SUNSET PARK — Nataly Castillo’s journey toward Catholicism was a walk in the park — literally.
A stroll through Prospect Park landed her in Windsor Terrace, where she wandered into Holy Name of Jesus Church and nervously inquired about joining the faith.
“I immediately felt welcomed,” said Castillo, a 19-year-old sophomore at Brooklyn College studying digital marketing and web design. She is one of the hundreds of people in the Diocese of Brooklyn who will be baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday at their local churches.
Castillo took a big step in her journey by taking part in the Rite of Election on Sunday, Feb. 26 — a time-honored tradition that takes place annually on the first Sunday of Lent and signifies the fact that those who are to be baptized — called catechumens — have been chosen, or elected, by the Church.
Catechumens are people who have never been baptized before in any religion and are making a conscious decision to join the Catholic faith.
The Rite of Election also signals the official change in status for the participants who go from being catechumens to being elected.
There were two Rite of Election services on Sunday — at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, Queens. Bishop Robert Brennan presided over both.
“Today is a very joyous celebration,” Bishop Brennan said at the Brooklyn service. “The family is growing.”
There were 164 catechumens in Brooklyn and 217 in Queens this year — for a total of 381, according to the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis. The Brooklyn catechumens come from 36 different parishes. Thirty-nine Queens parishes had catechumens.
Behind the numbers, each catechumen had a personal story of faith.
Castillo’s journey began during the pandemic. “I was going through a difficult time with a lot of anxiety and a lot of panic,” she remembered.
She grew up in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens with Catholic parents but never joined the faith. “It was always in the back of my mind, but I never did anything about it. It seemed overwhelming to even try,” she said.
The pandemic hit when she was a junior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, and she found preparing for graduation and applying for colleges stressful. “My mom saw me suffering and told me, ‘Try going to church. Just try,’ ” she said.
One day, she took a walk through Prospect Park to calm herself down. She emerged from the park and was strolling along Prospect Park West when she looked up and saw Holy Name of Jesus Church. She now believes it was no accident that she wound up standing in front of the church that day.
She reveled in her faith formation studies — finding life lessons and religious instruction. “It seemed like a good way to open myself up to something new. And it had a way of opening up my heart and mind,” she explained.
The chance to worship openly and receive the Holy Eucharist in public is something Cunguang Zheng, a 45-year-old construction worker from Sunset Park, said he will always appreciate.
Zheng spent most of his life in China and came to the U.S. a few years ago.
Because China is a communist country with a government that does not permit religious freedom, Zheng and his family attended an underground church, always fearful of being detected. “It was very difficult,” he said through an interpreter.
When he came to the U.S., he decided he wanted to become a Catholic “because I was free to do so.” He began taking faith formation classes at OLPH in Sunset Park and enjoyed getting to know more about the Church.
“I will be very, very happy to be baptized. I have waited a long time for it,” he said.
It was a family tragedy that jump-started Jennifer Mejia’s path to the Church. Her mother, Araceli Zamora, died of cardiac arrest on Aug. 22, 2022. “She was never sick,” Mejia said, explaining the shock she and her two younger brothers felt.
Mejia, who lives in Corona and is a fast-food restaurant cashier, takes care of her siblings, serving as a surrogate mother to them.
While her mother was never religious during her lifetime, “I feel like God and my mother are working on me from heaven,” Mejia said.
With encouragement from a relative, she started classes at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Corona. “It was a bit challenging at first,” she recalled. “But I made it, and now I’m ready to become a Catholic.”
Father Joseph Gibino, vicar for evangelization and catechesis for the diocese, said the Rite of Election “is very important because it is a public welcome from the Church to those who are to be baptized.”
In addition to catechumens, the church also welcomes new members, known as candidates.
Unlike catechumens, candidates have previously been baptized into other Christian faiths. But now they wish to become Catholic.
Candidates will take their next step at a service known as the Call to Continuing Conversion, which will take place on Sunday, March 5.