On Sunday 21 February, parishes from around the Archdiocese of Melbourne gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral for the annual Rite of Election. The Rite is a step in the RCIA journey (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) for those who will receive the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation) at Easter.
During the Rite, the catechumens and candidates, accompanied by their sponsors and fellow parishioners, are presented to the bishop of the local church, as a sign of their “election” into the Catholic Church. Before the community, these men and women make a public commitment to continue their journey of discernment and preparation towards Easter, and the local Church makes a public commitment to support them through this process.
Sunday’s gathering was a particularly welcome dose of “good news” given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on parish life.
‘Welcome to God’s house. Thank you for being here,’ said Archbishop Peter A Comensoli on Sunday.
‘For many of you, this might be your first time here at St Patrick’s Cathedral … A cathedral in a sense represents the whole of a Catholic Church. We are a living expression of the Church in its fullness. From me, the local bishop representative, to the clergy, the religious, the lay faithful—God’s children (and I can see a few little ones here today!), and you who are catechumens and who are being received in the fullness of the Catholic faith this year. All of us are this full expression of the church in Melbourne at this time.’
The preparation of catechumens (those will be baptised) and candidates (those who have already been baptised) usually takes place in the parish setting where, in a series of meetings and over a number of months, the catechumens and candidates are introduced to Jesus through the Scriptures, Church teachings and testimonies.
Like so many other things, however, the pandemic put a halt to these in-person meetings and necessitated a different approach by local parish RCIA coordinators.
‘I don't think there was any specific reason as to why these people have responded now, it's all in God's time. But I do believe that many would have struggled to complete the journey if we didn't move to an online format for our RCIA sessions,’ says Felix Choo, a member of the RCIA team at St James the Apostle Parish in Hoppers Crossing.
This year the parish has four catechumens which Felix says is actually lower than their usual “intake”.
‘When the lockdown occurred, we decided that we would continue the journey as much as possible via an online platform,’ Felix says. ‘It didn't turn out to be as big a challenge as I had initially anticipated and a lot of it had to do with everyone's realisation that this was the only way that we could continue.’
‘I would like to credit the [RCIA] team for their willingness to get involved and encourage the catechumens while managing their own challenges. The tools and conveniences that come along with an online platform certainly helped us get this group through RCIA during these challenging times.’
Felix himself went through the RCIA process in 2014 before being baptised in the parish a year later. Growing up, Felix recalls being heavily involved in school activities at St Joseph's Institution, a De La Salle school for boys in Singapore. However, it wasn’t until later in life that he decided to be baptised Catholic. ‘Catholicism has always been a part of my life although I don't fully practice it. So I guess, I have always been an unbaptised "Catholic".’
‘The RCIA taught me a lot about the [Catholic] religion that many of my friends probably have not paid much attention to. We are so blessed to have such knowledgeable and dedicated people in the RCIA team who encouraged me to look deeper and try to understand the essence of Jesus' teachings and how we can apply that to our lives.’
After his baptism, Felix joined the parish RCIA team where he has been serving ever since. ‘When I got baptised, we were advised to take up a ministry and be more involved with the church community. That was when I decided that I will continue my journey with RCIA to learn more and contribute whatever I can.’
At St Mary’s Parish in Greensborough, RCIA coordinator Tim Hamilton says the pandemic definitely impacted the RCIA journey for some.
‘During most of the COVID period, we have held meetings via Zoom but we didn’t get the participant engagement we had in the face-to-face meetings, and in fact, three catechumens dropped out which has not happened even once in the past 16 years.
‘Fortunately, we have picked up one new Catechumen over COVID.’
That catechumen is Chida, who is converting from Buddhism, and whose husband Edwin is also preparing to receive the sacraments this Easter.
‘I just want to follow God’s way,’ says Edwin. ‘And I want my kids to be good and follow in God’s path. … I always have been in Catholic schools but my parents can’t remember whether I was baptised or not.
'My dad has now passed away so I can’t ask him, so I think this is the best—and easiest—thing to do and follow in God’s way.’
Tim applauds the couple’s persistence in participating in the online RCIA meetings since July last year, despite being busy with their two young children. ‘Edwin had already attended half a dozen meetings and then Chida came along, which was great.’
Tim has been coordinating the RCIA at St Mary’s for 15 years now and revels in the opportunity to witness the Holy Spirit at work the catechumens and candidates.
‘It is a constant source of inspiration for us and also an affirmation that what we are doing is God’s work,’ he says.
Melbourne Catholic29 July 2021
Fiona Basile28 July 2021