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Rite of Election ‘so powerful, so moving’


HISTORIC: Cardinal Robert W. McElroy signed parish Books of the Elect, which bear the names of catechumens who will be joining the Church, during the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion. (Credit: Leonardo Enrique Fonseca)

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SAN DIEGO — For almost 1,300 people in San Diego and Imperial counties, this Easter will be their first as fully initiated members of the Catholic Church.

The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion represents a significant milestone on their spiritual journeys.

At this diocesan liturgy, held annually during the Lenten season, those enrolled in the OCIA (Order of Christian Initiation of Adults) process are presented to the bishop and declared ready to receive the sacraments of initiation in their parishes at Easter. This includes catechumens, who have never been baptized, and candidates, who are baptized Christians seeking the sacraments of confirmation and First Holy Communion.

To accommodate the 1,284 catechumens and candidates, 1,275 sponsors, members of  parish’s OCIA teams, and 862 guests, the diocese held five ceremonies over the Feb. 17-18 weekend. Collectively, a total of 3,744 people from 73 parishes and other Catholic communities attended.

Cardinal Robert W. McElroy presided over four San Diego ceremonies, two each on Saturday and Sunday, at Good Shepherd Parish in Mira Mesa. He was joined by Auxiliary Bishops Ramón Bejarano, Michael Pham and Felipe Pulido. Auxiliary Bishop Pulido presided over the Imperial Valley ceremony on Saturday at St. Anthony’s Church in Imperial, assisted by Auxiliary Bishop Bejarano.

“Each year, it is a great joy for every bishop in the world to welcome catechumens and candidates,” said Cardinal McElroy, as he began his homily at Good Shepherd on Feb. 18. “It is a great happiness for me to see all of you here today.”

He said that the five ceremonies held that weekend constituted “a sign that, throughout San Diego and Imperial counties, men and women and young people have been touched by God’s grace and have opened their hearts to God’s invitation to walk with the Lord and the Catholic community.”

Rodney Bruce, a 42-year-old candidate from St. Charles Borromeo Parish, reflected on what the liturgy meant to him.

“It’s the first step in many steps, I believe,” he said. “I kind of view this as a lifelong walk.”

The catechumens and candidates listening to the cardinal’s words took disparate paths to arrive at this ceremony.

Among them was Hani Bonaya, a 27-year-old catechumen from St. Charles Borromeo Parish.

Bonaya had been raised Muslim, but after emigrating to the United States with her family in 2006, she drifted away from that faith.

Her first exposure to the Catholic Church came through a friend’s invitation to Mass.

Encouraged to “just come and see,” she said, “I went in with an open mind, and … just the moment I stepped in, it felt like I was at home.”

“I kept going back every Sunday by myself,” she said. “(My friend) didn’t even have to ask me.”

Brooke Renning, a 29-year-old candidate from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, said she studied “all mainstream religions and a few very non-mainstream religions.” But she still always identified as Christian.

Explaining why she signed up for OCIA, Renning said, “I was completely led here by spirit.”

After moving to San Diego, she found herself living just three blocks away from the iconic mission church.

“One morning, I was just so compelled to go to church,” said Renning, whose fiancé accompanied her to Mass.

“It was a very emotional and spiritually moving experience,” she said, “and this inner voice was like, ‘You need to keep going to this.’”

Providentially, at the end of the Mass, she heard an announcement that registrations were being accepted for the next round of OCIA classes.

Renning said that one of the attractions of Catholicism was “the capital ‘T’ tradition of the Church.”

“I like things that are closest to their original roots,” she said, “so an apostolic lineage was as close as I could get.”

She also shared her anticipation of receiving the Eucharist, describing “that direct communion with Christ” as “probably one of the greatest honors of being a part of this Church.”

Renning’s fiancé, Joseph Burger, is also a member of her OCIA class as a catechumen.

The 35-year-old grew up attending what he described as a “rock ‘n’ roll church” because of the prevalence of Christian rock bands. He drifted away from practicing his faith during high school, reconnected with his Protestant Christianity in his late 20s and, like Renning, was drawn to Catholicism through his experience of the Mass at Mission San Diego.

Reflecting on the Rite of Election, he said, “It was really just an electric moment to feel that Spirit moving through everybody that was present here, and being so welcomed was really special.”

Jana Tilley, a 37-year-old catechumen from Santa Sophia Parish in Spring Valley, was raised in a Protestant home.

She’s married to a Catholic who, about three years ago, began reading the Bible and reconnecting with his faith. He entered the OCIA process a few years ago to finally receive the sacrament of confirmation.

“He’s kind of inspired me,” Tilley said, explaining her decision to sign up for OCIA.

“I’ve enjoyed learning more about the Catholic Church because I just knew it from an outsider’s perspective,” she said, “and there’s a lot of myths and misconceptions about what it means to be a Catholic.”

“I’m definitely excited to enter into the Church in 40-some days, and it just seems like the whole community kind of supports you and has your back.”

Michelle Gilmore-Grier, 63, is a catechumen at Ascension Parish.

She wasn’t raised as a member of any faith tradition, but in her professional life, she teaches in the University of San Diego’s Philosophy Department. Her students include the diocese’s own seminarians.

“I can teach it,” she said of the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic thought, “but I wanted to be a practicing participant in the life of the Church.”

Asked what she is feeling as the Easter Vigil draws near, she said she is looking forward to everything except “getting wet in front of people” during a public baptism.

“That’s making me a little anxious,” she admitted, “but (otherwise) I’m looking forward to it.”

Ryan Knapik, 35, is a candidate from Ascension Parish.

Born and raised Catholic, he started his sacramental preparation for confirmation, but never completed it.

The birth of his niece brought him back to the Church and inspired him to finish what he began.

“Family has always been really important to us,” he said, explaining that his sister and brother-in-law wanted him to be the godfather of their child, but only fully initiated Catholics are permitted to fulfill that role.

He said, “That whole thing really forced me to look at myself, look at my shortcomings, why I didn’t complete the process the first time … (and to) come back to the Church.”

Knapik described the Rite of Election as “so powerful and so moving,” and he said that he is feeling “pure excitement” as he looks ahead toward the Easter Vigil.

Jillian Peterson was baptized in the Presbyterian Church and later attended nondenominational Christian churches with her family.

“My faith’s always been really important to me,” the 30-year-old said.

Three years ago, she married her husband, Michael, who is a practicing Catholic. As a couple, they have been attending Sunday Mass together.

“I’ve continued my deep connection with God, while also now incorporating so much more of the tradition and history of the Catholic Church,” said Peterson, who is now a candidate at St. Charles Borromeo Parish.

Believing that it is important “to raise a family in a unified faith,” she noted that becoming Catholic this Easter is “perfect timing.” The couple is expecting their first child in August.

Her husband, Michael, who is serving as her sponsor, said it has been “just an unbelievable blessing” going through the OCIA process alongside his wife and that it has deepened his knowledge of his own Catholic faith.

He described the Rite of Election as “an emotional day, my wife coming to this on her own, but doing it for, ultimately, our family.”

“This being the first major milestone and step along that way is really special … and makes me really proud and thankful for my wife,” he said.

The ceremony also moves many OCIA team members, godparents and sponsors.

Alicia Rahiotis was a catechumen about six years ago. On Feb. 17, she and her husband, Miguel Rahiotis, had brought 16 people to participate in the Rite of Election ceremony in the Imperial Valley. Last year, the couple had become coordinators of OCIA at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Calexico.

“This day is very special because all our catechumens are now in our parish’s Book (of the Elect); they are part of the history of the church,” she said.  “I went through the program, and I know how it feels.”

She said the individuals don’t just learn about the Catholic Church in a classroom.

“You start giving your testimony,” she said. “They are starting their new path in life because this is just the beginning.”

For Christina Sardina, the family faith formation director at Santa Sophia Parish, this was her first year of involvement with the OCIA process and her first time attending the Rite of Election.

“The Rite of Election is a beautiful reminder that we, as a Church, are indeed the Body of Christ,” said Sardina, who accompanied three catechumens and four candidates to the rite this year. “We offer those on this faith journey our support, encouragement and prayers. But more than that, today we have declared as a parish community that our catechumens are ready and prepared to accept God’s call into the life and Body of Christ.”

Linda Hewett, an OCIA team member at Mission San Diego, is a veteran of the Rite of Election, having attended it 23 times. This year, she brought 10 catechumens and candidates.

“I love this ceremony … As a cradle Catholic, I would never see this, if I wasn’t here with the (OCIA) team,” she said.

“Sharing this journey of faith with so many is incredible,” she said of being part of the OCIA process. “The class after Easter, we have a sharing about how they feel after the Vigil Mass. They tell us about how they got here, and how this process has changed their lives. I love being a member of a team that makes them feel so welcome.”

Bonnie Curtis, director of evangelization at Ascension Parish, accompanied two catechumens and three candidates to the rite.

“It’s just such a joyful liturgy,” she said, “and it’s always made an impact on our candidates and catechumens.”

“We’re kind of isolated in our small group most of the time,” she said, “but to see so many other people … coming into the Church, it’s very faith-affirming.”

In the Imperial Valley, Ana Chacon arrived early for the 9 a.m. Rite of Election ceremony at St. Anthony Church.

“This day is really joyful because my daughters have both decided to take the next step and have Jesus more in their lives,” she said.

The mother reflected on her daughters’ decision.

“It’s an honor to see that they have taken this step on their own because they really want to do their sacraments.”

Chacon noted that one of her daughters had begun the process of joining the Church at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Brawley and then reached out to her younger sister to do the same.

The mother recalled thinking, “Let’s do it!”

She sat between her daughters and a grandson. One of them, Ana Marie Chacon, 26, is a catechumen and will receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass.

Why did she want to join the Church?

“To have a better relationship with God, to fully surrender myself to Him and to be a more godly woman,” the daughter said, adding, “I’m getting to know myself through God.”

Her sister, Rochelle Chacon Ruiz, 34, said she wanted to join the Church because of her five children.

“I wanted to lead them to be closer to God,” she said.

She said that she “was always close to my Bible” when she was a child, but later had grown distant from it. She now has returned to it.

“This day is precious. I know my children will follow now that I have taken these steps,” she added, as her son, Michael, around 8 years old, sat next to her.

At that ceremony, Bishop Pulido focused on the concept of personal identity. He said that the Rite of Election “calls to mind our identity. Who are we? Where are we going?”

“Jesus knew He was the beloved Son of God; He knew His calling and mission. He knew who He was and where He was going.”

He noted that those present were from Brawley, Calexico, El Centro or other parts of the Imperial Valley, and perhaps some were from San Diego.

“But in reality, we are one community of faith. And we rejoice that we are diversifying and growing our community of believers. And that is something to celebrate, the fact that we belong to a huge family.”

Aida Bustos contributed to this story.

View photo gallery at thesoutherncross.org/ROE2024.

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