Taylor Beejack, back row far left, a RCIA  candidate from St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, joins others at the Lenten retreat day held for all parish RCIA team members, elect and candidates April 6 in Asbury Park. Of her RCIA experience, she said, “It has brought me closer to God and made a noticeable difference in my life.” Mary Stadnyk photo
Taylor Beejack, back row far left, a RCIA  candidate from St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, joins others at the Lenten retreat day held for all parish RCIA team members, elect and candidates April 6 in Asbury Park. Of her RCIA experience, she said, “It has brought me closer to God and made a noticeable difference in my life.” Mary Stadnyk photo

By Mary Morrell, Contributing Editor and
Matthew Greeley, Associate Director of Communications

“It changed my life forever,” Gloria Walker said about a turning point in her faith journey.

Walker, an Episcopalian and candidate in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process in St. Anselm Parish, Tinton Falls, explained that her initial interest in the local Catholic church was one of convenience.

After moving into a 55-plus community she saw that St. Anselm Church was close by. She began thinking about attending and finally had the opportunity to visit with some friends.

Initially, she attended the 8 a.m. Mass. “It was comfortable and very similar to the Episcopal service in some ways,” she said. But it was her first Sunday Mass, and the words of the pastor describing the parish as being blessed with a diverse community where all are welcome that made the difference.

 “I knew this was right for me,” said Walker, who was soon welcomed into the RCIA process led by Sandy Mullarkey, parish pastoral associate.

During a book study on “Why the Rosary, Why Now?” by Gretchen Crowe, Walker experienced something powerful. 

“I knew of the Rosary but never knew how to pray it,” said Walker. “Sandy gave me Rosary beads, taught me how to pray it, and after that, it changed my life forever. I felt different. I was so happy, so thrilled. I pray it every day.”

Looking forward to the Easter Vigil when she will receive the rest of her sacraments, Walker said, “I don’t have any doubts about it. I’m ready. My journey has been wonderful, but I know it doesn’t end here. There’s much more to learn.”

Welcoming the Newly Initiated

Candidates in the RCIA may be those baptized into a Christian tradition who are seeking full communion in the Roman Catholic tradition, or they may be baptized Catholics who have not yet received the other Sacraments of Initiation – First Holy Communion and Confirmation.

The formation process for candidates, and the rites they celebrate, differs from that of the catechumens – those who come to the process unbaptized. The Call to Continuing Conversion, typically celebrated in parishes, formally recognizes candidates as those preparing to enter into full communion with the Church.

This year, across the Diocese of Trenton, 168 catechumens, (now referred to as “the elect”), and 571 candidates will complete their initiation into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

Mullarkey stressed that the RCIA is a community experience. By celebrating the rites, “our parish community gets to know the catechumens and candidates .., and the catechumens and candidates begin to feel a connection to the parish and the parishioners [who] greet them after Mass encouraging them, and assuring them of their prayers and support on their journey of faith.”

“We prepare baptized Christians by assessing each person’s needs,” explained Mullarkey. “We meet with them individually for several sessions.  As a spiritual director, I help guide them in a sort of life review, and help them reflect on what brought them to the Catholic Church,” she said.

Journey of Faith

Taylor Beejack, a candidate from St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, initially felt called to complete her Sacraments of Initiation in order to become godmother to her next niece or nephew.

“As new babies are being brought into this world, they need role models to share the love of God and family,” said Beejack. “I realized, as this process began, that the Church meant much more to me than just being a godmother. It has brought me closer to God and made a noticeable difference in my life.”

Beejack, a full time psychology student in Ocean County College, began her Catholic journey when she was baptized in St. Agnes Parish, Atlantic Highlands. With her grandmothers and her father being Catholic, Beejack shared that her Catholic faith is deeply rooted in her family history.

Describing her RCIA experience as “enlightening and an all-around joy,” Beejack said, “It has taught me God’s love and the love he wants us to share with others. I have met the most wonderful people and I am truly blessed to have had this experience. … Each person in RCIA was instrumental in my growth with God. I hope to share this love with my godchild once he or she is born.”

For the RCIA family in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, the preparation through RCIA has created a family, one based on faith.

“The classes changed my life. They’ve helped me to become a better person, a better husband, father, companion,” parishioner José Cardenas said about his experience as a candidate.

One lesson learned that has stuck with Cardenas is that “the Son of God helped us, without asking for anything in return.”  He explained that this sacrificial love is something that goes beyond just an expression of faith, because it plays out in his everyday life. 

Cardenas also noted, “My family has been a big part of this journey for me. I am now trying to teach all that I am learning to my child, but it is a journey that can be difficult to put to words.”

Fellow parishioner Alexandra Afanador echoed that sentiment adding, “It’s a journey and now I know that I have a mission. It’s teaching me to be my best. I used to think that I knew everything that I needed to know, but I realized that I really did not know a lot [about the Catholic faith].” She shared that her faith has deepened by learning how to use the Bible and how to pray.

A Family Affair

As adults, people responding to the Call to Continuing Conversion are saying “yes” to the Catholic faith for any number of reasons, often described as a recognition that something was missing in their lives.

That was the case for Winter Murillo, 30, a member of the Hightstown parish, who shared that his decision took some time in the making. He saw many of his friends getting married but recognized the distance his past decisions had created in his own family.

“I knew that somehow I needed to change who I used to be,” he said.

He was encouraged to meet with Father Juan Rojas, parochial vicar in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, and they began to meet regularly to talk about faith and life.

“Padre Juan explained so much to me. I had tried other faiths, but something told me that I should go back to the [Catholic Church]. Padre Juan said he thought I should try the RCIA classes. He said that if I liked them, great, and if not, that he would still always be there for me.”

Upon beginning to participate in the parish RCIA program, Murillo explained that he began to feel a real sense of lacking.

“It was in the third class when I started to feel that there was something missing. I don’t know why, but I started thinking about my son and that he was never baptized.”

He spoke with the parish RCIA coordinator, Rosemarie Constable, about his son, Andrew, who was eight years old. Shortly after, Andrew started going to religious education classes, something that has already been a source of great learning and connection for both father and son.

Fighting back tears, Murillo shared how proud he is of Andrew. “God is preparing him for something big. He loves going to the classes and learning about our faith. I am so proud of him. He has helped me so much and teaches me about God, too.”

Fellow parishioner María Masariegos made the choice to fully join the Church in part because of her family. Her husband will also receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Vigil Mass.

“I want my home to be a Christian home,” she shared. She and her husband married civilly outside of the Church years ago. The couple will convalidate their marriage in May.

For St. Anthony of Padua parishioner Saira García, being fully initiated as a Catholic has been something she has longed for over many years. “I believe in God. I am a servant of the Lord. This process has helped me to see life in a different way. I understand more and connect more with God and I feel ready to step up for and in my faith.”

All the RCIA candidates will complete their Sacraments of Initiation during the Easter Vigil Mass in their respective parishes.

Mary Stadnyk, associate editor, contributed to this story.