New Catholics enter the church at Easter Vigil

By Mary P. Walker

Senior Correspondent

"April 19 is going to be a big day," said 15-year-old Grace Gardner, who will be baptized, confirmed, and receive her first holy Communion at the Easter Vigil. On that day, the Catholic population of the Diocese of Austin is expected to grow by 784, when, along with Gardner, those who have been preparing to join the church will be baptized or make their profession of faith as Catholics.

"We are very grateful that you said ‘yes’ to God," said Bishop Joe Vásquez, who with great joy, presided at the Rite of Election of Catechumens and the Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates. These rites affirm the church’s welcome and acceptance of their desire to become members. The rites also usher in a time of intense prayer and preparation, leading to the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

Due to the large number of participants and the geographic size of the diocese, the rites were celebrated three times during the first weekend of Lent: March 8 in the early afternoon at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in College Station, and twice on the afternoon of March 9 at St. John Vianney Parish in Round Rock.

For catechumens, those who are not baptized, the Rite of Election affirms their readiness for baptism and their desire to become fully initiated Christians through confirmation and holy Eucharist. During the rite, their godparents testified that they had faithfully demonstrated their commitment by prayer, listening to God’s word and service. From now until their baptism, the catechumens are known as the "elect," because God chose them for the Easter sacraments.

Those baptized in another Christian tradition are called candidates, and the Call to Continuing Conversion acknowledges their oneness with Catholics through baptism and their desire to join the Catholic Church by making a profession of faith. At the rite, their sponsors testified to their readiness to complete their Christian initiation through the sacraments of confirmation and holy Eucharist.

The rite included the Sunday Mass readings, which told the story of original sin, and Jesus resisting the devil’s temptation in the desert. During his homily, Bishop Vásquez highlighted the importance of grace in overcoming pride and concern for self, which is the root of most sin. Pride and the prevailing view of our society tell us that we can overcome evil on our own.

"We, as Catholics, believe we are always in need of grace and salvation," which come only from God, through Jesus, he said.

"God raised us through Jesus. He is giving us a new dignity and character. Only grace can do that," Bishop Vásquez said.

God used different people and circumstances to give the elect and candidates the grace they needed to answer Christ’s invitation to join the Catholic Church. Growing up with little experience attending church, Grace Gardner, 15, went to The Pines Catholic Camp three summers ago at the invitation of her best friend, Emma McKenzie. She has attended the camp every summer since.

At camp, she experienced enthusiasm for the faith, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a welcoming community. Over time, she explained, she "grew into" the Catholic faith. Last year she decided that she wanted to be baptized, and began the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) process at St. Louis Parish in Waco. Her friend’s mother, Emily, will be her godmother. When she returns to camp this summer, she will go as a fully initiated Catholic.

Also to be baptized is Eric Brim of St. Mary Parish in Mexia. His wife, Josie, is Catholic, and he felt a longing to join the church at the baptism of his daughter. Because Brim travels for his job, Deacon Dwight Mahoney met with him one-on-one to help him prepare for baptism, and even e-mailed him homework. Brim understands baptism as a cleansing, and it will be the gateway to sharing the faith of his family. His seventh grade teacher, Helen Matthews, will be his godmother.

Previously baptized in the Baptist tradition, Kelli and Mike Beckham’s motivation to become Catholic came from their desire to understand what their daughter, River, was learning at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bryan. They enrolled in the parish’s RCIA program, where they discovered the foundation and history of Catholicism.

"The more we went to the classes, the more interested we got in what our daughter was learning in school," Mike said.

The Beckhams grew up in Northeast Texas, and observed that conflicts within a church community resulted in churches splitting. They are especially attracted to the universality of the Catholic faith. While each parish may have its own personality, each parish is also united with the entire church. They look forward to living their faith together as a family. Friends Kevin and Bird Sherry will be their sponsors.

Also baptized in the Baptist tradition, Jack Houston is the former host of a "down on the farm" children’s show, Imagineland, that aired on PBS. His business partner for the show, Emil Ogden, introduced him to Catholicism. After the show completed production, they stayed in touch as friends. Catholicism was discussed over long (two and three hour) lunches.

Through Ogden, Houston began to understand that the Catholic Church could trace her origin to the apostles, which raised other questions for him.

"I had to find out the answers. It involves eternity," Houston said. Two and a half years ago, he began attending RCIA classes at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in College Station, but stopped because he was not ready to make a commitment to the faith. Obstacles included dealing with his misconceptions about Catholicism, the church’s teachings on Mary and belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

However, he persisted in his study, discussions, questions and prayer, and found the answers he was seeking. He credits Deacon Dave Mayes and his nephew Kevin Cooley, who converted to Catholicism, with inspiration and support.

"I am a beggar before the Lord. I’m anxiously looking forward to benefitting spiritually from the sacraments that have been missing from my life," Houston said.

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