The joy and exuberance among the instructors and catechumens in the RCIA Class at St. Peter Parish in Elizabethtown is undeniably palpable – even though the group members are miles apart.
The caring community they’ve formed through prayer, reflection and study over Zoom, coupled with the anticipation of receiving the Sacraments next month, beams from their four-inch faces populating the “gallery view” of the online videoconference platform.
When Jessica Hiestand-Schwanger expressed her excitement during an interview about joining the Catholic Church, she summed up the group’s contagious spirit:
“I’m pumped!” she hollered, as the group talked about the date of Aug. 9, when the parish will welcome three new Catholics into the Church.
It’s undoubtedly been an abnormal RCIA year for catechists and participants alike. The pandemic halted in-person classes, closed churches for a time, and forced the cancellation of the annual Rite of Election – their official presentation to the bishop as catechumens – and the glorious Easter Vigil celebration.
Despite the challenges in finding ways to continue classes, and the disappointment in the cancellation of utterly significant liturgical celebrations along the catechumens’ journey into the Church, the RCIA community at St. Peter’s forged ahead.
The normal weekly sessions in the parish’s education center and chapel turned into weekly meetings over Zoom, with screen shares of PowerPoint presentations and videos. Instead of attending Mass as a small community, they connected virtually to watch the parish’s Masses online. And through it all, they prayed together.
“We tried to stay connected with text messages and e-mail as well, but there’s something different about seeing people’s faces and reading their facial expressions. To the best of our ability, we tried to stay connected to what was going on with everybody,” said Vicky Kern, RCIA coordinator.
“We’ve always tried to have two rails – there’s catechesis and there’s evangelization, where we come together in prayer to help everybody feel connected and lifted up,” she said.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the process through which adults become members of the Church. The process involves prayer, reflection and study of the faith. It also cultivates an individual’s practice of prayer, doing good works and being part of the life of the Church. To that end, the formation of relationships between catechists and catechumens is essential.
“It’s about faith and fellowship,” said assistant catechist Annette Zell. “We’re sharing so much and getting together weekly, and we’ve become a tight-knit group. We’re praying for each other and knowing what’s going on in each other’s lives. When suddenly we were all separated with things closing, there was worry about maintaining those connections.”
“We oftentimes see this when somebody is trying to come in to the Church – the dark forces at work try to interfere. We wondered how we could combat this as a small Church group and how we could stay connected,” she said.
Transitioning to virtual gatherings proved successful for maintaining those personal connections and continuing formation, said catechumens Liz Gober and Hiestand-Schwanger.
“I thought Zoom really helped us to stay connected and on curriculum course,” said Gober. “We had guest speakers who are members of the Church. Meeting those people and getting to know Father [Bernard Oniwe, OP, pastor], you feel more of a part of the entire Church. The parish also remembered us in prayer during Masses, and that really contributed to a sense of community.”
Hiestand-Schwanger, a lung-transplant patient, underscored the vital role of online sessions for someone considered high-risk.
“I am immunocompromised, so the coronavirus is a definite scare for me. Being at home and working from home, I can count on both hands how many times I’ve left the house in the last four months because I can’t take the risks,” she said.
“I would much rather be in the classroom with these ladies. I feel like we’ve become a close little group. But doing this remotely is better for my health,” she said.
Whether in-person or remote, the RCIA process has been an enjoyable one, both catechumens said. They both inquired about the process when the time felt right for them.
Gober has been attending Masses with her husband and children for 20 years.
“I had questions and I just kept putting them off and putting them off. I felt that this was the year that I had to learn more. Once I got into the RCIA program, I realized a lot of the objections I thought I had to the Catholic faith, I really didn’t have. It felt like a good fit, so I’m glad to finally have made the step,” she said.
“I thought the group was very open. You could ask questions. I came from a Protestant background so I was always trying to make the two mesh. There were checks along the way, so if you were not ready for the next step, there was no rush. I feel like you could just start exploring, even if you weren’t sure it was the right time,” she reflected.
Hiestand-Schwanger was raised in a family whose members are Mennonite and Catholic. Her inquiry about the Catholic Church began not long after her lung transplant five years ago, when she awoke from surgery to find that several family members had prayed for her at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Philadelphia, and her aunt and grandfather presented her with a Rosary from the Shrine of Padre Pio in Italy.
“I ended up going to Italy to say thanks to Pio, and then I went to Israel to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. After that trip, I didn’t feel the same. Mennonite didn’t fit me anymore,” she said. “I knew that the Catholic Church was where I needed to be. It feels like coming home.”
The RCIA process is a personal journey, and the catechists are guideposts, Kern said.
“We’re pointing the way, we’re trying to give experiences that people seem to need,” she said.
“We start with the basics – who is God, who is Jesus – but in the process we’re trying to make sure there is space for people to bring whatever they’re bringing,” she explained. “Nobody comes to this without a burden, and it could be anything. We try to make sure there is space for that to be supported. We do that in trying to make sure there is prayer, and time for contemplation in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”
“In my head, I have the program all set out, but it doesn’t ever really stay on track. Sometimes, the spirit is just moving me and Annette in a direction, because people need something explored in a little bit different way,” Kern said. “We both try to make room for Him to move us. Sometimes it might mean giving the floor to somebody else, sometimes it means somebody might make a statement or ask a question that takes you down another rabbit hole.”
“You have to be attuned to what everybody is bringing,” she stressed. “At the same time you’ve giving them the doctrinal teaching so that you’re always getting everybody on the same foundational rock. In my mind, many people’s objections fall away as you teach from the foundation. There’s not hypocrisy in the teaching; one thing builds on another in a way that makes complete sense.”
The catechumens said they are eager for their reception of the sacraments on Aug. 9, and to eventually fully return to church once restrictions ease.
“I think this time of limbo has been a little bit of a strain, so I’m ready to get back,” said Gober.
“It’s been so many months of studying and preparation, it’s like the culmination of what we’ve been working toward. I think it’s going to be pretty emotional,” she said of the Aug. 9 celebration.
Restrictions because of the pandemic “have left me yearning to be at Mass,” said Hiestand-Schwanger. “I have found myself watching the daily Masses. I would have never done daily Mass before, just because I’m so busy and it’s hard to get there. But with everything being online, it makes it much more accessible. But there is definitely something that almost feels like a calling. I feel like I’m being called to just come back.”
She will receive the sacraments on Aug. 9 at the church, and then return to daily and weekly Masses online.
“Our faith formation doesn’t end with the end of the program,” Hiestand-Schwanger said. “This is a process, a journey for years to come. It’s about learning the faith and how to grow and be a part of it. I’m looking forward to the things to come.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness