By Tony DeGol
There is an old saying in entertainment that no matter what happens, the show must go on.
Here in the Catholic Church, the sacramental life of our faith communities must go on as well, even in the midst of a pandemic.
As the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown looks forward to welcoming new Catholics in the upcoming seasons of Lent and Easter, Bishop Mark has announced changes regarding the usual traditions involving the Rite of Christian Initiation and Anointing (RCIA).
On the First Sunday of Lent, candidates and catechumens typically gather at both the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona and Saint John Gualbert Cathedral in Johnstown for the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion. A catechumen is an unbaptized person. A candidate is some who is baptized in another Christian faith and seeking full communion in the Catholic Church. The ritual marks the beginning of the end of their initiation journey and gives the Bishop an opportunity to formally welcome them.
“This ritual is the high point of their preparation leading into Lent, right before Easter when they will be celebrating the Sacraments of Initiation,” remarked Jeanne Thompson, diocesan Coordinator of RCIA and Sacramental Preparation. “But this year because of the uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop Mark has decided that these rituals are to be celebrated at parishes. So the adults and youth will be signing their name in declaration that they are, indeed, in this last step of preparation, and the parish priest will be the one, on behalf of the Church in the name of Bishop Mark, to declare them ‘the Elect.’”
Even though the ritual will be celebrated at parishes this year, the candidates and catechumens will still be acknowledged on a diocesan-wide basis.
Bishop Mark will celebrate the Proclaim! TV Mass on the First Sunday of Lent and offer a special message to the candidates and catechumens in his homily.
“He is also still asking that all of our candidates and elect write a letter to him introducing themselves,” Thompson noted. “This is a tradition in our diocese, and the Bishop answers these letters before the First Sunday of Lent, and he will use these letters as an inspiration for his talk to them.”
Part of the ritual is the calling of names of those who will soon be in full communion with the Church.
“So at this special Mass, I will read the names of those who will be entering the Church to acknowledge that the Church is welcoming them fully,” Thompson added.
Before being initiated at the Easter Vigil, candidates and catechumens typically participate in a retreat and anointing at one of three locations on Palm Sunday weekend. That, too, is changing this year.
“This year, the anointing can take place in parishes, but we’re going to offer a special prayer service, probably by Zoom, so that there can still be a spiritual time for them to begin Holy Week,” said Thompson.
Bishop Mark has also announced the plan for celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation in the diocese this year. Typically, candidates and their sponsors gather for regional Confirmation Masses with the Bishop at either of the Cathedrals or at certain parishes. Because of the pandemic, each parish faith community celebrated the sacrament individually last year. The same will happen this year, with the Bishop directing that COVID-19 safety precautions be practiced – including mask wearing and physical distancing.
The Confirmation Masses at parishes should be celebrated during the Easter season, and pastors are welcome to invite Bishop Mark to preside.
According to Thompson, depending on the number of candidates, a parish may have to have more than one Mass to accommodate for physical distancing.
Another Sacrament of Initiation during the Easter season – First Holy Communion – will happen as usual at parishes, with the Bishop again directing that COVID-19 safety measures be followed.
Please consult individual parishes for schedules involving Christian Initiation, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion.