Scripture had a lot to do with Jean Paul Coiron’s decision to become Catholic.

And now that the coronavirus pandemic is delaying the 21-year-old college student’s entry into the Church, he’s using the extra time to delve deeper into the Bible.

Coiron, of Decatur, Georgia, is one of thousands of participants in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) who won’t be able to receive sacraments of initiation this Easter vigil because of COVID-19, but who continue to prepare through a variety of virtual applications.

“I was really looking forward to the sacrament [Eucharist], and the fact that it was delayed, I really don’t have words for it,” said Coiron, a student at Kennesaw State University who was raised Presbyterian. “It is a severe disappointment, but, ultimately, I trust God’s plan.”

As the faithful have been prohibited from attending the Triduum liturgies (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter vigil) and Easter Masses throughout the country because of government restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, parishes have been drawing on their creativity and tech savvy to keep in contact with their RCIA elect and candidates and help them complete their preparation during a time of uncertainty.

While there is no way to know when social distancing bans will be lifted, several dioceses hope that by Pentecost (May 31) or the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (June 11), parishes will be able to initiate the elect and welcome candidates.

Those seeking baptism in the Church first express their desire to the parish congregation at the Rite of Acceptance and become catechumens. After a period of prayer, study and discernment, they again express desire for baptism publicly to the diocesan bishop on the First Sunday of Lent and are then called the elect, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.

The Lenten season is the final period of purification and enlightenment for the elect before the Easter vigil, when they normally receive the sacraments of initiation of baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist.

Baptized Christians coming into full communion with the Catholic Church are called candidates and most often make a profession of faith but are not re-baptized. They often share some preparation with catechumens/elect and may be received into the Church at the Easter vigil or another Sunday during the year, depending on pastoral circumstances and their readiness, according to the USCCB.

This Lent was especially challenging for all parishes, including the 124 parishes in the Portland Archdiocese that are figuring out how to continue their RCIA programs at a time when everything has changed drastically, said Roland Moreno, the archdiocese’s director of catechesis and faith formation.

However parishes respond, it’s important to reach out to each person and maintain relationships, because it’s a critical time for them in a ministry that is very personal, he said.

“It’s not an ideal way of continuing ministry, obviously, but still it’s happening versus not happening; and that personal contact is crucial, whether it’s for this ministry or any other,” Moreno said.

In the Portland Archdiocese, celebration of the sacraments of initiation may occur on Pentecost or Corpus Christi, Moreno said.

Stating that there will not be sacraments of initiation at the Easter vigil in the Atlanta Archdiocese, parishes have been instructed to receive the elect and welcome candidates at the Pentecost vigil, the first available Sunday in the Easter season when government restrictions have been lifted and the office of the archbishop permits, or a Sunday outside the Easter season if necessary.

 

‘We’ll Get There’

The 13 adults in the RCIA group Linda Corrigan leads at Holy Name of Jesus in Wayzata, Minnesota, continue to meet weekly by conference call.

The adults pray and discuss the Sunday Gospel.

Corrigan supplements the weekly meetings with emailed handouts and lessons from Catholic content sites.

The last “in-person” session Julie Onderko led for her six elect and 10 candidates at Christ the King in Milwaukie, Oregon, before social-distancing measures took effect in mid-March, was on penance and anointing. Sessions on the Four Last Things, the Pascal mystery and Holy Week continue on Sundays through the Zoom platform.

The participants and their sponsors get assignments through email with audio, video and text suggestions from Formed.org, EWTN and other reliable Catholic sources, she said.

After Easter, Corrigan plans to continue with material for mystagogy, a period of post-baptismal catechesis between Easter and Pentecost that usually takes place after reception into the Church.

Onderko said she is sad that her group will not be able to experience the celebration of the Easter vigil, but she sees solidarity with the early Christians, who “went with what they had.”

One of the elect in Onderko’s group is Brad Buck, 59, of Damascus, Oregon, who said he’s disappointed that he won’t be able to be received into the Church this Easter but added that he feels it’s a gift to go through the program at this time. “It’s sad, but the timing is God’s will,” he said. “We’ll get there.”

Buck said he attended Mass as a child but was never baptized. Even with the delay, he said he feels prepared to enter the Church and is anticipating that welcome. “It’s a continued journey, so this is not the end. It’s the beginning. We’re enjoying every moment of the journey.”

Counting a separate Spanish-language group, there are more than 30 in the RCIA program at St. Catherine of Siena in Kennesaw, Georgia, this year, most of them candidates, said Paul Thigpen, the director of adult faith formation and evangelization.

Thigpen has continued the English-speaking group’s weekly meetings using Zoom, and the response has been positive, though participants miss the social time of in-person meetings, he said.

An all-day retreat has been canceled, but Thigpen said he’ll offer the main presentation online.

He supplements Zoom meetings with handouts, email, texts and phone calls, especially for those who have anxiety. “It’s not the same, but it’s something that we can be doing.”

 

Baptism of Desire

Thigpen discussed the concept of “baptism of desire” with his group, especially the elect who wondered about dying from COVID-19 before they can be baptized. Baptism of desire is defined by Jesuit Father John Hardon as the “implicit desire for baptism of water by a person who makes an act of perfect love of God, based on faith and with a sincere sorrow for one’s sins. Such was the case in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter encountered pagans who, moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the greatness of God.” 

Thigpen noted that in the early Church the process of becoming Catholic took three years.

“The situation has raised all kinds of interesting questions,” he said.

Thigpen said his group has experienced uncertainty in seeing the work of the Catholic Church in an unprecedented season, as the last time churches were closed on this scale was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Things are not as normal, and so they’re seeing we’ve started with the Mass dispensations. [They ask] ‘Does this happen often?’ That’s something they’ve never heard of — and for a lot of lifelong Catholics, it’s something they’ve never heard of.”

Those in RCIA “remind us that we need to be in love again with Our Lord,” Moreno said. “There’s a freshness to them. So [the delay] is a disappointment, to say the least, and I know it must be a pastoral struggle, as well.”

Waiting a little longer to enter the Church may have a positive effect, he said. “I get a sense that it’s also helping them to discern how important their ‘Yes’ to the Lord really is: their ‘Yes’ to the Church and coming into the Church.”

The longing the delay creates to be received and to receive the Eucharist also can be good, Corrigan said, adding that group members she had wondered about, in terms of their preparedness, now seem ready. “I am sorry because I hear and see their anxious desire to be in full communion with the Church.”

Thigpen tells his group that despite the uncertainty, the Lord is in charge and will bring good from a challenging situation.

He said, “It’s like, ‘Stand back, and watch how the Lord works this together for good for us.’”

Susan Klemond writes from

 St. Paul, Minnesota.