“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14)
Earlier this year, more than 150 candidates and 110 catechumens representing 56 parishes entered through the “narrow gate” at the Easter Vigil to join in full communion with the Catholic Church. Catechumens received all the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist) during the services, while candidates - having already been baptized in Catholic or other recognized Christian rites - received first Eucharist and/or confirmation.
Following the vigil, the new members, who had completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at their parishes, then began a period of meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist and doing works of charity. This period is known as mystagogy.
“The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated,” Pope Benedict XVI observed about this period in his 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis.
Beginning in December 2015, the Catholic Courier followed three families on their faith journey through a series of articles, videos and photographs that gives readers an inside look at their steps along the way. The families also were invited to use video and written blogs to tell readers about the period of mystagogy in their own words. Here are their stories.
The RCIA experience added special significance to Advent 2015 for the Majchrzak family.
During that time of reflection and preparation for the birth of Jesus, Stephanie Majchrzak and her two daughters were moving forward on their journey toward becoming new members of the Catholic Church. Stephanie and her husband, Daniel, had recently experienced a monumental change in their household, as they had adopted their two daughters Jessica, 14, and Isabella, 9 in December 2014.
Daniel is Catholic, so at first he and Stephanie discussed having the girls baptized in the Catholic Church. Then, Stephanie said, she decided that if she and Daniel wanted the girls to be members of the church, she should take that step as well.
Jessica said she totally agreed with joining the church along with her mother and younger sister, and Isabella said she enjoyed the faith-formation classes she took as part of her initiation process.
“I always wanted to go through that whole process,” Jessica said, noting that she had attended Masses with a former Girl Scout troop as well as with a previous foster family. “I wanted to go (to Mass) as a kid ... every Sunday.”
Once the trio decided to join the church, the family approached Cathy Kamp, a pastoral associate at St. Joseph Parish in Penfield who directs the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. Stephanie had discovered St. Joseph Parish when, on a whim, she decided to go to Mass with a neighbor even before they had adopted the girls.
Kamp suggested that the family become more familiar with the RCIA process by attending St. Joseph’s 2015 Easter Vigil, during which nine RCIA participants were initiated into the church. Stephanie said she and her family were moved by the experience of seeing the parish community welcome its newest members.
Stephanie, who was sponsored by her husband, said her family also was blessed to have family members who stepped up to take on the roles of godparents for her daughters.
During the Feb. 14, 2016, Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Stephanie Majchrzak said standing with so many others who also made the decision to join the Catholic Church made her proud. Among the more than 300 supporters in the congregation were godparents, sponsors, family members and catechists who accompanied the candidates and catechumens as they prepared to receive the sacraments of initiation during the 2016 Easter Vigil.
“It was a nice experience,” remarked Stephanie. “It brought a feeling of hope.”
Jessica said she felt official after signing her name in the Book of Enrollment.
“Now, I’m documented,” she said. “I was really nervous the whole time. ... But I’ve officially made it into the church. I’m really happy.”
When the day of the Easter Vigil arrived, Stephanie Majchrzak was moved to tears as the darkened St. Joseph Church filled with light and music, and the choir began singing “Glory to God.”
Dressed in white, she, Jessica and Isabella sat in the front pew with family during the March 26 Easter Vigil Mass, awaiting the moment when they would become new members of the Catholic Church.
“I was bawling my eyes out” as the church lit up, Stephanie recalled. “It was so emotional for me, so powerful. ... I feel blessed now I have an even bigger family.”
“Last year (at the Easter Vigil), I remember feeling like outsiders,” Stephanie said. “With all the support we received (here), it proved I was at the right place. ... It is a great feeling to have this (new) community in my life, which is missing in the world today.”
Christmas 2015 was different for Lazara Thomas.
The 27-year-old had begun the RCIA process at St. Alphonsus Parish in Auburn in the fall.
During one of her one-on-one meetings with Aaron Wilson to learn the basics of the Catholic faith, she read for the first time the biblical account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation, and learned that John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin.
