The annual ritual of welcoming new members to the Catholic Church on Feb. 21 had all the familiar elements of affirmations of commitment, testament from their sponsors as to their readiness, prayers and applause. The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion this year differed dramatically only with the number of participants in the sparsely filled Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, following adaptations due to safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The ceremony normally brings more than 1,000 catechumens and godparents and candidates and sponsors from parishes across the Archdiocese of Washington, along with family members to the largest Catholic church in North America. In the Rite of Election, catechumens preparing for Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion at the Easter Vigil were supported by godparents from their parishes and were recognized as the elect. In the Call to Continuing Conversion, already baptized candidates preparing for Confirmation and First Communion at the Easter Vigil were supported by sponsors. 

 At the Feb. 21 Rite of Election, catechumens preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation-- Baptism, Confirmation and Communion -- were supported by godparents from their parishes, and at the Call to Continuing Conversion, already baptized Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Communion were supported by sponsors. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

This year a few hundred people from across the Archdiocese of Washington were scattered throughout the basilica, to maintain social distancing. Others participated over the internet from their homes or parishes, as the service was livestreamed over YouTube. A second Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion service will be held at the basilica Feb. 28, with representation from the remaining parishes that did not participate in the first ceremony. Participation was limited to three representatives per parish, though some had fewer.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory in a brief homily likened the catechumens’ spiritual journeys to that of someone who gets lost while on a trip, drawing parallels to those who may be reluctant to ask for help, even when they know they are lost. He said the Rite of Election is part of the “final stages of a very important faith journey that is leading them to Christ in his Church.”

Cardinal Gregory gives his homily at the Feb. 21 Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at the National Shrine. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

For some, the path to becoming a catechumen or candidate has been the result of years of thinking about it, Cardinal Gregory said. “Others have come to this moment from the good example and a faith witness of a loved one who they plan to marry in the near future. Some may have begun their lives as a Catholic but somewhere along the way they managed to become disconnected to the Church. Today they are celebrating, and we are welcoming the re-establishment of those bonds.”

The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion closes out the catechumenate process for those who have been participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, known as RCIA. Normally they would become full members of the Catholic Church at Easter, many as part of the Easter Vigil, April 3 this year, where they would receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion, as appropriate for each individual.

During the Rite of Election, parish religious education directors or representatives announced the names of the catechumens, who stood in their pews. Their godparents were then asked to affirm the candidates’ readiness to become Catholics and participate in the sacraments and life of the Church. In the Call to Continuing Conversion, those who have already been baptized were asked to stand, as each participating parish was named. Their sponsors were asked to confirm that the candidates have grown in their faith, their understanding of the Church and advanced in “a life of love and service to others.”

 A woman participates in the Feb. 21 Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at the National Shrine. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Cardinal Gregory in his homily noted that in similar ceremonies taking place in churches around the globe, “the entire world rejoices.”

“It helps us all to feel more secure about our future,” he said. “We all find great comfort in knowing that we are all traveling this faith pilgrimage together. There is a spirit of great delight and confidence for this particular local church of the Archdiocese of Washington, simply in realizing that we are all approaching Christ Jesus together.”

 He added that the catechumens and candidates help the rest of the members of the Church feel reassured by their witness, “knowing you will soon be with us around that table where Christ nourishes his own flock for a life eternal.”