On this past Sunday, April 3, eighteen of our St. John’s University students completed the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program. I confess to be touched and honored to have been there for this last step. I had been there for the earlier ones as well.
At SJU, the 5:30 mass is called the “students’ mass.” Each week several hundred of our young people gather together for worship at this time. On Sunday, November 8, of last year, twenty-five of these students participated in the “Rite of Acceptance” for the RCIA program at that mass. Thus, they began their journey of study and reflection upon the teachings of the Catholic faith. And they took this step in front of all their peers in our St. Thomas More Church. At the 5:30 mass on February 14, they celebrated the RCIA “Rite of Election.” This day stands out in my mind because I was the main celebrant on that Sunday with the privilege of questioning the candidates and catechumens regarding their readiness to continue in the program and inviting them to sign the “Book of the Elect.” They were now “the Elect.”
In the normal course of events, in a normal parish, these adults would complete their journey on Easter Sunday. That is not what happens at the University. On Easter Sunday, almost all the students are away from SJU. They are with their families to celebrate the Easter joy.
No, at SJU, we celebrate the RCIA “Rite of Reception of the Sacraments” on the Second Sunday of Easter—Divine Mercy Sunday. Those who are to receive the sacraments are now again surrounded by their peers who have supported them along the way. Bp. Cisneros of Brooklyn comes to St. Thomas More Church to celebrate this Eucharist with us. He confers the sacraments willingly and joyfully. He likes being surrounded by the young people and leading us in celebrating these powerful symbols of our faith.
On this past Sunday, four of our students were baptized. The baptismal font sits in the center of our narthex—the large circular room which leads into the Church. The entire congregation can squeeze into this space to watch the baptism, and it does. When the service moves back into the Church proper, all the catechumens and candidates—18 of them—gather around the altar in a large circle as they receive the sacrament of confirmation at the hands of Bp. Cisneros.
At the end of this conferral of the Sacrament, the Eucharist proceeds as normal, but now with new and fully integrated members of our community. Perhaps the most touching event is at Communion time. Ten of the students made their “first communion.” It seems funny to use that phrase which we most often associate with children, but it still captures the moment.
All the young people who came forward to receive the consecrated bread and wine were familiar to me. I had often seen them on Sunday or during the week at mass. At those times, they came up in the Communion line with their arms folded across their chests to signal that they were not ready for the sacrament. Instead, they received a blessing on the forehead. Now, they extended their hands to receive the Lord in the great sacrament of the altar.
Like many others, I would insist that the Catholic community is never more fully on its game than when we celebrate the sacraments well. They teach the most important truths and instruct us about whom we are. They remind us of the life in which we all participate and call us to rejoice as brothers and sisters join us along the way. We are companions on the journey.