In full communion

Nearly 400 catechumens, candidates entering Catholic Church at Easter Vigil

By Bill Brewer

The season of Lent brings with it newness and growth, as in the hundreds of catechumens and candidates who will be entering into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter.

Many of those catechumens and candidates gathered at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18 for the Rite of Election of Catechumens and the Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates, where Father David Boettner, who serves as cathedral rector, told those joining the Church that their faith and courage was an inspiration for all Catholics, many of whom may be prompted to ask themselves, “If I weren’t Catholic, would I have joined the Church?”

“I love the Rite of Election and just the whole process of the RCIA,” Father Boettner said. “I’m always humbled because for those of us who were born Catholic, we were given a gift that we probably didn’t fully appreciate when we were first given it. And so, watching folks who are coming into the Church or being baptized for the first time or coming into full communion, I think it causes us to pause and ask ourselves a question: OK, what if I had not been born into the Catholic faith. Would I have their courage? Would I have their commitment? I think it helps us all to grow a little stronger, a little more intentional about our faith.”

Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, greets candidates and catechumens during the Rite of Election service on Feb. 18 at the cathedral. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Nearly 300 catechumens and candidates participated in the Rite of Election services for the Chattanooga and Five Rivers deaneries on Feb. 17 and the Cumberland Mountain and Smoky Mountain deaneries on Feb. 18, according to the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Christian Formation.

Deacon Jim Bello, who serves as director of the Office of Christian Formation and at Holy Spirit Parish in Soddy-Daisy, said nearly 400 East Tennessee catechumens and candidates are expected to be in full communion with the Church at Easter Vigil on Saturday, March 30.

At that time, catechumens will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and first Holy Communion. Candidates will receive the sacraments of confirmation and first Communion.

“It was a beautiful two days. This rite is always one of my favorite events of the year because we are welcoming these new people into the Church as they continue their formation. They’ve worked so hard. So, to have a viewpoint where I can see their faces as this goes on, you can tell there is a great peace and a great joy that settles over them,” said Deacon Bello, who recognized all the parishes taking part during the services.

“Both of these events over the last two days were just absolutely beautiful. I think the attendance was very good. Father David (Boettner) did a great job. … His homilies were beautiful. Whenever we see this on paper, I always worry about the attendance. But as soon as the cathedral began to fill up, and as soon as it was go-time, there was no question. The cathedral was three-quarters full on both days. It was beautiful,” he added.

In his Feb. 17 homily, Father Boettner recounted to the elect, those preparing to join the Church, how he was born in 1968 in Cleveland, Tenn., a location he described as heavily Protestant. And he likened his faith experience growing up in the Protestant Bible belt to challenges those entering the Church from other faiths or no faith at all may be exposed to.

“When I first started attending school, I received a lot of questions. ‘Why do you guys worship Mary?’ ‘Why are you Catholic?’ ‘Why do you guys worship saints?’ ‘Do you really believe that that little wafer is God?’ At first, I found a lot of those questions pretty annoying. I thought it was really kind of a hardship to be one of few Catholics in my school,” Father Boettner said. “Then, when I responded to God’s call to consider being a priest, I was sent to Chicago. Chicago is a very Catholic town. In fact, if you ask anyone where they live in Chicago, they won’t tell you what street they live on, they’ll tell you what parish they live in. Chicago was a center of people who professed the Catholic faith.”

“What was interesting is while I lived in Chicago, I started to realize what a gift it had been to grow up in an area where there were very few Catholics because I learned how to value my faith. I learned how to explain my faith. And I learned from the witness of so many other good Christian people how to live my faith on a regular basis,” the cathedral rector added.

Father Boettner signs the Book of the Elect, which records the names of the catechumens entering the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil. Assisting are Deacon David Lucheon, left, and Deacon Walt Otey. (Photo Dan McWilliams)

Father Boettner is buoyed by and empathized with the catechumens and candidates for the challenges they have or may face in the name of faith.

“I also was tremendously impressed with people in this area who, for various reasons, heard the call of God and felt God drawing them into the Catholic Church. Because to join the Catholic Church in East Tennessee is a perilous journey. That’s because oftentimes you can encounter conflicts with your friends or family; you can face some resistance from people who ask those same questions: ‘why do you worship Mary?’; ‘why would you want to be Catholic?’; ‘isn’t the Catholic Church the one that has all those scandals?’ So, there are legitimate reasons for being a little bit scared.

“But what’s amazing is you’re here today because God has called you. God has called you to learn more, to grow deeper in your own journey of faith, and to take that journey with other people, to recognize that none of us ultimately journey alone. All of us are on this journey of faith together as a pilgrim people. Hopefully, as you’ve continued along in your various RCIA groups, you’ve learned how to respond to many of those questions. You’ve not only learned how to respond to them, you’ve been able to value the gift that’s being offered to you, the gift of a profound faith in Jesus Christ.”

