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Intimidation to Inspiration: Emotional Stories Highlight Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion Celebrations in Maine

PORTLAND---“Thank you, Heavenly Father, for opening my eyes.”

Allan Birtwell’s comment was one of relief and gratitude, and echoed the sentiments felt by the many people around him on Sunday night at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception as they prepared to participate in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, another step towards full communion with the Catholic Church.

On the first weekend of Lent, Bishop Robert Deeley presided over the celebrations at three churches: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Presque Isle, St. John the Baptist Church in Winslow, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland (many additional pictures below).

The Rite of Election is celebrated for catechumens (those not previously baptized in any Christian faith) and the Call to Continuing Conversion is celebrated for candidates (people who have been baptized in other Christian faiths and now wish to receive the initiation sacraments of confirmation and first Eucharist). 

“The work of God is visible in you,” Bishop Deeley told the catechumens and candidates gathered at all three churches. “St. Paul tells us today, ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.’ The Word is, of course, the Lord Jesus. It is his Spirit that has stirred up your hearts and called you to a deeper relationship with him. Being with you, hearing your stories, and seeing the community that is formed among you and in your parishes is a gift. God is alive in his grace present in the lives of each of you making this journey.”

Participants came from all over Maine, attending the Mass closest to their parish, and made up the highest number of catechumens set to enter the Church at Easter in Maine since 2008 (over 80).

With each catechumen and candidate came a different journey to this weekend’s celebrations, but all paths featured an emptiness that could only filled by the love of God and encouragement by the faithful in their lives.

Born Protestant, Allan Birtwell of Standish was resentful and embarrassed that he was forced to go to church twice a day as a young person.

“I resolved that once I was out of the house there'd be no more of that.”

Life went on, and though Allan believed and identified as a Christian, there wasn’t much about his lifestyle that would have indicated that to observers.

“I’m ashamed to admit that ‘if it feels good, do it’ was pretty much my motto,” he said.

Several years ago, he and his wife joined a Baptist church, but something felt missing, and eventually, they both stopped attending. His wife began attending a Catholic church, but Allan stayed at home.

“To say that I was in a deep state of mental anguish is an understatement. I thought I was headed to Hell,” he said. “One day, my wife tells me she is praying a Rosary for me every night and she asked me if I would like to pray the Rosary with her. After it's over, I notice that I actually do feel strangely better.”

It became a habit, and soon Allan was listening to testimonies of converted Catholics online. He was inspired to go meet Deacon Larry Guertin at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Windham. 

“I told him why it is I feel God has once and for all washed his hands of me and that I am lost forever, and he tells me the simple fact that I'm sitting there before him is absolute proof that Jesus still wants me,” said Allan.

Praying the Rosary has become a daily occurrence for Allan, who entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a period of learning, preparation, and growth in faith, in 2021 and has participated in Masses at Our Lady of Perpetual Help since last May.

“I believe that every Hail Mary is the gift of a fragrant rose from our lips to her hair. I have fallen in love with her and talk to her every day, not as my God, but as my sweet loving mother who leads me to her Son,” said Allan. “No one on this earth ever loved me more than my own mother did, and to realize that Our Lady loves me even more is just unfathomable.”

Not yet teens, Samira and her sister, Suzanne, are from the Congo, having arrived in Brunswick in 2019. To say they are mature enough to understand the importance of faith as they embrace their new lives would be a massive understatement.

“I had to go through a forest to come to the United States,” said Samira, age 12. “Sometimes I walked, sometimes we went on buses. Some people did not even go there because they drowned along the way. It was hard.”

“I’m glad it is over, and we are better now,” said Suzanne, who in her young life has already lived in the Congo and Brazil on her way to Maine.

Once safe in their new home, their parents wanted them to enroll in RCIA.

“My parents knew that the RCIA program would make us have a better time because we could grow closer to God,” said Suzanne.  

Marcy Brenner and Barbara Pianka at All Saints Parish in Brunswick have helped the girls on their faith journeys.

“They have been really kind and helpful to us along the way,” said Suzanne.

Just weeks away from being in full communion with the Catholic Church, the sisters are filled with anticipation as a dream has nearly come true for this pair of sisters who are truly deserving of the joy.   

“It means so much to be part of God’s family,” said Samira.

“The Church has made me feel welcome with the interesting and fun people we’ve met,” said Suzanne. To be in full communion at Easter will feel great.”

Carolyn Rix’s journey to this weekend’s celebrations began in earnest when she began attending St. Bruno-St. Remi Church in Van Buren with her husband, Paul, a Catholic, after their family moved to Cyr Plantation from Maryland.

“I felt something immediately as this amazing calm started coming over me every time I entered the church,” said Carolyn, who attended Baptist services but stopped in her teen years and was never baptized. “I knew I wanted to become closer to Jesus and be able to participate in Communion.”

Soon after, Carolyn, a gifted singer, joined the church’s choir, where her remaining reservations disappeared one day in a flood of tears.

“I was nervous at first because I wasn’t Catholic, but everyone embraced me,” she said. “One day during Mass, while singing with the choir, I was moved to tears unexpectedly during Communion and realized that this was something that I needed in my life.”

She decided to start RCIA and didn’t have to look far for company or inspiration as joining her in the process was her 11-year-old son Duncan and 8-year-old son Tristan.

“It has been amazing to learn together and to see them growing in faith,” said Carolyn, who noted the boys can’t wait to become altar servers. “It is so very gratifying to see and the best decision we made to start the RCIA process.”

Mark Goodwin of St. Francis was born into an independent Baptist church but grew up non-denominational.

“I finally came into my own as a Reformed-influenced evangelical in my teen years,” he said. “I knew of Catholicism because my mom had left the Church before I was born.”

Mark embarked on a career in ministry. He worked for over 20 years at the Institute of Basic Life Principles and for the Child Evangelism Fellowship, spent two years in Australia and New Zealand doing ministry work with troubled teenagers, and spent close to 15 years working for a Protestant children’s evangelism organization.

“I experienced a renewed call to join the Catholic Church in the spring of 2021,” said Goodwin. “My family and I moved to the St. John Valley of northern Maine. The area is filled with Catholicism spilling over from Canada and from the historic French culture. I have a great RCIA group.”

Goodwin says that attending St. Charles Borromeo Church in St. Francis has already helped him in ways he could never have imagined.

“My prayer life has found new depth and richness. I cling to my rosary, and I am found in Him and in a relationship with His Son, and also with Mary. Mary helps me and gives me the daily strength I need for all of life’s struggles. The spiritual life I now share with my kids is such a blessing.”

Carole Fitzgerald was raised in the Jewish faith but found it uncomfortable until a friend suggested she give St. Augustine Church in Augusta a try.

“I attended Mass for many years before realizing how very comfortable I have become with the Catholic Church,” she said. “I told my friend, Tina, that I wanted to learn more about Catholicism, and she called Sister Carol Martin (a faith formation coordinator at St. Michael Parish). We met together and that was the time I believed I really belonged to the Church family.”

Carole met new friends in RCIA and has felt supported and encouraged every step of the way.

“Even before making my decision, I felt that St. Augustine was more than my home than anywhere before,” she said. “At Easter, when I am fully a member of the church, I will feel so blessed to have found the right place for me.”

Erik Banks of Bath was a baptized but non-practicing Protestant when he decided to join RCIA last April. 

“A few years ago, after finishing a very successful career, I began to realize that the achievements and successes that I once supposed were the result of my own abilities, were really the result of God's intervention,” he said. “With that ‘epiphany’ in hand, I knew I needed to know more about faith, so I undertook a methodical review of different segments of Christianity to see where I could find the right answers and the right home. In the end, I discovered that the moral beliefs and teachings of separated Christians didn't align with my own views, which led me to the door of the Catholic Church.”

Erik and his wife, who is Catholic, began participating in daily Mass at St. Mary Church in Bath and Sunday Mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston.

The decision, Erik said, was obvious and clear.

“The reasons were a belief in the Word as conveyed in the Old and New Testaments and an appreciation for the essential traditions of the Catholic Church; the clarity and steadfastness of the Church's teaching on faith and moral issues, which are particularly important in a tumultuous century of changing societal norms; and an appreciation for the rich history, ceremony, and the atmosphere of the Church, as well as the solemnity of the Mass. Whilst some of this was intimidating at first, I now see it as absolutely inspiring.”

And inspiring is the perfect word to describe his experience with RCIA as well.

“RCIA has proven to be an absolutely wonderful experience. In addition to learning some of the essentials of the faith and coming to understand some of some of the ‘mysteries’ of the Church, I come out of every class inspired to learn more on my own,” he said. “In addition, the community of Catholics that are part of my RCIA process has been so welcoming, gracious, and supportive.”

