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Season of renewal: Church welcomes new members

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SAN DIEGO — The Easter Vigil Mass at Our Lady of Angels will be special for Jacelle Lilia Beltran and Mario Alberto Bravo. They will receive their confirmation, along with 14 candidates.

By candlelight, they and 19 children, teenagers and adult catechumens will receive the sacraments of initiation, entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.

That ceremony will be celebrated across the San Diego Diocese in parishes large and small, which will welcome a total of 924 men, women and children into the Church.

For the diocese, this represents about a 40-percent increase from the number who joined the Church last year, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And for each person, the Easter Vigil Mass represents the culmination of a personal journey to learn about the Catholic faith and how he or she can live every day as a disciple of God.

Each new member of the Church becomes a member of the broader Catholic family. In the case of  Beltran, 20, and Bravo, 17, this is a literally a family affair. The two are cousins, and in fact a third cousin, 19-year-old Rosalyn Sepulveda, also will be confirmed at the parish’s Easter Vigil Mass.

Beltran’s sponsor is Bravo’s mother, while his sponsor is Beltran’s father. And Supelveda’s sponsor is her aunt, Margarita Guillén.

“I think it’s really important to confirm my faith and see all the other people coming for their conversion,” said Sepulveda, moments after participating in the Rite of Election on March 6. “I think it’s really beautiful.”

In March, the cousins were among the 924 who participated in three Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion ceremonies in San Diego and Imperial counties.

At these annual liturgies, catechumens and candidates are presented to the bishop and proclaimed prepared to receive the sacraments of initiation at their parishes at the Easter Vigil. Catechumens are those who have never been baptized, while candidates have been baptized but have yet to receive their First Communion or confirmation.

The total for all three liturgies: The Church welcomed 244 adult catechumens, 632 adult candidates, and 48 child catechumens and candidates from 75 parishes and communities. They were supported by 893 sponsors, 301 parish team members, and 703 guests, bringing the total number of people who attended them to 2,821.

Guillén was present as a sponsor in the Rite of Election ceremony on March 6 at 1 p.m., held at Good Shepherd Church in Mira Mesa.

“It’s important to be present, supporting them in this great step in their life,” Guillén said, “to make sure that we welcome them to the Church and to continue to push them to have a great future.”

The immediate future for the cousins, and all who will become a full member of the Church at the Easter Vigil, is to continue their weekly RCIA activities until May 21. That’s when they will mark the formal end of their faith formation with a Mass.

Their catechist, Brenda Chopin, explained that the five students in her class began meeting in  September for in-person instruction. Then the Omicron variant began to spread.

“We spent all of January meeting through Zoom,” Chopin said. “Thank God, we were able to meet in person again in February.”

Around 2,650 catechists serve in the diocese in two counties, some for decades. One of them is Chopin, who has served at Our Lady of Angels Parish for 31 years, starting with singing in the choir when she was in high school. She’s been a catechist for the last 15 years. An immigrant from Mexico and bilingual, she’s able to converse with her students’ parents in Spanish but talks to the youngsters in English, their preferred language.

On a recent Sunday between Masses, she considered her work as a catechist all these years.

“It allows me to share a little of the many gifts the Lord has given me,” she said, noting that she still sees at Mass some of her former students from her earliest years as a catechist.

She does not see a Church in decline, as some do, rather one that is vibrant and welcoming new members.

“There will always be new people joining the Church,” she said, “and those of us who are there will pass away some day. But the Church will always be there, because that’s why our Lord came to the world.”

She tells her students to enjoy the Easter Vigil Mass, which begins as the darkness of the night begins.

“I say to them, ‘Don’t worry about anything that day,’ the things that may be happening around them,” Chopin said. “That day is unique.”

Outside of the church, the candidates and catechumens are the first to light their candles, passing the light from person to person. Then, they process inside the church.

“We’re not only celebrating our Lord’s resurrection,” I tell them, “but they are the first ones to receive the beautiful light that will illuminate the entire community.”

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