Friends in the faith

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There's a new group in the Arlington Diocese whose prayers pack a punch. Friends of RCIA is a ministry of converts and cradle Catholics at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington who are bursting with love for God and the Catholic faith. And they channel that love into prayers for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults students and help would-be Catholics feel connected to the parish community.

Although there has been an informal prayer group for RCIA the past few years, Friends of RCIA officially started last fall. Father Jason Weber, parochial vicar of the cathedral, teaches RCIA and said the group gives parishioners "a responsibility in the local evangelization work of the church." As Catholics, it is important to take up a mission, he said, "something we know is Christ's work."

Each year in the United States, about 100,000 to 150,000 individuals are received into the church, according to the Official Catholic Directory. In the Arlington Diocese, about 900 people will enter into full communion with the church at Easter. This number includes catechumens, who will receive baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist, and candidates, who will complete their initiation into the church by receiving confirmation and first Eucharist.

Yet those who work in evangelization, including Father Weber, note that many of these new Catholics gradually will fall away from the church.

While there have been no recent studies conducted to confirm the extent of the drop-off, "anecdotally, many local parishes report that retaining the catechumens and candidates (after reception into the church) can be a challenge," said Jeannine Marino, assistant director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis, who also has led RCIA.

"However there are dioceses and parishes out there that are striving to improve that experience," Marino said. Success stories emerge when RCIA programs "really are using the process itself leading up to Easter to highlight the life of the larger parish" and help new Catholics feel part of the faith community, she said.

Friends of RCIA is a program that does just that.

"It is building community right from the onset," said Yleem Poblete, who with her husband, Jason, leads the new group.

The couple and a number of other Friends of RCIA hosted a dinner for RCIA students March 31 in the cathedral's Burke Hall. Throughout Lent, different cathedral ministries have hosted weekly meals to welcome and get to know candidates and catechumens in an informal setting.

Along with sharing the Lenten meal, group members pray for a specific student during their conversion journey and give them a small gift, such as a rosary or prayer card, following their entrance into the church at the Easter Vigil. The name of the person praying for each student is kept private until Easter.

Group members also pray for the whole RCIA class and hold monthly social gatherings for the students.

Ongoing faith formation is an important component of the group as well. There has been a talk on Marian devotions and a rosary-making class, and group members attended the diocesan pilgrimage together in October.

Sharing spiritual zeal

At last week's dinner, it was evident that Friends of RCIA and the students mutually enrich each other's faith lives.

The RCIA students come to Catholicism with questions and concerns, but they also come with an enthusiasm and appreciation that is contagious, said Jason Poblete.

"I think one of the neat things about RCIA, especially for us cradle Catholics, is there's this energy that you have from recent RCIA members that I think every Catholic should see," he said. "Their sharing with us gives us strength."

When converts first come into the church, "they have a kind of zeal that we admire," added lifelong Catholic Evelyn Luis.

"We renew it every Easter; we renew it when we take the holy water and bless ourselves," Luis said. "We have to keep in mind that's what we want to remain with us - that zeal - and to touch others with it."

Lance Gardner, 70, recently went through RCIA at the cathedral. Entering the Catholic Church "has been one of the best experiences of my life - as a child, as a young adult, as a senior," he said. But he knows firsthand it can be a challenging process and that the RCIA students often need a spiritual boost.

"I've found supporting others who are pursuing their faith - whether candidates or catechumens - is especially important," said Gardner. "It's a huge leap that they have made, and they still have the opportunity to opt out. So if we have any opportunity to support them, it's important to."

Friends of RCIA member Esther Williams, who was drawn to the meditative beauty and saints in Catholicism, is a self-proclaimed "Catholic newbie."

"I felt very strongly about encouraging other newbies and to befriend them and let them know they're not alone," she said. "A lot of times when new people join they feel like outsiders, and I think it's very important for them to know that they have supporters behind them.

"It is said that we all have guardian angels," she added. "But we can also be those guardian angels - visible ones - someone in the background that's kind of hovering over them in prayer, lifting them up."

The knowledge that there are people like Williams praying for her, "is very touching and humbling," said RCIA student Helen King. Raised Methodist, King was drawn to the faith when she married her Catholic husband eight years ago. The conversion process is not easy, so "it's just comforting knowing there are people praying for you," she said. "It makes you feel welcome."

Stephen Condon grew up Lutheran but started to gravitate intellectually toward the Catholic Church in college. For him, the ministry helps push him to keep studying and learning about his soon-to-be faith.

"Just like any other class, sometimes you need a little extra motivation," Condon said. "And just sort of stopping and thinking about the people who are praying for my success - that's really motivation."

Friends of RCIA wants to keep converts motivated and excited about the Catholic faith long after the Easter Vigil.

"These new members of the church are filled with the Holy Spirit, but you want to keep that fire burning," said Yleem Poblete.

"You've just made a big decision, you've decided to join a new religion," added Jason Poblete. "But that's really just the first step."

To live as a Catholic, you of course need the sacraments, he said. To continue to live the faith fully, however, "you need to see community."

Father Weber hopes Friends of RCIA continues to cultivate that sense of community and spiritually benefit both lifelong and new Catholics.

"We are all part of the body of Christ," he said. "So the prayers and the sacrifices that one person offers are not only beneficial for the person being interceded for but for the person who is interceding and for the whole church."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014