Against the background of a still, dark night in early April, candlelight spread throughout the parishes in the Diocese for the Easter Vigil. One of the most beautiful liturgies of the year, this candle light of the Easter Vigil represents the Risen Lord, who paid the price for our sins on Good Friday, but defeated death and rose triumphant that Easter morning, giving us all new life.
During the Vigil, the Diocese was blessed to welcome well over 100 people into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Each person who joined the Church during the Vigil has a unique conversion story, including Jeff Smith, a new Catholic from St. Joseph Parish, Mechanicsburg. Smith, 63, has been connected to the Catholic Church for more than 20 years through his wife, a lifelong Catholic. However, it was only recently that Smith made the decision to officially join the Church.
“As a child, I had exposure to the Methodist and Pentecostal churches,” said Smith. When he met his wife, even before they were married, Smith would attend Mass with her, saying these years of attending Mass have given him a positive impression of the Church.
“I like the Catholic Church and felt more comfortable there (than other churches). I felt it suited me and I got more out of it,” he said.
Smith said becoming Catholic was something he thought about doing, but just not yet. That was until a few years ago.
“I wasn’t feeling well and went to the doctor, and I was then diagnosed with a serious, terminal disease,” he said. “That really sharpened my perspective.”
Smith recounted that even with the grim diagnosis, he had a sense of peace and acceptance, and a grateful heart for the life God had given him.
“I didn’t fear death and I was grateful to God,” he said.
Roughly a month before Smith started getting sick, he and his wife had a deep conversation about the Blessed Mother and why she was the only one who could be the mother of Jesus.
“When I got sick, my wife’s sister gave us an image of Mary and I placed it under my pillow,” Smith said.
Two months after his diagnosis and right before Smith was scheduled for surgery, he received a call from one of his doctors.
“He said he had some good news. They took a tissue sample and said there was no sign of cancer. He thought I had a rare immune disorder and recommended a different treatment,” said Smith.
Three months after starting this treatment, Smith said he felt like Lazarus who had been raised from the dead.
“I really had to face my mortality for those two months,” he added.
Even with this emotional, difficult time in his life, Smith didn’t fully commit to becoming Catholic until this past summer.
“My very best friend passed away suddenly. I think it just clarified life. Like Lazarus, I got a reprieve, but death eventually comes to us all and we need to focus on what comes next. What comes after is the vast majority of life,” said Smith. “I knew it was time to focus on what comes after.”
Smith joined the RCIA program at St. Joseph’s and, this Easter, he received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion.
“To be in full communion, I’m really looking froward to it,” he said. “Life is full of watersheds. This is a spiritual watershed for me. I wish I’d done it earlier, but I’m really looking forward to what comes after.”
Tyler Jastromb, another new Catholic who also joined with Smith, added that his conversation was a slow burn, which started back in college.
“My family didn’t belong to any church, so I had no experience (with faith) from childhood,” said Jastromb. “While at Penn State, I joined a gospel choir, which I think brought some initial walls down.”
Jastromb met his wife while in college and they married in 2020. He said that throughout Pre-Cana classes, he was advised by his wife’s priest to attend Mass with her, even if he didn’t understand what was happening, and to be open minded.
“Once we were married, the Holy Spirit started working on me,” said Jastromb. “I would attend Mass and after attending St. Joe’s for two years, I came to think that the next step was to learn more. I connected with RCIA and at the Vigil I joined the Church.”
Jastromb added that during the Vigil, he found receiving Confirmation to be a moving experience.
“Before the Mass, we heard the choir warming up with Veni Sancte Spiritus. I didn’t know what those words meant, but then I was told they mean ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ When that part of the Mass took place, it just clicked that this was a monumental moment in my life,” he said. “This is a very joyful moment and not a completion of the journey, but definitely an important chapter. I feel like it opened a door to even more possibilities to continue to grow in my faith. And to see so many other members alongside me, it was very impactful.”
The Witness also attended the Vigil Masses at St. Theresa Parish in New Cumberland, and St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick Cathedral, both in Harrisburg. At St. Theresa’s, seven new Catholics were welcomed into the Church. Tonya Brown and her children, Drew and Taylor Bretz, all joined the church together. Brown said after the Mass that, “it was great to be welcomed into the Church with my son and daughter. It’s been an amazing journey and it feels so wonderful to enter the Church.”
Going to Galilee
During the Easter Vigil at St. Patrick Cathedral, Bishop Ronald Gainer told those gathered that the Vigil begins with a somber, reflective time of waiting, in darkness, but that darkness ends with a blazing fire. That darkness from Good Friday is vanquished through the Resurrection, which is filled with Divine love.
“Our expanded Liturgy of the Word reminds us how God acted powerfully and decisively in history and in the lives of real people. Our prayer between the Readings gave voice to our conviction that the Light of the New Testament unlocks the deeper meaning of the wonders God worked in the former testament. A simple rhyme tells us in the Old Testament that the new is concealed and in the New Testament the old is revealed. This is simply to say that the truth of the scriptures of the first covenant are brought to their fullness in the covenant established in Jesus Christ,” said the bishop. “To be Christian means to believe in the Risen Lord. To be Christian means to be baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.”
Bishop Gainer added that in all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, we hear that Mary Magdalene is the first to the tomb. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene and another Mary found the stone rolled back. They were then instructed twice to go to Galilee.
“I think we should understand Galilee as more than just a region in the Holy Land, more than just a location on the map. It is to be understood I think, as a place of the heart. Not somewhere over there, but a place within each of us,” said Bishop Gainer.
The Galilee in our hearts is where the Risen Lord wants to encounter us, and where trust, hope, joy and faith come alive, said the bishop.
“When life hands us uncertainty, when life hands us bad news, challenges to our health, threats to our wellbeing, the loss of loved ones, financial crises, marital setbacks, any form of the cross that we are asked to carry, we need to go to Galilee. We are not running from the darkness or trying to deny it; it’s all too real to do that. But we need to hear the victorious Lord say to us in that inner place, ‘Do not be afraid. Here, you will see Me.’ Here, in our Galilee, we know; we are assured; we encounter the mystery; we are encouraged by the life-changing, by the life-giving truth that Jesus Christ is risen. Indeed, He is risen.”’
(St. Joseph photos by Rachel Bryson; St. Theresa photos by Jen Reed; St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick photos by Chris Heisey.)
By Rachel Bryson, The Catholic Witness