Details like this helped Thomas to view the celebration of Christmas in a new light.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot. It’s definitely made me think of things differently and made me try to help out more,” said Thomas, who noted that she helped bring donated food to the St. Alphonsus Food Pantry.
Before starting the RCIA process, Thomas hadn’t attended Mass in quite a few years. She’d been baptized Catholic as an infant, and as a child she had occasionally gone to church with her father and grandmother, but that’s as far as her involvement went. It wasn’t until she enrolled her 5-year-old son in Auburn’s St. Joseph School September 2015 that she began attending Mass regularly. After a few weeks she asked Father Timothy Niven, pastor, what she would need to do to become a full member of the church, and Father Niven referred her to Wilson.
Thomas was the only person going through RCIA at St. Alphonsus in the fall of 2015, which allowed Wilson to tailor the lessons to her needs, spending more time on areas where she lacked knowledge and taking the time to answer all of her questions.
She wanted to have her children baptized when they were born, but didn’t belong to a parish then and wasn’t sure how to proceed. She’s glad she and her children now are developing their own relationships with God and building a strong foundation of faith.
“I think it’s made my son a better person, and it’s making me a better person in the long run,” she said.
After the March 26, 2016, Easter Vigil, Thomas noted that the support she received from family, friends and parishioners at St. Alphonsus gave her a good feeling.
“A couple of people gave me hugs afterward and said congratulations,” said Thomas. “It felt good. I was really happy.”
The Bower family of Horseheads shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience on March 26, 2016.
That was the day J.P. and Nikki became new members of the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Mary Our Mother Church in Horseheads. Their sons Lucas, 4, and Jack, 2, were baptized at a separate Mass.
J.P., 31, was baptized Catholic, but did not grow up practicing the faith following the death of his mother when he was 4. Meanwhile, Nikki, 32, grew up in a Methodist church. The couple, who were high-school sweethearts at Horseheads High School, married in 2008 and attended a nondenominational church while living in Chicago. They moved back to Horseheads in 2013 and, with Jack soon to be born, decided to strive toward aligning firmly with one faith.
Buoyed by the positive experience of enrolling Lucas in prekindergarten at St. Mary Our Mother School, they began to explore Catholic teachings in greater depth. That process led to their participation in RCIA in the fall of 2015.
J.P. and Nikki - along with all other candidates and catechumens, and their sponsors and godparents - took part in the Rite of Acceptance during a Nov. 22, 2015,` Mass at St. Mary our Mother Church. This rite enabled the congregation to officially welcome the RCIA participants - which included catechumens Jollene Gavazzi and Cheryl Hollenbeck, and candidate Amy Gross - who reiterated their intent to continue pursuing full communion with the Catholic Church.
During the Feb. 21, 2016, Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at St. Mary Our Mother, Bishop Salvatore R. Matano’s homily proved very moving for Nikki Bower. She especially appreciated how the bishop connected the Transfiguration story in Luke’s Gospel to the RCIA journey.
“We are ourselves transfigured” through the process of becoming new members of the church, Bower said.
More than a month later at the Easter Vigil at St. Mary Our Mother, Nikki Bower said she was happy to have a fellow catechumen, Cheryl Hollenbeck, by her side for her baptism. J.P. also stood by her side as they were confirmed and received first Eucharist together.
As she watched Father Christopher Linsler bless the baptismal water, she was overwhelmed with emotion at this momentous step in her RCIA journey, she said.
“I had to calm myself down,” she remarked. “I had waited for a very long time for this, which was something I always wanted for myself. ... I started to feel the gravity of everything we had been through.”
Reflecting on the experience, Nikki Bower said she also felt gratitude for all that Liz Berliner, the RCIA coordinator in Horseheads, did for her and her husband.
“She is a wonderful teacher, friend and someone who has supported us greatly,” she added.
Story by Annette Jiménez, Jennifer Burke and Mike Latona
Videos by Jeff Witherow
Design by Gina Capellazzi