This post was written by Jan Petroni Brown. She has led the RCIA Ministry at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Houston, Texas, for the past three years. She is an author and college English instructor.
In the small, ethnically diverse inner-city parish in one of the nation’s largest cities, the RCIA ministry my husband and I lead is anything but ordinary. We have come to expect anything and marvel at how powerfully the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of these sheep the Lord has called. This past Easter vigil, when our catechumens stepped up to the baptismal font, there was exuberance. And each one had a backstory.
Anger to joy
It had been only months ago that we had met heavily-tattooed Fidel. Grim-faced, this man of few words would announce that evening, “I’m just angry all the time.” As the baptismal waters were poured over his head, his two teenage daughters stood behind their father waiting for their turn to step up and be baptized. We had watched Fidel change with each Wednesday night RCIA gathering; the pastor had used the word “softened” to describe this hard-working husband and father. The week leading up to this night was one that had demanded the ultimate trust in his new-found faith. The night was a bittersweet one, as his wife and mother of these young girls lie in a hospital bed unable to accompany her family at the baptismal font.
Also one of our RCIA candidates, Sandra had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer just two weeks prior and was advised not to delay the mastectomy. Days later the news would become still bleaker with the report the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Still Fidel, now clutching his bible, managed a smile and stayed late to talk at the final RCIA session, speaking of forgiveness and announcing he had changed. Fellow employees had begun asking to work under his supervision; they too had noticed the change. Anger was no longer what defined this newly-baptized Catholic.
Blame to forgiveness
Tish’s backstory had begun years earlier, as the valedictorian of her high school class and college graduate found herself homeless and living in a women’s shelter. Feeling abandoned by her family, she had erected a formidable wall of unforgiveness and resentment, blaming her sister most and vowing to forever cut her out of her life. As her faith grew through the RCIA journey, she became increasingly unable to ignore this lack of forgiveness. Feeling “too dirty” to approach the cleansing waters of baptism, Tish set out to heal the 10-year-old wound that continued to tug at her heart. As the celebrant proclaimed, “I baptize you, in the name of the Father…,” it was her sister, along with their stepmom, who stood just inches away, eagerly ready to embrace the newest Catholic member of their family.
Confusion to certainty
With a Muslim father and a mom who had been raised Catholic and was now a Baptist, Waseem had spent many years searching before coming to our parish. Waseem had been raised as a Muslim and studied the Quran while living in Pakistan. Once back in the United States and feeling the influence of his devout Catholic grandmother, the then 13-year-old described himself as “very confused.” While choosing to delay telling his father of his new path, Waseem anxiously shared with the group the unexpected support he had received following the inevitable announcement. The handsome young man, who identified with the same worldly struggles as St. Augustine, felt a change of heart each week through the RCIA process. Determined to let nothing get in the way of this new-found peace, Waseem’s desire for baptism would be tested even during the final moments leading up to his baptism. Faced with an ultimatum that evening — stay at work or be fired — Waseem politely informed his boss he’d take the latter. With an unexpected freeway closure further delaying his arrival at the church, the nervous 6-footer, dressed from head to toe in white, pulled his car over, took a deep breath, and began praying. His personal conversation with the Lord consisted of one strong, concise vow: No amount of interference was going to block his new chosen path. For the young man who had described himself as confused for so many years, Waseem now had a new word to sum up his full initiation into Christ: joy.
Of course every person who chooses to take the first step on the journey through RCIA has a backstory — some more colorful than others. For those of us — mere instruments privileged to lead in this beautiful ministry — taking the time to reflect back on where our seekers have been is always part of the process of moving forward. And it is through our willingness to share our own story that we can better lead these seekers along this journey of faith and conversion.
Photo credit: Kristóf Vizy | Unsplash
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