The Rite of Election is an important liturgical event for the catechumens and candidates, who for the 2023-24 East Tennessee group continue their faith journey at a time when the Diocese of Knoxville is without a bishop. Bishops typically preside at Rites of Election and sign the Book of the Elect, which signifies commitment and discipleship of the people entering the Church.

Father Boettner presided in place of a bishop and for Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville until a new bishop is named. Archbishop Fabre leads the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Father Boettner noted how the catechumens’ and candidates’ commitment serves as a shining example for Catholics and all people of faith.

Representatives from Chattanooga and Five Rivers deaneries deliver the Books of the Elect from their parishes to the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Feb. 17 for the Rite of Election. (Photo Bill Brewer)

“Your witness is a witness to the whole Christian community. That is one of the intentions of the RCIA—the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Your own response to God’s invitation actually helps those sitting in the pews who are already Catholic to be better Catholics. Your courage in pursuing the call that God has given to you helps those who maybe received that gift as a child and didn’t really appreciate the gift they had received to open the gift that they have and maybe explore that gift more profoundly.

“So, I want to commend you for your courage. I want to commend you for your humility in pursuing this journey of faith. And I want to assure you that the Christian community, the whole Christian community, is praying for you because what you do is part of the action of the Holy Spirit. And we hear about that action of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, we hear how Jesus was pushed out into the desert by the Spirit. And He was pushed out into the desert so that He could have clarity, so that He could hear more clearly what God was inviting Him to do in responding to His mission in the world. God gives that same gift to all of us,” the rector said.

In his Sunday homily for the catechumens and candidates of the Cumberland Mountain and Smoky Mountain deaneries, Father Boettner compared their journey into Lent to Jesus’ journey into the desert.

Father Boettner presented the congregation with three themes: the weather, the struggle, and the company on the journey. In complimenting the catechumens and candidates on their first step in joining the Catholic Church, he wanted to gauge their personal forecast.

“This is a great early start to your Lenten journey. I want to ask you to just think about what the weather is like in your soul. Just like we have sunny days, we have cloudy days, we have rainy days. We have weather in our soul, too. And it’s important to just ask that question. How is my soul feeling in the beginning of this Lenten journey? Because that is precisely the place where God wants to meet you. He doesn’t want to meet you in some imaginary place. He wants to meet you in the place where you are today. He wants to be with you whatever the weather may be,” Father Boettner said.

Then he reminded them of God’s covenant—the rainbow—and what that magnificent kaleidoscopic image signifies.

“The other thing God does is regardless of the weather, He always gives us a sign of hope. That is what we hear in the first reading. That rainbow is His sign of hope. Even on the cloudy days, even on the rainy days, we can remember that sign, that rainbow that reminds us of God’s covenant, of God’s promise to us that He will remain faithful even when the weather seems a little scary,” Father Boettner continued.

He detailed for them the challenges Catholics take on during Lent to grow in their relationship with Jesus, such as giving up something that is well-liked or doing acts of charity.

“Of course, whatever it is you’ve chosen to do will become exponentially more difficult the further into Lent you go. And that’s good. Because the struggle is not yours alone. The struggle is where God struggles with us. Lent is not about personal improvement. Lent is not about us somehow or other doing self-improvement. It’s about us opening ourselves up more to God so that He can bring about in us His plan, what He sees in us, so that He can bring to the surface those great gifts that He has given to each one of us,” he said.

Thirdly, Father Boettner explained to those joining the Church that Catholics call themselves members of the body of Christ. And as members of the body of Christ, they are surrounded by people of faith.

“Jesus Christ is the head of the body of Christ. His temptation in the desert shows us how to enter into this season. We will be tempted. We will struggle some. We might even fail some. But we know that God will send angels to minister to us to help us along the way. Thankfully, you have leaders of your RCIA, your fellow parishioners, and the community of faith to walk with you on this journey,” Father Boettner told them.

“That’s part of the Rite of Election—we are gathered together to pray for and with each other as we prepare for the great celebration of Easter. And as we do so, we recognize the ways that God is sending messengers to us, those angels, to help us along the way,” he said. “As we enter into this Rite of Election, we have the opportunity to be aware of those ministering angels, to recognize where we are today, where we want to invite God to be present with us, and in the struggle to ask for God’s help because God desires to bring to completion a great work that He has begun in each of us.”

Once the catechumens and candidates throughout the diocese enter the Church during Easter Vigil Masses, receiving their first Holy Communion, confirmation, and baptism for the catechumens, their journey into Catholicism is nearly complete. On April 28 at 4 p.m., they will gather again at the cathedral for the Sending of the Neophytes Mass, where they will be formally sent into the community to live their faith through their parishes in full communion with the Church.

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