your presence brings more joy to us than I can adequately express,” he said in his remarks.
For Chip Riggs, the ceremony was extraordinary to witness. He attends Transfiguration Church, Marietta, where he is among 16 people studying at the parish to understand the faith before joining the church. Riggs was struck by the diversity of languages, cultures and races represented at the rite.
“We are one church, one world, one community,” he said.
For Holly Lewis, of St. Michael the Archangel, Woodstock, the afternoon service “exceeded my expectations.”
“Being grand and exciting, it was wonderful to see so many people from so many churches in our area all together,” she said.
The more than 100 parishes and missions in the archdiocese reported the number of catechumens and candidates for full communion in the church. Catechumens, people preparing to be baptized, receive first communion and confirmation, are about 650. There are some 1,181 candidates, who are baptized Christians entering into full communion with the church to receive the Eucharist and sacrament of confirmation.
The largest number of participants came from the Hispanic mission, Our Lady of the Americas, Lilburn, with nearly 130 catechumens and candidates.
At the Rite of Election, candidates and catechumens affirm their intentions to join the church. Their names are written in the Book of the Elect, which is presented to the archbishop. In response, the church with the archbishop makes its “election” of these women and men to receive the sacraments of baptism, Communion and confirmation. The catechumens are now called “the elect.”
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory told the crowd how unlike the cautious disciple Nicodemus, who searched for Jesus at night, these newcomers to the faith seek Jesus in the “bright light of day and with hearts that are open to the grace that Christ offers to all men and women.”
Joining the church in 2019 adds to its history stretching to the ancient time of the apostles, to a faith “misunderstood and even criticized because of our belief in the dignity of all human life,” and with customs counter to current views, the archbishop said. “If you wish to add your name to that list, then you bring us greater hope today than that for which we can ever offer thanks.”
The new members enrich the faith community by reminding Catholics to live a life worthy of being a follower of Jesus, he said. “We thank and bless you for wanting to become one with us.”
The newcomers will receive the sacraments for the first time in the shadow of the crisis about the handling of clergy sex abuse. About one in three Catholics told Gallup in a recent poll that the crisis of abuse of young people by priests has them questioning whether to remain in the church, a 15 percent increase since the crisis first erupted in 2002.
And as Catholics wrestle with revelations of sexual abuse, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged the problem.
“To become a Catholic today is to be identified with people who are often sinful and whose pastors have too frequently made some awful mistakes and who themselves are much in need of mercy and forgiveness,” he said.
For these future Catholics, they see the fallout from the crisis, but desire to join the church. Some feel the crisis is one created by human flaws and that the abuse doesn’t weaken the heart of the Catholic faith. Others said the problems mirror what is found in many institutions where people make bad decisions. Riggs said, “It’s crucial that the church consider victims first.”
He grew up in the part of Louisiana where Catholics were few. His family attended the Baptist Church, as did he until his 40s. Now, the 45-year-old approaches Easter to be received into full communion in the church.
Riggs said his first thought of the church came in 2005 seeing the rituals surrounding the death of St. John Paul II. The selection of a new pope fascinated him. There was a sense of shared experience as a community of one billion people watched at the same time, he said.
Riggs and his wife, Emily, have been married for more than 20 years. They have three children. He works for the federal government. They help in downtown Atlanta with a food pantry and with St. Vincent de Paul. One of their children acts as a Spanish translator for the parish’s English classes.
Riggs and his wife, who grew up a Catholic and left as a young adult, walked through the doors of the Marietta parish in early 2018. It took less than a month for him to realize he was ready to put down roots. Everything since has reinforced that initial decision, Riggs said.
“This is where I want to be,” he said.
Holly Lewis, 48, was baptized as a youngster in Massachusetts in the Primitive Methodist Church tradition, but had no faith upbringing. Lewis, a mother of two and a homemaker, said she has felt drawn to Scripture, but was unsure where to start. During Lent last year, her husband, Brian, began to reconnect with his faith and she joined him.
“When the inquiry classes were announced in the bulletin one week, it was an opportunity for me to sign up and see what might come next. As a shy person, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I felt drawn,” said Lewis.
The months of studying leading to this point have been amazing, she said. From the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the devotion of the pastor to the parish to the celebration of the Mass and the call to serve others, Lewis said she’s learned much, but knows the richness of the faith means she has more to understand.
“One thing I really appreciate about the faith is how we are called treat others. Having the opportunity to help our church distribute Thanksgiving baskets to families in our area and to help out at St. Francis table was very meaningful to me, and in doing that act of mercy I felt truly close to God,” she said.