A great cloud of witnesses amassed within Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Columbia.
Seventy-six people from all over the diocese who are seeking Baptism at the Easter Vigil, and 88 candidates for Confirmation and First Holy Communion, along with godparents and sponsors, family and initiation team members took part in this year’s Rite of Election and Continuing Call to Conversion.
“When everyone was singing — so many voices mixing together — it reminded me of all the people who have gone before me,” said Debra Dimaria, who is preparing for Confirmation and Eucharist at Easter.
“Over 2,000 years is a long time, and I truly believe this is the Mother Church,” she said.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight pointed out that wherever the bishop, priests, deacons and laypeople are gathered, the Church is fully present.
“We are the Church together!” he told the assembly.
The Rite of Election, held in dioceses throughout the world on the First Sunday of Lent, is a significant milestone toward becoming committed, active members of the Catholic Church.
The candidates and the elect have been preparing for several months — some for even longer — through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
The bishop spoke of the event’s significance.
“You have been sent by your parish community to this special celebration in which the bishop personally and formally accepts you as elect and candidates for the Easter Sacraments,” he stated in his homily.
The RCIA is a restoration of the catechumenate, the communal process through which people were prepared to become Christian in the early Church.
As part of the Rite of Election, Bishop McKnight compiled the signatures of those seeking Baptism into the Book of the Elect.
“My dear catechumens, by your signatures in this book, you have pledged to accept God and your desire to join His Holy Church,” the bishop said. “I now declare you to be members of the elect, to be initiated into the sacred mysteries at the next Easter Vigil.”
He urged the elect and candidates to spend the rest of Lent pursuing repentance and deeper conversion, with the support of the whole Church.
“God is always faithful to those He calls,” the bishop told those gathered. “Now it is your duty, as it is ours, both to be faithful to Him in return and to strive courageously to reach the fullness of truth, which your election opens up before you.”
“The best thing”
The Rite of Election is usually held in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, but major renovations are taking place there now.
So from the ambo of spacious Our Lady of Lourdes Church, parish representatives summoned the catechumens and candidates by name.
Accompanied by a godparent or sponsor, each came forward to greet the bishop.
“It was so neat to see all the other people who are going through what we’ve been going through for the past year,” said Carla Brown, who is preparing for Confirmation and First Holy Communion at Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.
Her husband, Steve, and their two children hope to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
“They’re very excited,” she said. “It means something to all three of them, being baptized at the same time.”
Mr. and Mrs. Brown, both raised in churchgoing families, had drifted away from their faith community a few years ago, feeling it wasn’t where they belonged.
“We didn’t know where we belonged, so we didn’t go anywhere,” said Mrs. Brown.
The couple has several friends who are Catholic.
“They stood out to us as role models,” Mrs. Brown noted. “You can tell their faith is very important to them.”
The Browns’ daughters, who are in eighth and second grades, were interested in going to a different school. The family talked it out and settled on Immaculate Conception School.
“So Steve and I started thinking to ourselves, what better way for us to get involved in a church?” said Mrs. Brown.
They admired the families who always found time for Sunday Mass, even on “soccer weekends.”
“We didn’t really understand that until we got involved in RCIA,” she said. “Now, it makes sense to us to go every Sunday. And wherever you go, you can always find a Catholic church to visit.”
The couple immediately felt at peace when they went to their first Mass at I.C.
“The people were just so open and seemed very caring,” said Mrs. Brown. “We knew where we belonged, and we knew that it was time.”
They’ve enjoyed gathering with their parish RCIA group and learning the fundamentals of being Catholic.
They’re fascinated by all of the history.
“I can’t even tell you how much we’ve enjoyed this,” said Mrs. Brown. “It’s been the best thing for us.”
“Something I wanted”
Working as a nurse, Debra Dimaria has seen enough pain and dysfunction to make anyone question their faith.
“We’re all made in God’s image,” said Mrs. Dimaria, who is being initiated into St. William Parish in Perry.
“I think the devil works on us to keep us from seeing that in ourselves and others,” she stated. “When you can recognize that spark of God in someone, even in someone who’s living a crazy life, it’s a real gift.”
Mrs. Dimaria grew up in a devout family in Southern Missouri and as a child knew only two Catholics — a teacher and her son.
