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The road to baptism: Catechumens gather for Rite of Election

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Dozens of future Catholics preparing to be baptized this Easter gathered with their sponsors at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington Feb. 21 for the Rite of Election, one of the major liturgical steps on their journey to becoming Catholics.

“If I asked all the catechumens to tell me the story of what led you here today preparing for full initiation into the Catholic Church, I am sure the stories would vary greatly from one person to another,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. “They might involve a spiritual encounter you never expected in prayer; the faithful people who influenced and inspired you, and personal experiences that have transformed you. 

“But what you all have in common is that you are not here today by some sort of chance or coincidence. You are here because this is God’s plan for you from all eternity. It is his call, the One who refers to you as his beloved son or daughter, his chosen one.”

Several details of the rite were adapted this year to comply with capacity limits and social distancing requirements related to COVID-19. For example, this year’s two celebrations of the rite, the one at the cathedral and another to be celebrated by Bishop Burbidge Feb. 28 at St. Theresa Church in Ashburn, have been modified to include only the unbaptized initiates, called catechumens, who will be entering the church at Easter.

In past years, the Rite of Election was combined with the Call to Continuing Conversion, for initiates known as candidates, who were baptized in other Christian churches. Bishop Burbidge has delegated the candidates’ celebrations to pastors this year, said James Starke, director of the diocesan Office of Divine Worship. Those celebrations will take place at parishes during the early part of Lent.

Starke said 107 catechumens and sponsors from 24 parishes were registered to attend one of the two offerings of the Rite of Election; he added that the number of people planned at each event was well within capacity limits for both locations, with plenty of space for social distancing. But many more candidates are coming into the church, and while his office has not received the final tally yet, “those numbers are much bigger, and we couldn’t have accommodated that,” he said. 

In a handful of parishes the bishop also has delegated the celebration of the Rite of Election to priests, Starke said, “due to circumstances arising from the coronavirus pandemic or other pastoral needs.”

Both catechumens and candidates have been participating in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) groups at their parishes, where they have been meeting weekly since last fall — in many cases on Zoom — to share their faith journeys and learn about the Catholic Church. Children and teens ages 7 to 17 participate in similar groups geared to their own age ranges.

The Rite of Election also is called the enrollment of names, because each catechumen writes his or her name in the Book of the Elect, which is taken to the rite. When the catechumens from each parish were called forward, the book was carried by one catechumen and presented for the bishop’s signature. Instead of shaking hands with each catechumen, as he has done in past years, this year Bishop Burbidge welcomed them from a distance.

“Be assured of the prayers and support that surround you as you continue your preparation and as you grow in your intimate relationship with the Lord and knowledge of the faith we proudly profess,” he told catechumens. 

Bishop Burbidge also spoke to sponsors, family members and friends, noting that the rite “reminds you that you are to inspire our catechumens by your example and by the way you practice your faith. That is not always easy.” 

To accommodate social distancing, sponsors did not sit or stand next to their catechumens this year unless they were spouses or members of the same household. During the Act of Admission, sponsors extended a hand toward their catechumen, instead of placing a hand on the catechumen’s shoulder, as in past years. 

Starke noted that the rite is “the point at which the catechumens become ‘the elect’ —  the chosen ones — chosen for baptism by God. They are referred to as ‘the elect’ during the season of Lent. These individuals have been chosen, elected to proceed to baptism, and the next six weeks are their immediate and intense preparation to receive the sacraments.” 

Adam Cruz, 25, was one of 13 catechumens (three adults and 10 children) from Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria who attended the rite. Cruz said his family was Catholic, but he was never baptized. “It’s been quite a journey, especially considering that it's during the pandemic,” he said. “I’ve gotten closer to God, definitely. I go every Sunday and I feel refreshed.” 

In addition to the weekly RCIA meetings on Zoom, Cruz attends 10:30 a.m. Mass with his group — he goes straight from his job at a grocery chain, where his Sunday shift starts at 3 or 4 a.m. But it’s worth the effort, he said. “Sometimes I hear the readings or Gospel and it’s just what I needed to hear at the moment — it makes my entire week, and I go, ‘This is awesome — it’s not a coincidence.’ ”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021