More than 150,000 Americans joined the Catholic Church on Holy Saturday through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Over 62,000 of these converts participated in the Rite of Election with their bishops at the beginning of Lent. An estimated 24,000 of the group were baptized, confirmed and received Holy Eucharist for the first time on Holy Saturday.
“The Rite of Election in my diocese was the highlight of the year,” said Tulsa Bishop Edward Slattery, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization. He worried that his cathedral would be next to empty due to all the scandal news this year, but he was delighted to find that the numbers signing the Book of Elect were higher than 2003. “It is great to know that God is in charge,” he said.
The RCIA is an ancient rite that was reinstituted in the Church following the Second Vatican Council. It is the usual means for adults to come into the Church. The rite was formally approved for use in the U.S. in 1974. It includes several stages marked by study, prayers and rites at Mass. The catechumens undergo a process of conversion as they study the gospel, profess faith in Jesus and the Catholic Church, and receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist.
In addition to converts, more than 1 million infants are expected to be baptized in 2004, which matches a similar number in 2003. The Sacrament of Penance is the way for “fallen-away Catholics” to return to the Church. Catholics who were baptized, but never received confirmation or Eucharist, can return to the Church through a process called “continuing conversion.” It is completed with the reception of the sacraments at the Easter Vigil or during the Easter Season.
The Sacred Chrism, or oil, blessed by the bishop during the annual Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday at the cathedral, is a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to the newly baptized. It is also a sign of the close link between the mission of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Who comes to the recipients with the Father in baptism.
Men and women who come into the Church cite many reasons. Some are inspired by Catholic family members and friends. Others discover the Catholic Church during their search for spiritual fulfillment.
It will be interesting to see if there is an increase in the size of RCIA classes in 2005 due to Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Although the movie’s initial box office success has subsided, and many theatres actually stopped showing the movie prior to Holy Week, there undoubtedly will be renewed interest once it is available for sale on DVD.
“The Rite of Initiation during the Holy Saturday service inspires everyone in the Church,” said Paulist Father John Hurley, executive director of the Evangelization Secretariat. “Congregants, who observe newcomers being baptized, confirmed and receiving the Eucharist for the first time, recall the precious gift of faith and the union with Jesus to which people are called. This indeed is good news in challenging times.”