MANHATTAN — Deadly metastatic cancer attacked Luis Enrique Cortez in 2017, and he survived, although weakened from chemotherapy and scarred by surgeries. But he also emerged fiercely determined to receive the sacrament of confirmation, a process he started 20 years ago but never completed as his focus shifted to career matters.
With cancer as a wakeup call, Cortez, 44, resumed studies for his confirmation, scheduled for May 31 — Pentecost Sunday — at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Woodside, Queens.
Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, and Queens, especially hard. So far, the city has counted almost 24,000 deaths; 195 were in Woodside, according to the latest data collected by the NYC Health Department.
Nearly everything, including church services, was shut down to try and help slow the virus. Consequently, St. Sebastian abruptly canceled on-site classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
“I was worried I would have to take the class all over again,” said Cortez, who was born in Puerto Rico. “I could’ve completed it many years ago, but it was just left up in the air. There’s no excuse for that.
“I am Catholic, and confirmation is required of us to get closer to God and let the Holy Spirit come inside of us.”
Monica Prada-Ahmed, 48, also attends St. Sebastian, but she sought all three sacraments of initiation — baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation.
Although Prada-Ahmed attended Catholic Church throughout her life, she did not receive sacraments as a child. Circumstances as an adult delayed them. The pandemic’s disruption discouraged her.
“I told my teacher, ‘Here we go again, I’m not going to get baptized,’” she recalled. “My husband was Catholic. My (three) kids were all baptized. I wanted to join the crowd.”
Last Spring, Prada-Ahmed and Cortez were among more than 1,000 catechumens and candidates in the Diocese of Brooklyn who planned to enter full communion with the Catholic Church through the sacraments.
“Catechumens” are people like Prada-Ahmed who seek the three sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation, and eucharist — to become Church members. Cortez is an example of a “candidate” — a person who has been baptized but has not yet received the sacrament of confirmation.
Some were teenagers, but most were adults in RCIA programs offered by parishes throughout the diocese. Many of them, like Prada-Ahmed, hoped to receive sacraments at the Easter Vigil on April 11, but that, too, was canceled along with public Easter services the following day.
Diocese leaders directed the parishes to figure out how to administer sacraments to their catechumens and candidates. Working through their directors of religious education, the parishes delivered.
For example, Cortez and Prada-Ahmed completed coursework online and received the sacraments at a special combined service Aug. 30 at St. Sebastian, complete with social distancing and personal protective equipment worn by everyone.
Cortez found new hope when Karin Sweeney, St. Sebastian’s RCIA director, switched from on-site to “virtual” classrooms on the Internet. This strategy enabled him to keep pursuing confirmation and uphold the Catholic legacy inspired by his mother.
Cortez said his mother had several medical problems — severe renal, cardiac, and high blood pressure — while he battled cancer. But he didn’t want his mother to visit him in the hospital; he was emaciated and losing hair.
“I didn’t want her to see me — what I looked like at the hospital, dying,” he said. “I told her, ‘I’m fine, mom. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.’ “
“So I did it on my own. It’s a miracle that I made it,” Cortez added. “I was so close to dying, but God gave me another opportunity to be a better person, to be a better man, and to complete my sacrament.”
His future is bright, he said, and he plans to keep caring for his mother and pursuing God.
Cortez and Prada-Ahmed both praised Sweeney and her husband, Patrick, for keeping the curriculum moving on a digital platform. Prada-Ahmed also regained hope.
She was born in Brooklyn, but her large Catholic family settled in Queens. A couple of her older siblings were baptized but her father later decided his children ought to make their own religious choices, and did not encourage sacraments, Prada-Ahmed said.
Nevertheless, her faith grew into adulthood. She got married in a civil ceremony and the couple had two sons and one daughter, but raising them demanded their attention. The kids are all young adults now, pursuing their careers, and the boys serve in the New York National Guard.
With her children grown, Prada-Ahmed pursued baptism.
She said Karin and Patrick Sweeney kept encouraging her when the coronavirus knocked a dent in her hope. She said they kept doing that right up to the service held Aug. 30 that presented confirmations originally set for Pentecost and sacraments slated for the Easter Vigil.
Now, Prada-Ahmed said, she has one more sacrament to pursue — matrimony with her husband, but this time in front of a priest.