Focus On Christ • Father Javier Diaz has the rapt attention of the more than 200 elect, candidates and parish RCIA team members who gathered for a retreat March 24 in St. Peter Church, a worship site of Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish, Beverly. Mary Stadnyk photos
Focus On Christ • Father Javier Diaz has the rapt attention of the more than 200 elect, candidates and parish RCIA team members who gathered for a retreat March 24 in St. Peter Church, a worship site of Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish, Beverly. Mary Stadnyk photos

Story by David Kilby | Correspondent

Just as Jesus had retreated to the mountain to spend 40 days in prayer and fasting, the Lenten season is a time for all the faithful to follow his example by spending time preparing for what is regarded as the holiest time in the liturgical year – the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Such was the focus of a March 24 Lenten retreat geared specifically for those women and men from around the Diocese who were seeking full membership in the Catholic Church through their participation in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in their parishes.

Together with their RCIA team members and catechists, more than 200 elect and candidates gathered in St. Peter Church, a worship site of Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish, Beverly, to reflect on the upcoming observance of Holy Week, the celebration of Easter and what they would experience on Holy Saturday evening when they would receive their Sacraments of Initiation.

“Every year brings its own grace,” said Father Javier Diaz, pastor of Christ the King Parish, Long Branch, who facilitated the retreat that centered on the theme, “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

“This group, I think, has a willingness to continue their work, to nourish their faith. They are really eager to learn and continue to grow spiritually and to give [of themselves],” said Father Diaz, noting that he made it a main a point to say to the gathering, “Now that you know Jesus, he is going to change  you, and you reach a spot where you want to do more.”

Because the majority of the participants were Spanish-speaking, Father Diaz presented his talks in Spanish or Portuguese. However, his remarks were translated for the English-speaking attendees by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Ruth Bolarte, director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry in the Diocese of Metuchen.

 “Hopefully this retreat is another source of reflection and helps [the participants] in their commitment to their spiritual journey,” said Sister Ruth. “It’s wonderful that people of different ethnic groups are getting to know each other. This is our Church; it reflects the diversity. We’re one in our diversity.”

Sue Eggert, RCIA coordinator in St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor, said it was her hope that the retreat helped the elect and candidates gain a deeper sense of what Jesus actually did by dying on the Cross, and through that, develop a deeper love for him and a stronger faith.

Eggert added that her RCIA team wanted to learn more about their Catholic faith so they could return to their parish with greater knowledge and renewed vigor.

Deacon Ken Donzalski of Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, said, “I think our group got a better understanding of the Seven Last Words of Jesus. Our RCIA team, and our candidates in particular, gained a better understanding of what’s Jesus’ Death is all about.”

Deacon Donzalski, who attended the retreat with his parish’s RCIA team members, one candidate and one catechumen, remarked on the fruitfulness of the small group discussions, which allowed the elect and candidates to share their journey of faith stories.

Victor Cortéz of St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood, was one RCIA candidate who told of how he had been raised Catholic, but wasn’t practicing the faith. After several struggles in their marriage, he and his wife met a prayer group at Ocean Medical Center, Brick, called Hijos de Maria Santisima. Members of the prayer group invited Cortéz to visit their parish, St. Anthony of Claret. He started running into people from the prayer group all around town, and said these encounters were reminders that God was calling him to join the parish. He was to receive his first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil, March 31, and he and his wife will soon be married in the Church.

Juliette Flora, a candidate from St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, wasn’t really into her Catholic faith either, and she never received her First Holy Communion or Confirmation. But things began to change in her life after her mother died. While dealing with the tragedy, her aunt told her to start praying. “At first it wasn’t doing anything for me because I had doubts, and I was still dealing with the loss of my mother,” she shared.

But one day she did decide to pray. “I prayed, ‘Mom, just give me a sign that you are here,”’ she said. At that moment, a picture of her mother hanging on a wall nearby fell to the floor, she recalled.

“After that, I told my aunt that I wanted to receive First Communion and Confirmation,” she said.

Noting that the retreat for RCIA elect, candidates and team members was the third such event that was organized by the diocesan Department of Catechesis, Steve Bulvanoski, the diocesan RCIA coordinator in speaking on its significance, said that since the early days of the Church, catechumens were required to go on a 40-day retreat. But  over time, the early Church decided that a retreat experience is something that should be offered for all the faithful.

“During Lent, the whole Church is on retreat,” Bulvanoski said, and for the catechumens and candidates, especially, this is part of their final preparation before they receive their Sacraments.

The retreat is a diocesan wide event and now the Diocese is “supplementing what they’re already getting on the parish level.”