Nearly 200 faithful prepare to enter the Church in East Tennessee at Easter Vigil
By Gabrielle Nolan
The Catholic Church in East Tennessee is about to grow with the approaching feast of Easter, as nearly 50 catechumens and 130 candidates continue their preparation to receive the sacraments of initiation.
For the first time in over two years, since before the pandemic began, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus hosted the combined Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.
Catechumens and candidates, along with their godparents, sponsors, and RCIA teams, traveled from the four deaneries of the diocese to the cathedral in Knoxville the weekend of March 5-6 for their next step in preparing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
“This is the second step in the Rite of Christian Initiation,” explained Sister Peter Miriam Dolan, RSM, who serves as the director of faith formation for the Diocese of Knoxville. “It’s meant to be a more intense time of prayer and kind of heading toward more of an immediate preparation for receiving the sacraments.”
Catechumens are individuals who have never been baptized and who deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith so they may receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.
Candidates are individuals who have already received a valid baptism from another Christian tradition and make a profession of faith to receive the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist at Easter.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the rite both days as a Liturgy of the Word.
“Welcome to the Mother Church of the Diocese, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he said at the beginning of Saturday’s liturgy.
“This is one of my favorite celebrations, the Rite of Election,” the bishop continued. “So, as we begin our celebration of this very special moment in your life, my life, and the Church of Knoxville’s life, let us just place ourselves in the presence of God himself.”
Following the Liturgy of the Word, Bishop Stika gave a homily where he compared the difference between cradle Catholics and those adults who choose to enter the Catholic Church.
“I admire you,” the bishop said to the catechumens and candidates. “You know why? Almost 65 years ago, on July 21, I was carried by my parents… and they presented me to Monsignor Wempe, who baptized me.”
“I didn’t have anything to say about it. I was kidnapped and taken to the church,” he said, causing the congregation to erupt into laughter. “But that began my faith journey into Christianity and to the Catholic Church.”
“But you! You made a decision! You’ve all made a decision: to become Catholic, to be baptized, or to be received into the Church,” the bishop said. “You’ve made adult decisions. And that’s what I admire so much about all of you.”
Bishop Stika affirmed that once you are baptized, your faith journey continues for the rest of your life.
“You know, sometimes Catholics get a little spoiled. They believe once they’re confirmed they know it all, but they don’t. In fact, we’re never going to know it all until we get there standing before God to be judged. And then, maybe some of our questions might be answered,” he said.
“I just want to embrace you with joy and say I’m glad you’re here today,” the bishop concluded. “I pray that your journey will help you discover more and more about your holiness and your goodness and the presence of God in your life. So, I admire you so much for saying yes to Jesus when He said to you… ‘Come and follow me.’”
The Rite of Election began following the homily.
Sister Peter Miriam addressed the bishop, saying, “Your Excellency, Easter is drawing near. These catechumens, whom we now present to you, are completing their period of preparation.
“They have found strength in God’s grace and support in their parish community’s prayer and example. Now they ask that after the celebration of the scrutinies, they be allowed to participate in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.”
To which the bishop responded, “My dear catechumens, you are chosen in Christ. As your name is called, I ask you to stand, together with your godparents.”
Each parish of the four deaneries presented their catechumens. As the catechumens stood before the bishop, he asked their godparents:
- Have they faithfully listened to God’s Word proclaimed by the Church?
- Have they responded to that Word and begun to walk in God’s presence?
- Have they shared the company of their Christian sisters and brothers and joined with them in prayer?
The godparents responded, “they have,” to each question.
The bishop then directly addressed the catechumens, asking, “Do you wish to enter fully into the life of the Church through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist?”
To which the catechumens responded, “We do.”
Each parish leader then presented their Book of the Elect to the bishop, who signed his signature to ratify their call to election.
Similarly, Sister Peter Miriam presented the candidates to the bishop, saying, “Your Excellency, we now present to you the candidates who seek to complete their Christian initiation. They have been preparing diligently to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
“They, too, have found strength in God’s grace and support in their parish community’s prayers and example. Now they ask that after the Lenten season, they be admitted to confirmation and the Eucharist,” she said.
To which the bishop responded, “My dear candidates, you desire to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. As your name is called, I ask you to stand together with your sponsors.”
Each parish of the four deaneries presented their candidates. As the candidates stood before the bishop, he asked their sponsors:
- Have these candidates faithfully listened to the apostles’ instruction proclaimed by the Church?
- Have they come to a deeper appreciate of their baptism, in which they were joined to Christ and His Church?
