The 40 days of Lent are a time of prayer and penance to renew ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s triumph over death at Easter. For those who will join the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, it is also a period of intense preparation to receive the Sacraments of Initiation for the first time.
On the first Sunday of Lent, 104 men and women – known as catechumens – who will enter into the full Communion of the Catholic Church this Easter celebrated the Rite of Election at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg. During the Rite of Election, the names of those who will enter the Church – known as the “elect” – are presented aloud to the bishop by the coordinator of adult education from each parish, and written in the Book of the Elect. The elect rise and stand with their godparents, who attest to their preparedness to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, and they are entrusted to their spiritual care of their godparents.
During the rite, the bishop formally declares the catechumens as members of the elect to be initiated into the Church at the Easter Vigil, when they will receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.
Among the more than 100 men and women welcomed as the Elect on March 6 was Christopher Gerke of St. Columba Parish in Bloomsburg.
“I feel very happy, very peaceful,” he said preparing to join the Church. “I feel like I’m finally doing something I was always supposed to have done. I wish I had done it sooner, but I also realize that things take place in God’s time, and this is when he wanted me to do it.”
Gerke grew up on Long Island, and went to Catholic Church from time to time with his step-dad who raised him, but he didn’t receive the sacraments.
Still, he often attended Mass, and was bolstered by the Catholic faith of his grandparents, who instilled in him the value of prayer.
“As I grew up, no matter where I was living, I would go to church, and would always make it a point to go to a Catholic Church for Mass,” Gerke told The Catholic Witness. “For me, there was always something about the beauty of Catholic churches, the statues and imagery, the Rosary, Communion. Whenever I went to one for Mass, no matter if the church was big or small, I always felt like it was where I was meant to be; like I was home.”
He eventually moved to the Bloomsburg area, and was invited by his employer to go to Mass at St. Columba Church during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When he invited me to go to church with him, it was a great feeling. I felt welcomed there, because it felt like home,” Gerke said.
He met Father Richard Mowery, the pastor, and Joe Mullen, the coordinator of adult education. Before long, Gerke was invited to consider joining the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) process to become a Catholic.
The RCIA classes, he said, were an informative and enlightening explanation of the faith, and in certain aspects helped him put together some pieces about the liturgy or Church teaching that he hadn’t fully known.
“The Trinity, for example. It was something I was aware of from attending Mass, but then I came to the bigger understanding of the Father, Son and Spirit being three in One,” he said.
“There are certain things that, when you’re a kid, you trust what you’re learning because adults are telling you and they care about you. But when you grow older and have life experiences, you have a better understanding and a better grasp, because you know more about love and holiness and faith. For those reasons, things make sense and I have a better appreciation for the Church and what it teaches,” he said.
“I felt like God put it before me on the easiest possible path. It was very apparent to me that the time was right,” Gerke said of his journey to enter the Catholic Church, and the people he met along the way. “There have been coincidences in my life that I think God was telling me, ‘I’m going to make this way too obvious for you now, that it’s time to join the Church.’”
Christina Faust is another catechumen who will be joining the Church as she receives the sacraments this Easter.
Growing up, she didn’t attend any church services on a regular basis, but said “Both of my parents instilled in me a good Christian foundation and I learned a lot about Catholicism from my father, who was Catholic.”
Faust, from Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish in Ephrata, told The Witness she attended weddings, baptisms and funerals of her extended family, who is Catholic, and has a vivid memory of being at her cousin’s baptism when she was three years old.
Being in a Catholic church, she said, always gave her a sense of calm and warmth.
“When I was in college, I was a part of a touring choir that travelled around the United States and internationally. Our performances were almost always in a Protestant church, whether it was during a Sunday service, Vespers, or Saturday evening concert. I was able to experience many different denominations during that time, and although I enjoyed the services and meeting each congregation, I truly only felt ‘at home’ during Mass,” Faust expressed. “Having had the opportunity to witness other denominations worship and hear what their beliefs are, it helped me realize that the Catholic Church is the right place for me.”
A few years ago, she began to attend Mass on a regular basis. Her first Sunday at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church, Father Jim Szobonya, associate pastor, shared his own story about joining the Church.
“It really struck me,” Faust said. “I left Mass feeling like it was some sort of sign that I needed to consider RCIA more seriously.”
She had been reading books and blogs about the RCIA process and what catechumens could expect about the classes and the potential of joining the Church.
“I had known for a long time that this is what I wanted, but not having attended church regularly as a child, I felt that I needed to take time to learn some of the basics on my own. It helped me to feel really prepared for my first RCIA class,” Faust said.
The RCIA process has been an enjoyable one for Faust: meaningful discussions, the presentation of materials in an easy-to-understand format, and a leadership team of cradle Catholics and converts have helped her develop a strong prayer life and to know she is making the right decision.
“I am most looking forward to finally being able to receive all of the sacraments and being in full communion with the Church,” Faust said. “It has been a long journey to this point and I am looking forward to officially being Catholic and joining a wonderful, welcoming parish.”
In his homily during the Rite of Election, Bishop Ronald Gainer said the liturgical term “election” is not comparable to the personal decisions and choices we make. Rather, “The election we celebrate today is about God’s choice, God’s free and mysterious choice of you catechumens,” he said. “Today is about God’s power at work in you.”
“In the midst of this liturgical assembly, we give thanks to God for His power, His grace, His choice. God’s decision to send us a savior in His Son, Jesus Christ, is at the very heart of the Scriptures and at the core of our community of faith, which is the Church. This is the Divine Power that has touched us and is within us,” the bishop said.
“My friends who are preparing during this season of purification and enlightenment for the Easter sacraments, you have had the courage to go down into the depths of yourselves and there you have found God’s election, God calling you to the fullness of the sacramental life of grace with us in the Church,” Bishop Gainer addressed the catechumens. “Your sponsors, godparents and catechists speak on your behalf today, and give witness that you are sufficiently prepared to receive full sacramental Christian initiation at the next Easter Vigil. We rejoice in the enrollment of your names in the Book of the Elect. Through my voice, the Church will recognize God’s choice of you and name you the elect and point you to the Paschal Fire, the Word, the Water and the Eucharist of the Easter Vigil.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness