CINCINNATI, Ohio – Under normal circumstances, tens of thousands of people would be welcomed into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil Masses around America this weekend.
Instead, these want-to-be Catholics are wondering just how long they’ll have to wait as their dioceses eye new dates and their parishes craft fresh ways to accompany them in the midst of pandemic-inspired uncertainties.
“There is a sort of underlying fear of what this means for our future,” Cameron Cramer, a candidate at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Dayton, Ohio, told Crux. “I’m occasionally wondering just how we’ll proceed from here, and that lack of knowing scares me at times, but I remember to hold strong and have faith that God will take care of us.”
A “candidate” is someone who has been baptized in another Christian denomination, but now wishes to become Catholic; a “catechumen” is an adult who has never been baptized.
During the Easter Vigil, catechumens are baptized, confirmed, and given their first communion; many diocese welcome candidates during the ceremony, although they only receive confirmation and first communion.
Cramer’s parish is in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, one of many dioceses that have publicly circled the May 30th Vigil of Pentecost on their calendars as their new date for the Sacraments of Initiation, assuming public celebrations of the Mass can resume by then.
Among those joining Cincinnati on this Pentecost Vigil track are the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the latter being the site of one of the United States’ first major “shelter-in-place” directives during the coronavirus era.
“All of our initiations will be at the Pentecost Vigil Mass,” Laura Bertone, Director of Worship for the California archdiocese, told Crux. “If we have to move it from the Easter Vigil, why wouldn’t we initiate and bring people into full communion on this wonderful day when the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, comes down from above, rather than just some random Sunday?”
Other dioceses seem to agree with Bertone’s theological point but are striking less optimistic tones about the likelihood of bringing people into the Church at Pentecost. In the nation’s capital, for example, archdiocesan officials recently told the Catholic Standard that the Pentecost Vigil is the hoped-for date, but that they’re making no promises due to the virus’s control over the timetable.
A different approach is being taken by the Diocese of Orlando.
“We certainly see the beauty in waiting until a day like Pentecost, but because we don’t know what the future holds, we’re instead letting pastors know that they can do the sacraments on the first or second Sunday available to have public liturgies,” said Dan Boyd, Secretary for Laity and Family Life for the Florida diocese.
Boyd told Crux he hopes that this approach will mean the Florida diocese’s candidates and catechumens receive their sacraments sooner than Pentecost, noting that people seem to have “appreciated the clarity and the assurance that they won’t have to wait any longer than necessary.”
Many other dioceses have opted for a more general wait-and-see approach, typified by a March 24 statement by Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, “The baptisms of the Elect and the receptions into full communion across the archdiocese are postponed until a later diocesan-wide, common date. Please notify those in your RCIA of this news with the assurances that it is not a cancelation but rather a postponement.”
In the midst of these uncertainties about dates, parish communities are finding creative ways to offer ongoing support to their disappointed candidates and catechumens.
“That first week after Masses were suspended, we just did a lot of reassuring, letting them know that we’re all in this together, and we’re going to get them to these sacraments that they’ve been preparing and waiting for,” Michelle Tomshack, Director of Evangelization at St. Bede Catholic Church in Virginia, told Crux.
Since those early days of the pandemic, parish communities around the country have deployed communication technologies ranging from email to live video conferencing to ensure that their candidates and catechumens are supported in their extended journeys toward full initiation.
“It’s different, it’s odd, but I actually wouldn’t call it a struggle,” said Tomshack. “Think if this had happened fifty years ago, when we wouldn’t have had all of this technology to reach out to people in these new ways.”
Jon-Erik Gilot, a candidate at St. Michael Parish in West Virginia, said that while he had been “really looking forward to what promised to be a busy Holy Week” and was “definitely bummed about the Easter Vigil,” periodic emails with relevant Scripture readings from one of his RCIA leaders have been a simple but welcome sight during this waiting period.
Katie Mathews, the leader of the RCIA process for Cramer’s group in Dayton, used Zoom to bring her scattered group together for a digital version of their usual meetings, providing a space for them to pray together and share “moments of grace in which they had experienced God’s presence since the last time we met.” That Zoom meeting, explained Cramer, “helped keep me grounded to this situation and to our faith community.”
At Bellarmine Chapel Parish in Cincinnati, candidates and catechumens have shifted their usual weekly meetings to a virtual format. Their pastor, Jesuit Father Eric Sundrup, told Crux that he has been intentional about invoking the names of the parish’s Elect during each live-streamed Sunday liturgy to keep them at the forefront of parishioners’ minds and in their prayers.
Nick Wagner and Diana Macalintal, codirectors of TeamRCIA, have been using Facebook Live events to share new ideas with RCIA teams in recent weeks. Given this year’s major disruptions to Holy Week for all involved with the RCIA process, Wagner told Crux that they have been encouraging their viewers to adopt domestic church rituals during the Triduum, such as a family foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday and an in-home veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.
Boyd, in Orlando, said he believes the inventive responses by those involved with the RCIA process are indicative of a broader willingness among Catholics to practice their faith in new ways and places, which he sees as one encouraging side effect of an otherwise painful coronavirus era.
“The coronavirus did in a weekend what it has taken the Second Vatican Council almost sixty years to try to get Catholics to do, which is get out of their church buildings and talk with people about Jesus,” he said.
“We’re putting into place structures for evangelization that we have to continue to use and develop on the other side of this pandemic,” added Boyd. “We’ve lowered the barrier for people to come into contact with Christ, and we need to continue to make these efforts to go outward, to go beyond.”