Sanford’s Shelby Hagan was looking for a close community to join, a wish that was granted when she encountered the family at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish, where she began to attend Masses at the age of 19 in 2020.

“Someone close to me at the time had invited me to first start going to church with them and once I started, I have not stopped,” she said. “This also prompted me to watch many YouTube videos about the history of the Catholic Church as well as what it is like to be a Catholic in the society we live in today.”

Shelby was baptized in an Episcopal church but had stopped going in her early teen years.

“I knew the Catholic Church was for me when I began to feel like I could have a conversation with God and Jesus through prayer,” she said. 

Last summer, Shelby became a daily communicant to “start off her days right” and soon decided to start RCIA.

“The people I do RCIA with have been the ones to inspire me along the way. Their stories are incredible and the friendships that blossomed within the group have been beautiful to watch.”

To actually be in full communion with the Church at Easter is another step on what has been a beautiful and unexpected journey.

“I feel like I can finally be with God, if that makes sense,” she said. “I have been receiving blessings in place of Communion since I was 19 and now, I am 21 and feel very ready.”

One of Shelby’s new friends in RCIA at St. Thérèse of Lisieux is Ashley Buxton, who was very active in a Protestant church growing up but drifted away from her faith in college. 

“I met my (now) husband, Tim, and his son, Dominic. They and the rest of their family are devout Catholics which is how my journey to become a Catholic started.”

Ashley says she didn't know anything about Catholicism, other than what is shared in the Protestant faith, but started attending Mass with the family.

“I was drawn to a church in the area we used to live in (Hudson, New Hampshire) because it was so beautiful. We also got married in that church. I always felt very welcome there and felt encouraged to ask questions. Tim and I had many conversations with the priest and deacon about Catholic beliefs, traditions, and other things that were different from what I had grown up with.”

During the pandemic, Ashley was moved by the passionate way in which Catholics continued to worship via livestream. In September of 2020, the family moved to Sanford.

“It was a really hard decision to make but when we first moved here, we saw so many signs from God, I knew we had made the right choice,” said Ashley. “The day we moved up here, I was alone in my car with the last load of stuff, and Tim and Dom were at the house. As I pulled off the Wells exit of Rt. 95, the sky totally transformed into this breathtaking incredible sunset! Just then, I got a call from Tim who was outside our house saying, ‘do you see the sky right now?’ We knew this was God's way of showing us that we were following His plan. We have had so many things, big and small, to show us His presence.”

Still, the move made Ashley feel alone and miss her family and friends.

“Tim suggested I turn to Mary. I started praying the Rosary daily and praying different novenas to ask God and Mary for help and guidance,” said Ashley. “I have felt that Mary and God have answered my prayers and provided me with the direction and support I've needed. My new relationship with Mary is what ultimately made me feel like I was ready to become Catholic.”

The road to the Church was long, but it was the right path for Ashley to take. In fact, the trip is quite short now as her family’s new house is a short walk to Holy Family Church.

“We enjoy walking to Mass on nice days and have found great fellowship in the RCIA class,” said Ashley.  “Dominic is ready for confirmation, and I am thrilled to both be taking the next step in our Catholic journey together at Easter.”

During the Rite of Election this weekend, catechumens were presented by parishes to the bishop and the congregation. The catechumens’ godparents attested that they are sufficiently prepared to continue their journey, while others in the congregation committed to supporting them. The catechumens themselves then publicly affirmed their desire to be baptized, and their names were entered into the Book of the Elect, reflecting that the bishop, in the name of the Lord and on behalf of the Church, is electing them to share in the Easter sacraments. In the Call to Continuing Conversion, parishes presented the candidates to the bishop and the congregation. Same as the Rite, the sponsors attested, and the congregation affirmed. The bishop then recognized, on behalf of the Church, the candidates’ desire to be confirmed and receive first Eucharist.

The members of the elect and the candidates will now spend Lent deepening their faith in final preparation for receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil.

“Lent becomes our 40 days to follow Jesus in connecting ourselves with the will of the Father for us. Lent is our 40 days to put ourselves in a right relationship with our loving God. Lent is our moment to connect our lives with our belief. Just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert and watched over him, so too does God want all of us to know of his care for us, wherever we are on the journey of conversion,” said the bishop. “May God bless these 40 days for all of you, and particularly those who mark on this day a new dedication to the journey of conversion and a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, through his sacraments and the Church.”