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Becoming Catholic takes a little longer this year

First slide

The road to baptism has already been a long one for Joe Wofford. Now it will be a little longer.

“It’s not easy,” said Wofford, a catechumen who has been praying and studying since fall 2018 with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) group at St. John Neumann Church in Reston. “It’s all supposed to be culminating in the Easter Vigil."

Every year on the evening before Easter Sunday, thousands of people in the United States are baptized into the Catholic Church, confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time. The dramatic Easter Vigil Mass begins with a dark church that gradually fills with the light of hundreds of candles, all lit from a giant Paschal candle, which symbolizes Jesus, the Light of the World.

Wofford has been picturing what it will be like to be fully immersed in the water of the church’s baptismal font. “What a powerful image it is,” he said. “When you are raised out of the water by the priest, you are a completely new person and your family and friends are there seeing you ‘reborn’ for the first time,” he said.

But this year, the Vatican said there will be no baptisms at the Easter Vigil, because public Masses in so many localities have been suspended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While the norm is to celebrate adult baptisms at the Easter Vigil, the initiation rite does allow variations for “unusual circumstances,” said Rose Bennett, director of the RCIA program at St. John Neumann Church.  A global pandemic would surely qualify.

Bennett said that when the pandemic dies down and public Masses resume, either the pope or bishop will choose a new Sunday or feast day for this year’s baptisms — or the bishop could leave it up to pastors to decide.

“Everybody’s waiting, and I can understand why they’re waiting, too,” she said. “Nobody knows how long this is going to last. It’s a time of patience, because we just don’t know.”

Other parishes also are trying to make contingency plans, and some have changed the way they gather to prepare.

“We are still sorting out how to proceed, with the ever-changing restrictions being placed on public gatherings,” said Hilary Munger, director of religious education at the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, which has an unusually large group of 27 adults planning to enter the church this year — far more than the 10-person limit on gatherings. They recently started meeting by videoconference on Zoom.

Aaron Szabo of Alexandria is one of the catechumens preparing to be baptized at the basilica, after a journey of almost 10 years — since Szabo met Pamela Callahan and started attending church with her. They’ve been married since 2013, and he said she’s “done a great job of being a great example for me.” Szabo, a government consultant who used to work at the White House, was raised Jewish by a Jewish mom and Catholic dad, and knows he’s taken “quite a long time and done a lot of praying and thinking, to make sure this is something that I really believed and felt comfortable with.”

While he was looking forward to coming into the church at the Easter Vigil, the night before his 35th birthday, he said, “I know God has a plan for me, and I believe I will be able to join the Catholic Church as soon as possible. But I would rather spend my prayers praying for others, especially those who are really suffering,” including a good friend’s father, who is hospitalized with COVID-19. “I don’t pray for this to be over so I can be baptized tomorrow, but to end the suffering for other people.”

Jason Schwendenmann was to enter the church on the Easter Vigil at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield; his wife, Lisa, is his sponsor. “It is going to be something I’ll miss, but I’m sure there’s going to be another experience that will be meaningful,” said Schwendenmann, who grew up Methodist, though his father was Catholic. Their daughter, C.J., a kindergartener at St. Bernadette School, “is learning a lot more than I ever did. I wanted to get in sync with her and be able to answer her questions” about the faith. 

Wofford, a software consultant who turns 24 April 17, said he is trying to see this additional period of waiting as an opportunity to grow in his faith, and to focus on the strides he has made already. “Keeping anchored to that is what keeps me going,” he said.

He shared that his parents were raised Catholic and Baptist but stopped going to church and only his oldest sister was baptized. “They’re spiritual people, but just not going to church,” he said.

Wofford added that he “always thought there was something, someone else — the world seems too grand for it just to be happenstance.” But his spiritual journey really took off after he met his Catholic wife, Rachel, in high school, and she encouraged him in his faith. After they got married in 2018, moved to Reston and started attending St. John Neumann Church, Wofford said the atmosphere felt so welcoming that “it all felt kind of right,” and he felt it was time to take the next step in his journey.

Now, he said, he’s just “trying to be as patient as possible,” and keep everything in perspective. When he gets to feeling a little impatient, Wofford said he reminds himself, “Am I really complaining that I have to wait a few more months, when Jesus died on the cross for us? It makes you feel bad for complaining.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020