PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Jasmine Zuniga, a student at Rachel Carson High School, Coney Island, wants to own her own hairstyling business someday. She also wants to become a Catholic. The latter dream is now within her grasp.
“I’m very excited. It’s something I’ve been working for,” she said.
Zuniga was one of the hundreds of people, called catechumens, who are enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the Diocese of Brooklyn and have been busy studying in their local parishes to be baptized into the Catholic Church.
On Feb. 21, Zuniga and her fellow catechumens took part in the Rite of Election, where Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio officially accepted them.
The Rite of Election is a time-honored ritual marking the church’s election, or choice, of catechumens who have been judged to be fit and ready to take part in the next and all-important step — receiving the sacraments.
This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the catechumens showed remarkable dedication to their goal, officials said. Bishop DiMarzio marveled at the determination of the students who faithfully kept up with their studies, despite the raging pandemic.
“They’re stormtroopers in a sense,” he said. “They have taken a lot of time and effort. These people really wanted to have their baptism.”
Most RCIA classes were conducted on Zoom this year, according to Father Joseph Gibino, vicar for evangelization and catechesis for the diocese. Father Gibino said RCIA coordinators at parishes went above and beyond the call of duty.
“We Catholics are a very creative people and sometimes we forget that. It takes a whole team of parish spiritual leaders to nurture the candidates along.”
The catechumens will be baptized at the Easter Vigil in their home parishes on Holy Saturday, April 3.
The Rite of Election kicks off a period of intense spiritual preparation as the catechumens get ready to take the major step in their lives.
Catechumens are people who were never baptized into any Christian faith but wish to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. There is another group of people, called candidates, who have been baptized into the Catholic Church or were baptized into another Christian faith and are now seeking full communion with the Catholic Church.
Zuniga is a catechumen on track to be baptized at Holy Cross Church in Flatbush.
“I can’t wait. This means so much to me,” she said excitedly as she awaited the start of the Rite of Election ceremony at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph on Sunday.
It’s not as if religion has been absent from her life all these years. “I would go to church with my mom and her friend,” she said. But joining the Catholic Church is important to her so that she can receive the Eucharist. “I’m very excited to receive the body of God,” she said.
Becoming a Catholic is to “know that they’re taking care of you from on high,” she said.
The Rite of Election was markedly different this year.
The ceremony at which Bishop DiMarzio presided was one of four held in the diocese on the same day. Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann led the ceremony at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto presided over the event at the Immaculate Conception Center. There was also a ceremony at Queen of Martyrs Church, presided over by Auxiliary Bishop Paul Sanchez.
“We had to do it this way this year to make sure we could socially distance. We had to be creative,” Father Gibino said.
Normally, the catechumens gather together for the Rite of Election, and the bishop personally greets each.
Normally, there are more than 1,000 catechumens and candidates, but this year, there were 252 catechumens, according to the diocese. The number of candidates — baptized Catholic but never received the other sacraments and now wish to do so — is 285. Besides, 22 people were baptized into non-Catholic Christian churches and are now converting to Catholicism.
During the ceremony, the catechumens’ names were contained in a book that Father Gibino presented to the bishop. “They have found strength in God’s grace,” Father Gibino said.
There are all sorts of ways people come to the Catholic Church. For Cory Mendenhall, a catechumen at St. Patrick’s Church, Bay Ridge, it was the artwork in churches that drew him in.
“I used to come to church and look up at the beautiful stained glass windows and statues and wonder who made those?” he said.
The beauty of the church’s art unveiled in Mendenhall a desire to learn more about the church and its traditions: “It kind of led me eventually to the church.”
Mendenhall, who is in the U.S. Coast Guard and has been stationed at various sports around the country, entered an RCIA program two years ago in San Francisco.
“It’s been a long journey for me,” he said.
He is happy to be completing his journey of faith at St. Patrick’s.
“It’s a wonderful parish, and we have a great RCIA leader who makes us feel comfortable and that we can ask anything,” he said.
Bishop DiMarzio told the catechumens and candidates that they are reaching a turning point in their lives.
“You will follow God’s will for the rest of your life,” he said.