Molly Garagnani is counting down the days until she can receive the Lord she adores.
“I can’t wait for the Easter Vigil!” she stated from a pew in the Cathedral of St. Joseph cry room.
That commodious corner was packed with members and aspiring members of St. Anthony parish in Camdenton, along with their families and spiritual companions, on a pilgrimage to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Mrs. Garagnani and 33 fellow future Camdenton parishioners — nine catechumens and 25 candidates — traveled to Jefferson City March 10 to take part in the diocese’s Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.
They were among nearly 300 people from 44 parishes who participated in the ceremony, with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight presiding, as part of their preparation for Easter sacraments of initiation.
At the Easter Vigil in their home parishes, the catechumens will be baptized, and they and the candidates will be confirmed and will receive their First Holy Communion.
“I’m just awe-inspired!” said Mrs. Garagnani, who has been attending Mass with her husband, Mike, for 22 years.
Their two sons, who are in high school, are also Catholic.
“They inspire me all the time with their faith,” she said.
She was raised in a solidly Christian household, committed to service and immersed in the stories of the Bible.
Her parents were supportive of her marrying a Catholic Christian and of the couple’s decision to raise their children in Holy Mother Church.
She could have become Catholic sooner, but her heart wasn’t in it yet.
A year and a half ago, she served as a chaperone for the St. Anthony parish youth group’s trip to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.
Since both of their sons were also attending, Pud Webb, the parish’s religious education director, invited Mrs. Garagnani to go along.
Already inspired by thousands of young Catholics and their chaperones on fire for the Lord, Mrs. Garagnani took part in a massive service organized by the national LifeTeen Catholic youth ministry, culminating with Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
In a moment of profound intimacy, Christ revealed His presence to her and called her to become Catholic.
She remembered the unconditional love her father had shown her throughout her growing-up, especially the joyful welcome he gave her whenever she returned from college or a trip.
“I had the vision of my father hugging me when I would come home,” she said. “And then I realized, God’s love is magnified so much more than that!”
“It was like I could feel God reaching out His arms and saying, ‘I’m welcoming you. Please join!’” she said.
What she now looks forward to the most is receiving Christ in the Eucharist.
“Whenever I hear the words, ‘O Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,’ I’m just filled with that yearning,” she said.
She believes her mother, who died seven years ago, is proud of her.
“I know my father is.”
Purification and enlightenment
Held in cathedrals throughout the world on the First Sunday of Lent, the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion is a significant milestone in the process of preparing to receive the Easter sacraments and become committed, active members of the Catholic Church.
The candidates and catechumens have been preparing for several months — some for even longer — through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
The RCIA is a restoration of the catechumenate, the communal process through which people were prepared to become Christian in the early Church.
At part of the ceremony in Jefferson City, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight exchanged a sign of peace with each of the catechumens and their godparents and the candidates and their sponsors.
He accepted the catechumens’ names into the Book of the Elect and urged the catechumens and candidates to spend the rest of Lent pursuing repentance and deeper conversion with the support of the Church.
He likened these final weeks of preparation to the 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert before embarking on His public ministry.
“This period of purification and enlightenment prepares your soul by clearing from it all the enticements and attachments to sin, so that you can open yourselves up completely to the will of God and the gift of His Holy Spirit,” said Bishop McKnight.
He acknowledged the abundance of evil in the world, numerous affronts to the dignity of human life, and temptations that come too easily and quickly.
“But God has not left us alone!” the bishop proclaimed. “He sent us His Son, Who by becoming one like us in all things but sin, gave His life to show us how to live again in communion with God and one another — by putting God and others first.
“Being centered on God, trusting in His goodness and providence, and enjoying the spiritual sentiments of gratitude that come with being His disciple — this is what salvation looks like,” he said.
He proposed that most people who want to become Catholic are drawn to the Church through their interactions with Catholics in their family, at work or in the community.
“We celebrate that you, too, will become another light of Christ in a world so desperately in need of Jesus’ love,” the bishop told the candidates and catechumens. “And we look forward to you experiencing the joy of receiving Holy Communion for the first time at this Easter Vigil.”
On the way home
Ms. Webb, religious education director for St. Anthony parish in Camdenton, believes the parish’s group of candidates and catechumens this year is an answer to fervent prayer.
She and other parishioners were disappointed in the size of St. Anthony’s RCIA community last year.
Ms. Webb said, “We really need to take this to God in prayer.”
“That’s what we did,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit moved, and they just kept coming this year!”
Among them was Jimmie Lee “Elizabeth” Farmer, 86, a musician and vocalist who used to sing opera in New York City and was a paid soloist for a Bronx synagogue.
For 12 years, she searched, attending services at many Christian congregations in and near Camdenton.
About a year and a half ago, she researched and gave a presentation on Blessed John Henry Newman, a 19th-century English theologian who converted to Catholic Christianity and eventually became a priest and bishop.
“They’re making him a saint now!” she noted. “As soon as I read about him, I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a move!’”
She told Father Daniel Lueckenotte, pastor of the Camdenton parish, that she couldn’t wait to be Catholic.
“I wanted the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist,” she said. “I wanted to be home.”
She entered the RCIA last fall.
Her demanding career precluded her from having a family of her own.
“But my family now is the Church!” she said.
With less than a month until Easter, she can taste the anticipation.
“Oh, it’s wonderful!” she said. “I’ve stood on stages and sung operas, and I’ve never had this kind of excitement.”
She requested prayers for all people to come to know and honor Christ — “real living Christ” — in the Eucharist, “and go there, knowing that He is there — not having evil thoughts in our head, not in need of going to confession, so we can present ourselves as pure in His presence.
“It’s the gift of a lifetime!” she said. “I know He’s alive. I know He’s here!”
Jazlynn Fry, 16, a student at Camdenton R-3 High School, was at the cathedral with her parents, Jenny and Greg Fry.
She was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd in the cathedral and the depth of all that had just taken place there.
“There’s just so much to it!” she said.
Raised in a Christ-centered family, she answered a friend’s invitation to attend a LifeTeen Mass and evening of fellowship at St. Anthony Church.
“The feeling I got from that never left me,” she said. “It made me crave Church. And I kept coming back.”
This past June, she began to wrestle with her desire to become Catholic.
“I went back and forth on it and I prayed a lot on it, and it just felt right at this time,” she said.
Savor the mystery
All Catholics are encouraged to hold these people up in prayer through these last, most intense weeks of preparation before they’re received into full communion with the Church at the Easter Vigil April 20.
The symbols of fire, light, water, oil, bread and wine will be highlighted in a Liturgy filled with some of the Church’s richest traditions and rituals.
Neophytes, as newly initiated members of the Church are known after the Easter Vigil, will continue meeting regularly through Pentecost, celebrated 50 days after Easter.
That phase, called Mystagogy, is a time to “savor the mystery” of Easter and to experience a full and joyful welcome into the community.