- Have they reflected sufficiently on the tradition of the Church, which is their heritage, and joined their sisters and brothers in prayer?
- Have they advanced in a life of love and service to others?
The sponsors responded, “they have,” to each question.
The bishop then directly ad dressed the candidates, asking, “Do you wish to enter fully into the life of the Church through the sacraments of confirmation and the Eucharist?”
To which the candidates responded, “We do.”
During the liturgy, the bishop greeted a receiving line of every catechumen and candidate. After the liturgy concluded, the bishop was present to take photos, bless devotional items, and spend more time in conversation.
For catechumens and friends Caroline Swenson and Sophia Herrell, it was their first time visiting the Knoxville cathedral.
“I have barely seen any Catholic cathedrals in my life, and so my experience really had me in awe,” Miss Swenson said. “Bishop Stika and all of the nuns at the Rite of Election were so nice and welcoming, and the whole experience made me even more excited for Easter Vigil.”
“The cathedral is like a visual representation of the beauty of the liturgy and tradition of the Catholic Church,” Miss Harrell said. “I think it is very important to have beautiful churches. The Church is often misunderstood, but everyone understands beauty, so it can be a way that the Church communicates with the world.”
Both Miss Swenson and Miss Herrell are students at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City and attend Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at St. Mary Parish there.
“My experience with RCIA has been very good,” Miss Swenson said. “We have always had great teachers every week and many thought-provoking conversations. Everyone at St. Mary in Johnson City has been very welcoming and kind toward me, and I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
When asked what inspired her to join the Catholic Church, Miss Herrell responded, “praying the rosary and reading made me Catholic.”
“Particularly reading about the history of the early Church and the writings of the saints, especially the Church doctors,” she continued. “I think going to Mass and being in the presence of the Eucharist for the first time was when I decided for sure that I wanted to enter into the Church.”
“[Caroline and Sophia] are both in school and such hard-working young ladies,” said Kathy Garland, a first-year RCIA coordinator at St. Mary Parish. “My heart just melts at how devoted they are to RCIA. I’m so blessed to have such a great team and the growth we have experienced this year.”
Mrs. Garland, who herself converted to the Catholic faith in 2016, prayed and discerned before serving on the RCIA team.
“I was a little nervous but also excited because I know how I felt going through it,” she said.
“I kind of like to say when someone asks me, when does our RCIA start, I always say usually with a phone call. It starts right then,” Mrs. Garland said. “You start with your relationship-building and then you encounter with the seekers, and basically you think that you are interviewing them, but they really, I think, seem like they’re interviewing you to say, ‘Do I feel comfortable to be here, do I feel safe to share?’”
The Rite of Election liturgy was impactful for their entire RCIA group. Mrs. Garland noted how her catechumens and candidates were lighting candles, observing the artwork, and trying to soak in the whole atmosphere.
“I just felt the Holy Spirit there the whole time. I felt tears of joy to be on the other side and watching them,” she said. “They said it was just one of the best experiences they’ve ever experienced, and I said you will never forget it.”
Matthew Miles is in his third year as RCIA coordinator and sixth year as a team member at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland, but the RCIA process and journey to the Rite of Election remains special to him all of these years later.
“The Rite of Election, for a lot of them, is their first physical encounter with something outside of that local parish,” he said. “This is the first time, for some of them it might be the only time, they see the bishop in person. This is just such a great opportunity to bring them together as a group.”
The St. Thérèse team has two catechumens and six candidates, the youngest being a senior in high school and the oldest being a senior in his 70s.
“You get a variety of people,” Mr. Miles said. “Some of them are married to a Catholic and have been attending Mass for a long time, and they’re finally feeling like it’s time for them to join. You have others who, maybe something sparked their interest, you know, something they saw in the media, or a book they read, or a class they’ve taken at school…and they just kind of want to know more.”
Mr. Miles is a convert who has first-hand experience of going through the process of RCIA and desires to help others on their faith journeys.
“I just love seeing people grow closer to Christ,” he said. “Being able to walk with a variety of people year after year, for me it’s kind of a cyclical journey that I get to kind of go through the experience of questioning and learning and growing closer to Christ.”
The final steps for the catechumens and candidates will be reception into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil on April 16, where they will receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. Then on Sunday, May 15, at the cathedral, Bishop Stika will celebrate the Sending of the Neophytes Mass, where those who entered the Church at Easter Vigil are formally sent forth into the world to proclaim the Gospel through their words and actions.
**Correction: the date of the Sending of the Neophyte Mass is May, 15, 2022. It was previously stated as May 22.