“They seemed very exotic to me,” she recalled.
Seeing a Catholic church was always fascinating to her.
“Where I went to church, we didn’t have a lot of ceremony and pageantry to focus you on the divine and the sacred,” she noted.
In her 20s and 30s, she befriended a Catholic couple who inspired her.
“I admired their marriage and the way they interacted with their kids and how they were so devout about going to church on the weekend,” she recalled.
“The devotion: that’s what always stood out to me about Catholics,” she said. “That’s something I really wanted — something that really helps me focus.”
Over time, she came to appreciate what Catholics believe about Christ being truly present in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.
She also longed for the stable rhythm of the Church’s seasons, feastdays and memorials.
“The seasons, the structure, the emphasis on family: it really binds everything together and makes your whole life part of the Church,” she said.
Her husband John, a lifelong Catholic, was struggling with his faith after a tragic death in his immediate family.
“We were drawn together due to a mutual understanding of tragedy and his tremendous faith has really inspired me,” Mrs. Dimaria noted.
Grateful for an occasion to reconnect and recommit, Mr. Dimaria attends the RCIA classes with her.
“He really enjoys it,” said Mrs. Dimaria. “He went to Catholic school, and he says, ‘I can’t believe how much I’m learning here!’”
After months of reading, studying and listening, Braxton Kjos concluded that what the Catholic Church teaches is true.
“And when I decided it was true, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’” he said.
Raised in another Christian tradition, he enjoyed the insightful discussions he had with a Catholic uncle about why he’s Catholic.
“One of the tipping points for me was the Real Presence,” said Mr. Kjos. “I was really convinced by the Eucharist and how it was such an early Christian belief that it is really Jesus’s Body and Blood.”
Mr. Kjos is grateful to his family for supporting him in his decision and throughout the initiation process.
“They’ve been great,” he said.
“Bigger than us”
Lance and Ashley New have always believed.
“But it wasn’t enough,” said Mrs. New. “You can’t just be at home, pray, and say, ‘I believe in God’ and have that be enough. You simply do not feel complete when you do that.”
Mr. New once gave their oldest child a Bible and let him read the stories.
“His interest in God pushed us a bit further toward, ‘We’ve got to get into a church,’” Mr. New recalled. “We knew it would be better for our family as individuals, getting that second family and being part of something bigger than us.”
The couple decided to send their children to Immaculate Conception School in Jefferson City.
“We knew we would become part of the parish in the future, but they mentioned something about, ‘You can go ahead and start now,’ and that worked for us,” said Mrs. New.
She said being able to fully participate as Mass and in parish activities will be a source of great fulfillment.
“We love everything about it!” she said.
In God’s time
Throughout the rest of Lent, the candidates and elect will take up the Scrutinies, a powerful prayer of the Church through which the strength of all that’s good in a person is lifted up, and whatever keeps him or her from God is cast out.
“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.
All Catholics are encouraged to keep the candidates and elect in prayer through these last, most intense weeks of preparation before they’re received into full communion with the Church at the Easter Vigil.
That night, the symbols of fire, light, water, oil, bread and wine will be highlighted in a Liturgy filled with some of the Church’s oldest and 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 Mystagogia, is a time to “savor the mystery” of Easter and to experience a full and joyful welcome into the community.
Bishop McKnight noted that candidates and the elect will look to those who have already been initiated for an example of Christian renewal.
“Let us pray to the Lord for them and for ourselves, that we may be renewed by one another’s efforts and together come to share the joys of Easter,” he said.
With God’s help
Toward that end, Mrs. Brown asked for prayers “for us to be able to show others that Christ is a major part of our life.”
Mr. New requested prayers “for strength to continue through the times when we are tempted by Satan.”
“There’s a lot of temptation right now, and it’s every place,” he said.
Mrs. New asked for prayers for perseverance.
“Life can get very busy, and trying to stay the course can be really hard,” she said. “So pray for us to keep going.”
Mr. Kjos asked for prayers “for me to love Jesus more. That’s all I’m concerned about.”
Mrs. Dimaria requested prayers for all the elect and candidates to hold onto their enthusiasm for the rest of their lives.
“That this won’t be a flash in the pan, that we live it every day,” she said. “That’s a hard thing but the most important thing, to actually live this and have it be foremost in our hearts.”