With her godparent at her side, a catechumen listens intently during the Rite of Election March 10 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Mary Stadnyk photos 
With her godparent at her side, a catechumen listens intently during the Rite of Election March 10 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Mary Stadnyk photos 

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

For Hassan Ahmad, the Easter Vigil will mark both the culmination of a long quest for faith and a new beginning.

Born in Pakistan to a Muslim family, he was not actively engaged in faith when he arrived in Princeton University to study political theory. But after finding “people who were living faithfully in a well-ordered life” at the university, he was inspired to embark on his own search for faith.

“I prayed and I meditated and received support from everyone. For the first time in life, everything started to make sense,” he said.

Photo Gallery: Rite of Election

Ahmad was among the 168 adults and young people from throughout the Diocese who marked an important milestone in their journey of full Communion in the Catholic Church as they gathered March 10 with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for the Rite of Election in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

There, the catechumens, supported by their sponsors, godparents, family members and parish ministers, declared their intention to become fully initiated “Catholic Christians” when they receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil, which falls on April 20.

Ahmad admitted that when he began searching for a faith, he looked first to the Abrahamic traditions familiar to him. He started with Judaism, and after careful study, felt called to Christianity. Even then, the quest continued as he explored both the Eastern and Western branches of the Church.

“After experiencing both traditions,” he said, “I felt that the Catholic Church was the most contiguous” to the church throughout the ages. He turned to Princeton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry, the Aquinas Institute, where in October he began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Catholic Church’s official process for preparing those to enter the faith.

Good Counsel

The Rite of Election is a significant milestone for all who participate in RCIA. It is the occasion when they gather to publicly declare their intention before the Bishop to become fully initiated members of the Catholic Church.

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell stressed the momentous nature of the steps they are taking to go by the name Catholic.

While some listeners, he said, might hear that term and invoke Shakespeare’s famous “what’s in a name” line to denigrate its meaning, “the name we focus upon today is Christian, Catholic Christian,” and it’s far too important to be dismissed. Though we live in a time when it is common to hear religion downplayed as “not as important as simply being spiritual … it is simply not true,” the Bishop said.

“If it were true, then what are we doing here on this first Sunday of Lent? Why have we come to this Co-Cathedral?” Bishop O’Connell said. “Why have we spent our time and our energy preparing for our full initiation as Christians in the Catholic Church? Why are you asking me, the Bishop of this Diocese, to become full members of the Church, the ‘elect’ for the coming feast of Easter? And what are the rest of the people doing here?” he asked with a sweeping gesture to the entire assembly.

“We are here to give witness and example, to pray with and for you, to encourage you to be faithful to where the Lord has led you in your heart and soul,” Bishop O’Connell said.

Inscribed in Faith

During the Rite of Election, Stephen Bulvanoski, diocesan RCIA coordinator, presented the catechumens to Bishop O’Connell.

“Easter is drawing near, so the catechumens whom I now present to you are completing their period of preparation,” Bulvanoski said. “They have found their strength in God’s grace and support our 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 the Eucharist.”

Bishop O’Connell addressed the godparents and assembly, who affirmed that the catechumens were sufficiently prepared to be enrolled among the elect.

After the catechumens formally declared their wish to enter fully into the life of the Church, their names were enrolled in the Book of the Elect. As a member of each parish RCIA team read the names aloud, another team member presented that parish’s Book of the Elect. The Books of the Elect were signed by the catechumens earlier in the day in their own parishes during Rite of Sending ceremonies.

Sharing Stories

Many faithful took the opportunity to have their pictures taken with Bishop O’Connell during the day. Among them were Ahmad and fellow Princeton University students Thomas Morris, a catechumen, and Christian Schmidt, a RCIA candidate, who all beamed broadly.

Morris shared that he was an agnostic until he encountered the Catholic community at Princeton University. “I’m really grateful to the people who reached out to me. College is an amazing time to reconnect to the faith.”

Ahmad and Morris were appreciative that the Rite of Election gave them a chance to share faith with parishioners from around the Diocese.

“Coming outside the [academic] bubble, you experience a shift of pace,” Ahmad said. “This has brought me joy.”

For Iris Natal of St. John Parish, Lakehurst, receiving the Sacraments was something her late husband, Santos, wanted for her before he died. It was something friends and family members wanted for Natal, a home health aide, as well.

Natal came from a Catholic background but never received the Sacraments of Initiation. “I was always saying, ‘I don’t have the time,’” she said. “I’d say, ‘I know, I know’ I should, and then … my husband got sick.”

When her husband died four years ago, she felt drawn to receive the Sacraments but got distracted by life’s other responsibilities. In time, a former co-worker and dear friend convinced her to go to Mass and put her in touch with parish RCIA director Joseph Pittarelli.

The friend, Michael, became her sponsor and has continued offering encouragement. “I started to feel relief. I started to feel good about myself,” she said of the RCIA process.

Catechumen Rebecca Tomes of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, feels as if her entire family has been given a gift. Tomes, who grew up in an interfaith family – Jewish, Baptist and Catholic – married her husband, Richard, in the Catholic Church. The time never seemed right, however, for her to join the Church.

Not too long ago, Tomes suggested she and her 10-year-old daughter take religious education. “I found CCD for Kayla and RCIA for me … doing this together, she’s having a great year, and so am I.”