Passionist Father Justin Nelson, pastor of St. Agnes Parish, 1920 Newburg Road, conducted the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion ceremony during Mass Feb. 21 for eight individuals preparing to enter the Catholic Church.
As he did so, he called on the congregation to draw closer together as a community during the Lenten season.
Drawing attention to the day’s Gospel reading, he noted that Jesus had a community around him even when he was in the wilderness for 40 days.
“Even as Jesus was in the desert, he had angels assisting him and the spirit led him. As a Catholic community, we need to work together as a whole,” said Father Nelson. “As we begin this Lent I invite all of you, whatever you do let us do it together as a community so that we can carry on” Jesus’ mission of love.
The large-group Rite of Election and Continuing Call to Conversion ceremonies — which usually draw together hundreds of catechumens and candidates from across the Archdiocese of Louisville — were not possible this year due to health and safety concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz asked pastors to celebrate in their individual parishes on or near the first Sunday of Lent.
The call to Continuing Conversion — in which candidates are called to continue to grow in their faith as they prepare to enter the church — is optional. Candidates are those who have been baptized in a different faith tradition and whose baptism the Catholic church recognizes.
But parishes that have catechumens, those who’ve not been baptized, have been holding the required Rite of Election. During this rite, the godparents are asked to give testimony to the preparedness of the catechumens to enter the church. Catechumens are then declared members of the elect.
This year, about 57 catechumens and 77 candidates are entering the church.
Maureen Larison, consultant for adult formation and initiation for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said the COVID-19 pandemic held the numbers down this year. Last year there were about 400 catechumens and candidates, she noted. Last year’s number was similar to years’ past.
“COVID-19 has challenged parishes and not only because we weren’t allowed to gather for many months. When we were able to, many were afraid and understandably so,” said Larison. “Many parishes didn’t feel equipped to do it (the preparation) and keep people distanced. We couldn’t do some of it virtually. That made a big difference.”
Though the pandemic caused some disruption in church life, the eight individuals at St. Agnes who are preparing to enter the church have been participating in a process called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) — required of candidates and catechumens throughout the archdiocese.
Four catechumens will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist this spring. Four candidates will receive the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.
Among the catechumens at St. Agnes is 10-year-old Albert Dailey, who was recently adopted by parishioners Andrew and Stephanie Dailey. Stephanie Dailey, a mother of five, said having Albert enter the church is important because faith is the “foundation” of their family.
“The most important thing as a family is that when you adopt an older child they have to be included in every way, and faith is the foundation of our family,” she said in a recent interview. “Giving them security and bonding to where they feel they belong in this family is the most important thing.”
Albert is developmentally disabled and has undergone multiple surgeries for his hearing, all of which have complicated his RCIA preparation, she noted.
“He’s a trooper. Everyone has been very helpful. We understand there’s not an RCIA program for a newly adopted child with health issues,” she said. The process has been “extremely difficult,” but the family has persevered because they see the church as an “extension” of their family and want Albert to be included in all aspects of family life.
“Andrew (her husband) and I are not taking Communion until Albert can do so with us,” said Stephanie Dailey. “We don’t want him to feel left out. … Because of his level of comprehension he will not understand why we can and he can’t.”
One of the four candidates at St. Agnes is Mandy Decker. Decker was raised in the Protestant tradition but always had a familiarity with the Catholic faith because her father’s family were Catholics from Ireland.
Decker and her husband Bernard, who is Catholic, were married in the Episcopal Church 16 years ago. Her family has attended St. Agnes for more than 10 years and their children Molly Kathleen, a seventh-grader, and Bernard, a fourth-grader, attend the parish school.
She has been active in the parish, serving as a volunteer for the carnival and as chair of the St. Agnes school board, but some reservations about the church’s teachings kept her from taking the step to become Catholic.
“I had some hesitation about some teachings. Over the course of the years I was able to see how much the good outweighed my reservations,” said Decker in a recent interview.
The time of quarantine brought about by the pandemic gave her time to reflect, she noted.
Going through the RCIA process has already made a difference in her faith journey.
“It has created a new level of bonding, solidarity and community with those I’ve known so long in church and my family,” said Decker.
She said it’s a “wonderful gift” to be able to talk to her children about Scripture in a more meaningful way. Her daughter will receive the sacrament of confirmation next year, said Decker.
“It’s a wonderful gift that I will be in a place to talk to her about her faith journey in a different way,” she added.
Sheila Murphy, who is the parish’s pastoral associate, said the candidates and catechumens meet in-person once a week at the parish while adhering to safety guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing and wearing a face covering. Murphy noted that it’s been challenging “building community” with the distancing.
“Up until recently people didn’t know each other,” she said. “I was surprised sometimes. I didn’t know what they looked like without their mask on.”